The Living Lawn

Say no to drugs (on your lawn)

The Swampscott Reporter

By Lawrence S. Block, M.D.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

The snow is finally melting in Swampscott. Residents are starting the annual spring ritual of cleaning up their yards and planning strategies for lawn care this season. Meanwhile, we all look forward to the opening day baseball game between the Red Sox and Yankees, and to another summer of listening to the Red Sox games while relaxing in our backyards.

The recent publicity about steroid use among Major League Baseball players should give us reason to pause and think about what would be wise choices for our own yards this spring. The lure to use performance-enhancing steroids is hard to resist among competitive athletes.

Though steroids give a performance advantage, they cause major health problems, they can lead to death and their use sets a terrible example to the youth in our society. Most would agree that these drugs have no legitimate place in our society, and that they should be banned.

The same arguments can be made about using chemicals on lawns and the analogy should not be dismissed lightly. Lawn-enhancing chemicals are hard for suburbanites to resist, especially after decades of marketing campaigns by the giant chemical companies have convinced many that they need a green, weed-free lawn to be considered worthy of owning a home in a town such as Swampscott.

Chemicals do work to enhance the performance of one's yard, but like steroids, they give the homeowner an unfair advantage in the quest for the perfect lawn. Lawns "on drugs" are beautifully green, weed-free, and require little work to maintain. Because these chemicals kill off the microbes and other organisms that sustain a healthy lawn naturally, the use of these chemicals then becomes addictive, and the grass can't grow well without them.

Lawn chemicals are more hazardous to many more people than are steroids, causing major health problems and sometimes leading to death years or decades after even transient and unwitting exposures to them.

These chemicals are neurotoxins, and contribute to many childhood learning and behavioral disorders. They are endocrine disruptors, and have been linked to low sperm counts and male infertility. Many are carcinogens, leading to leukemia, lymphoma and solid cancers.

Particularly concerning is that it is our children who are most susceptible to the ill effects of these chemicals, and exposure often begins before birth as a result of mother's ingestion of them. Numerous studies have shown significantly high pesticide levels in amniotic fluid and in the infant's umbilical cord blood at birth.

Small children play on the grass, and crawl on the floors of the home, where the chemicals, brought in on shoes and on the paws of pets, concentrate in the dust and get inhaled or ingested.

It is time to set a good example to our children, and teach them that not only is it a bad idea to use steroids to enhance athletic performance, it is an equally bad idea to use chemicals to enhance a lawn. One can have a perfectly fine lawn and at the same time care for one's health and the environment. How?

The basic steps go like this: Aerate the lawn each year and cut the grass high. Water infrequently but deeply. Use organic fertilizers. A topcoat dressing of organic compost will bring out the deepest of greens in your lawn and will help replenish the healthy microbes wiped out by chemical pesticide use.

For weed control, the application of corn gluten in early April acts as an effective weed inhibitor. Bending over and pulling out the few weeds that grow in spite of the corn gluten is a safe way to eliminate them and is a good form of exercise. Grubs can be controlled with the use of milky spores. Spread on the lawn three times per year for two consecutive years; this natural and non-toxic product will prevent grub problems for the next decade.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a staggering 100,000 to 200,000 tons of pesticides are used annually on home lawns in the United States. The health and environmental consequences of this abuse are so enormous that the steroid use problem among athletes is but a drop in the bucket by comparison.

Consider breaking the chemical lawn care addiction, and ask your lawn care professional to use an organic program this season. To learn more about do-it-yourself organic lawn care, or to find the name of a commercial lawn care professional who uses organic products in lieu of chemical applications, call the Swampscott Health Department at 781-596-8864 or HealthLink at 781-598-1115.

Dr. Block is chairman of the Swampscott Board of Health and a board member of HealthLink. A story about this issue is on Page 8.

Breaking the lawn-care pesticide cycle

By Jane M. Bradley

E/The Environmental Magazine

July 2, 2004

Elise Craig lives in a garden apartment in Portland, Oregon, where children roll in the grass and run barefoot across lawns in the summer light. A year ago, she realized that whenever the landlord spread lawn-care chemicals on the grass, her six-year-old son, Michael, lost bowel and bladder control for weeks afterward.

"Michael's symptoms came back every time they treated the lawn," said Craig. "They told us it was safe after a day, so I kept him off the grass for a week or two. Michael still got sick. We were ultimately successful in organizing our community to go organic, but we are about to move, and I may face this battle in our new home with new neighbors."

Kids often play on lawns treated with toxic herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides  and some of them get sick.

In Portland, where Craig organized teams of weed-pulling parents at her son's school (with help from a principal who's an organic farmer), the city has put up billboards that say, "Is Your Lawn Chemical-Free? Maybe It Should Be."

Each year, Americans apply more than 80 million pounds of chemical products  including herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides  to their lawns and gardens.

Risky Roulette

Homeowners often don't realize the myriad health hazards associated with lawn-care pesticides sold under such innocuous names as Weed & Feed and Bug-B-Gon. These products contain pesticides such as 2,4-D (linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) and MCPP (associated with soft-tissue cancers).

People think the government would warn them if these widely sold chemicals were known to damage their nervous systems, harm fetuses, or give them cancer. None of these long-term adverse health effects are required by law to be listed on product labels.

"Forty years ago, in the enormously praised and fiercely criticized book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson demonstrated the dangers of pesticides," said H. Patricia Hynes, director of the Urban Environmental Health Initiative at Boston University and author of The Recurring Silent Spring . "Lawn chemical usage has nearly doubled since 1964."

Pesticides used solely on lawns are not required to undergo the same rigorous testing for long-term health effects as those used on food. No federal studies have assessed the safety of lawn-care chemicals in combination, as most are sold.

Because of industry lobbying, the identities of "inert ingredients" are protected as trade secrets under federal law. Pesticides may contain up to 99 percent inert ingredients, some of which are suspected carcinogens, while others are linked to nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage, and birth defects.

"More than 90 percent of pesticides and inert ingredients are never tested for their effects on developing nervous systems," said John Wargo, director of the Yale Center for Children's Environmental Health and author of "Risks from Lawn-Care Pesticides," a report from Environment and Human Health. "Children are more affected by exposure to such chemicals because they are smaller and their organs are not mature."

Wargo added, "Streams and groundwater in the Midwest are contaminated with atrazine, a widely used herbicide linked to sexual mutations in fish and amphibians. Is this the price we pay for green lawns?"

The Natural Resources Defense Council is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect the public from environmental and health threats posed by atrazine, which is banned by the European Union.

"Atrazine poses a serious cancer risk for millions of Americans," said Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides. "Companies, federal and state regulators downplay the hazards of commonly used pesticides."

Steps to Pesticide Freedom

Try natural alternatives. Chrysanthemum-derived pesticides, diatomaceous earth, and boric acid are sold in garden centers. SharpShooter (citric acid) is an effective insecticide. Or make your own solution of three to six tablespoons of dishwashing soap (without degreaser) per gallon of water.

Squirt weeds. Instead of RoundUp, use BurnOut (lemon juice and vinegar) to kill weeds along walkways. And what's so terrible about clover anyway?

Get rid of grubs. Beneficial nematodes and milky spore kill them.

Choose native plants. Replace grass with ground covers or wildflowers.

Know your insects. Some bugs are beneficial. Ladybugs eat aphids; lacewings eat caterpillars; and praying mantises eat all insects (even each other).

Go organic. Agricultural extensions often analyze soil for a small fee. Organic care nourishes the soil for a lawn that's naturally luxuriant, disease-resistant, and pest-free.

Jane M. Bradley is a medical and science writer in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Source: E/The Environmental Magazine