Real Cost of a Green Lawn
By PATTI WOOD (Original publication: June 5, 2005)
It's spring again, and yellow pesticide warning flags dot suburban
lawns all over Westchester. We've grown accustomed to seeing them,
and their presence doesn't set off warning alarms. It should!
Lawn-care pesticides are inherently toxic, and a growing body
of science confirms their risk to our health and our environment.
In one of the most comprehensive reviews of the pesticide literature,
the Ontario College of Family Physicians strongly recommended
that people reduce their exposure to pesticides wherever possible.
(The full study is available at www.ocfp.on.ca.) Contrary to what
manufacturers would like us to believe, unintended exposures in
the form of run-off or drift have impacted many nontarget species.
There are documented reports of massive bird kills on golf courses,
fish die-offs, mutations in frogs and higher-than-normal cancer
incidence in human populations near sites with high pesticide
use. Commonly used lawn-care pesticides have been associated with
several types of cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders,
hormone disruption and asthma. Most disturbing are the studies
and statistics linking pesticide exposure and these illnesses
Children are uniquely vulnerable to pesticides due to a variety
of physiological and behavioral factors. According to leading
children's health experts, exposures that occur in utero or early
in life are more likely to result in disease than similar exposures
that occur later. This makes perfect sense considering the complexity
and fragility of developing body systems.
And unlike adults, children spend hours playing outdoors on the
grass and indoors on carpeting where lawn chemicals may have been
tracked into the house on shoes. Family pets who follow children
outdoors and back in again add to this accumulation. Some pesticides
that are designed to break down outdoors with exposure to sun,
rain and soil microbes remain active much longer indoors. Children
can absorb pesticides through inhalation, skin absorption and
accidental ingestion, with the latter being particularly true
of young children who engage in hand-to-mouth behavior. Current
testing protocols for toxicity of pesticide products leave many
questions unanswered about the safety of childhood exposure.
Answering those questions through scientific research will take
years and cost millions of dollars. In the meantime, what can
parents do to protect their children? One group of prominent physicians
and scientists, concerned about the adverse effects of toxic chemicals
on human health, have developed what they call the "Precautionary
Principle." It states: "When an activity raises threats
of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures
should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are
not fully established scientifically. In this context, the proponent
of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden
of proof." In other words, until we know for certain what
the long-term effects of exposure to pesticides are, we should
err on the side of caution.
Along with several other New York counties, Westchester has adopted
a "Neighbor Notification Law" that requires landscapers
to warn neighbors 48 hours in advance of an impending pesticide
application. This is a good start, but it doesn't go far enough.
There are several products that don't require notification, including
granular applications; 2,4-D, a widely used pre-emergence weed
control (and one of two ingredients that make up the widely used
and infamous Vietnam War "Agent Orange" defoliant),
falls into this category.
Granular pesticides also are particularly likely to poison birds
that mistake the granules for food. Over the past several years,
wildlife pathologists have been looking closely at bird populations
and their causes of death to better understand the West Nile virus.
The necropsy reports show that many birds (actually tens of thousands
nationwide) died from pesticide poisoning from residential lawn
It's time to ask ourselves if the aesthetic use of pesticides
on lawns is worth the risk, especially when safe and effective
alternatives to toxic chemicals are widely available. Westchester
County and Grassroots Environmental Education have embarked on
a groundbreaking pesticide-reduction program that simultaneously
educates consumers and trains professional landscapers in natural
lawn care techniques. To date, more than 100 landscapers have
taken training seminars in natural lawn care, and homeowners are
engaging their services across the county. To find a landscaper
who provides pesticide-free lawn care, visit www.ghlp.org.
Homeowners who care for their own lawns can find a list of garden
centers who offer no-toxic lawn products at the same Web site.