Lawn chemical precautions

By Laurel Hopwood

Lawn care pesticides are chemicals that kill unwanted pests, such as weeds, insects, and fungi. Whether used in liquid or granular form and applied by a certified applicator or a homeowner, a pesticide is a pesticide.

Ever since Rachel Carson alerted us in her book Silent Spring that pesticides were wreaking havoc with the health of birds and other wildlife, the public has been demanding alternative products that pose fewer risks. There is now a growing demand for safe agents, such as fatty soap solutions, diatomaceous earth and boric acid mixtures.

In the meantime, however, huge amounts of synthetic pesticides are still being used. In the Great Lakes Basin alone, 10 million pounds are used annually on lawns and golf courses. These chemicals can run off or leach into sources of drinking water. Because only one percent of water in the Great Lakes leaves the system annually, persistent chemicals tend to stay in the lakes and enter the food chain. Pesticides can also attach to dust particles, travel through air, and deposit in water and soil. Winds from as far away as Mexico pick up pesticides and deposit in water and soil. Rain in the Midwest has even been called 'herbicide rain.'

Exposure to pesticides is linked with various dysfunctions to human health and the environment. The traditional focus of studies has been on the ability of an agent to cause cancer. But more recent studies are showing that pesticides also can damage the endocrine, neurological and immune systems. Effects can be subtle and can show up decades or generations after exposure, so it is difficult to prove an immediate cause and effect. Over 90 percent of lawn care chemicals used today have not been sufficiently tested for their potential long-term health effects. Moreover, current regulations do not adequately protect childrenthe most vulnerable. Regulations are based on one exposure to one chemical at a time, whereas in the real world there are simultaneous and repeated exposures to many chemicals.

Best way to avoid risks

The best way to minimize pesticide risks is to avoid use in the first place. Follow the example of the National PTA, which has endorsed minimizing children's exposure to toxic agents, such as synthetic pesticides. Even professional athletes can appreciate playing on nontoxic fields; in 1993-94, the groundskeeper for the former Cleveland Browns football team converted a playing field to an organic one.

Thanks to Sierra Club activists, the City of Cleveland Heights enacted a precedent-setting ordinance in 1995 that prohibits use of synthetic pesticides for cosmetic reasons on parks and the grounds surrounding schools, daycare/preschools and libraries, unless there has been prior approval for use to protect health and safety. In order to educate the public, activists worked in conjunction with the local chapter of the American Cancer Society to reproduce a pamphlet entitled "Warning: The use of pesticides may be hazardous to your health." Sierra Club volunteers also have produced and distributed fact sheets on lawn care chemicals.

Such efforts have prompted some local lawn care companies to start offering organic (defined as derived from a living organism) treatments. One company is successfully using a new cornstarch-based weedkiller. Other companies offer a natural landscaping service to encourage growth of native, indigenous plants. Local writer Peter Gail is even educating people about how nutritious certain "weeds" are and how to prepare them.

What to do

Here's a few tips on how you can make a difference in the transformation to organic lawn care:

At home, avoid potentially dangerous pesticides that promise a "quick fix" to your problems. Adopt organic methodsa holistic approach that aims to prevent problems before they happen and treats those that do occur with biological rather than synthetic products.

Learn cultivation techniques that minimize weed growth, such as mowing high, using an autumn application of organic fertilizer, and watering infrequently but deeply in the early morning. Pull out occasional weeds by hand.

Learn traditional ways of foiling garden pestskeep plants mulched and stress-free to resist insects, rotate crops, plant a diversity of vegetables, use trays of beer to lure slugs.

Plant a garden and cultivate hardy native plants instead of a chemically addicted expanse of grass.

Stop fussing so much about weeds in general. Learn to think of your lawn as a meadow and appreciate the biodiversity of Mother Nature.

Request to be notified of your neighbors' pesticide applications. State law requires licensed applicators to provide 24-hour notification of lawn pesticide application to abutting property owners who request such notification in writing. Applicators also have to post warning signs on properties where pesticides have been applied.

Work to reduce use of lawn chemicals at your workplace, child's school, community park or local golf course.

Most importantly, don't base your lawn care decisions on mass advertising by the chemical companies. Think for yourself: How can you best contribute to the ecological balance in today's risky world?

Lawn and garden resources:

  • Northeast Ohio Sierra Club Human Health and the Environment Committee, 216-371-9779. For a fact sheet on lawn care chemicals, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to: 2459 Queenston Rd., Cleveland Heights, OH 44118.
  • The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes Laudable Lawn program, call Victoria Mills at 216-321-5935 ext. 234
  • Good Nature Organic Lawn Care, 216-351-9830.
  • The chemical-free lawn by Warren Schultz, Rodale Press, 1989 (Rodale Press helped pioneer organic gardening and offers a variety of excellent books and magazines.
  • The dandelion celebration: A guide to unexpected cuisine by Peter Gail, Goosefoot Acres Press, 1994.
  • The Audubon Guide for a Healthy Yard and Beyond
  • Ohio Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, Barry Zucker, dir., 440-442-1818

Alternative lawn and garden products

  • Biological pest controlsDiatomaceous earth. Ask for garden grade; found at most gardening centers.
  • Boric acid solutionsAt hardware stores and home centers
  • Soapy solutionsAsk for products by companies such as
  • Safer or Shaklee organic fertilizerAsk at garden centers, for products such as Ringer Restore.
  • Organic herbicideAsk for corn gluten products such as Garden's Alive (812) 537-8650 or Sharpshooter.


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EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003

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Lawn chemical stats:

  • In the U.S., lawns occupy more land than any single cropmore than wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton or tobacco
  • All of the lawns in this country receive 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre than farms
  • Americans spend almost $1 billion on grass seed (and even more on pesicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizersfigures don't exist)
  • Of the 34 major pesticides commonly used on lawns. Only two of them have been tested for long term effects on humans and the environment.
  • Cancer in dogs has risen in the last few years. One possible cause is lawn chemicals (when dogs finish playing on the lawn, they wash their paws by licking them).

Source: Anders Fjeldstad, Audubon Society

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