With nature at its peak midsummer lushness, so too are people’s lawns. The Berkshires is generally an ecologically conscious place, but it’s not hard to find those little yellow stakes that pop up in many a public and residential lot, warning of a recent pesticide application.
Because these have always set me on edge, I’d like to speak up not just for birds, but for all of us whose health is negatively impacted by our society’s often unhealthy preoccupation with lawns. Between the herbicides and insecticides applied by commercial lawn care fleets and those bought and applied by homeowners themselves, Americans dump at least 80 million pounds of pesticides on their yards each year, much more per acre than agriculture.
The biologist and activist Sandra Steingraber (“Living Downstream”) writes a lot about “toxic trespass,” the notion that human beings are, on a daily basis, exposed to a slew of toxic chemicals, byproducts of industries near and far that contaminate our environment and enter our bodies without our consent. But in the case of lawn pesticides, we have no outside entity to blame. Why add to the onslaught?
Fifteen million birds are estimated to die each year from pesticides, whether agricultural or aesthetic. Countless others suffer effects from exposure that compromise their ability to reproduce, migrate, and survive.
Birds may be particularly vulnerable to pesticides. On the ground, they can easily mistake granular pesticide for seed or gobble up contaminated insects. High rates of ventilation also make them susceptible to airborne pesticides, according to Defenders of Wildlife.
Children, somewhat similarly, are vulnerable to pesticides. They tend to play near the ground, and they absorb more toxins for their size relative to adults. Their developing organs can’t detoxify as well, elevating their risk for cancers, brain damage from neurotoxins, developmental disorders, and hyperactivity. A comprehensive 2003 report by Environment and Human Health, Inc., “Risks from Lawn-Care Pesticides” (available online), cites scientific literature that has found that children exposed to home pesticide use had increased incidences of childhood leukemia, brain cancer, and soft tissue sarcomas.
Lawn chemicals don’t just magically disappear after a couple of days, as those little yellow signs would have one believe. They often turn up in surface water, threatening aquatic ecosystems. The most commonly used chemicals persist long enough to seep into groundwater and private wells. Residues are tracked indoors, where they can’t break down as intended, but accumulate and linger in dust, carpets, and surfaces, exposing children “at levels ten times higher than pre-application levels,” according to Beyond Pesticides.
Many people assume that chemicals on the market have been proven safe, but they have simply been registered with the EPA, who admits that no pesticides are 100 percent safe. And most of the inert ingredients, which aren’t even listed in the ingredients, are of “unknown toxicity” or highly toxic. Health assessment data provided to the EPA from pesticide manufacturers doesn’t account for real world scenarios: actual product formations, chemical combinations, chronic low dose exposures and long-term toxicity.
Contrary to what the $35 billion landscape industry would have us believe, numerous studies have linked common lawn pesticides to cancer, birth defects, nervous system and organ damage, as evident when reading the above-listed report. For example, while the EPA classifies four of the most common pesticides (2,4-D, glyphosate, MCPP, and dicamba), as having insufficient data to assess human carcinogenicity, all have been associated with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the sixth most common malignancy in America.
The regulatory system for toxic chemicals in this country is broken. Only a small fraction is adequately tested, and even when questionable results are found, the chemicals stay on the market, innocent until proven guilty. Science rarely renders absolute proof, so the question is, how much proof do we need?
Lush, healthy lawns are attainable without the use of toxins, which also destroy many organisms beneficial to the soil. Too many dandelions? Adjust the soil pH. Weeds and pests are more often symptoms of specific problems, so a blanket chemical treatment isn’t nearly as effective as methods like soil aeration, composting, biological pest control, planting native species that are naturally acclimated to the area, and keeping grass healthy by mowing it not shorter than 2 or 3 inches.
BeyondPesticides.org has extensive tips for achieving a naturally healthy lawn. Berkshire County surely has numerous options in natural lawn care and landscaping.
A chemically treated lawn is ecologically dead. If our goal is to surround our homes with sterile patches of uniform green, in pursuit of some vision of suburban perfection, even while raising cancer risks for our children, we should probably reevaluate our priorities. And if an aesthetically pleasing lawn is so important, is not the healthy lawn teeming with native plants, birds and butterflies — even the occasional dandelion — the more beautiful one?