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.
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," says 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," says 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 adds, "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," says 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, CT.