Fishkill Ridge
Community Heritage

Green Grass…

   

 Mount GullianThe 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 in children.

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 applications.

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.

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