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The fish, birds and animals who make their home in the Ogunquit River watershed can propose a toast with a clean, cool drink of water: the Maine town of Ogunquit has overwhelmingly passed a total ban on lawn pesticides. Neither public nor private lands can be treated with the widely used toxic chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, and/or neurotoxins. Ogunquit is the second US municipality to pass such a prohibition, the first being Takoma Park, Maryland, in 2013.

One problem with pesticides (as with many chemical agents) is that they are often treated as innocent until proven guilty. One of the more tragic examples is DDT, which was in widespread use while evidence against its safety was mounting. Decades after its ban, almost all of us continue to carry the residues of DDT in our bodies.

Similarly, studies are only now concluding that the ever-popular Roundup (glyphosate) is likely to cause cancer in humans. Freely available for many years in garden and home stores, casually sprayed on lawns where young children play, and considered benign by most consumers, this is sobering news. The World Health Organization has now changed glyphosate’s classification to “probably carcinogenic” in the face of new evidence. Roundup is far and away the most common US pesticide, both at home and in industrial farming — it’s on just about everything. Farm workers are at greatest risk, but we’re all eating and breathing more of this stuff every day than we may realize.

We already know enough about lawn pesticides to say “enough is enough.” Why should we endanger our fragile ecosystem and human health for the sake of a smooth golf course or a weed-free cemetery? As for the neighborhood lawn competitions, it’s time other values took priority. We can all follow Ogunquit’s example by connecting with other community members about health-enhancing landscape and garden techniques, raising awareness before more damage gets done in the name of that perfect square of green.

How can my neighbor's pesticide use affect my family?

When you see the homeowner next door carrying around that little sprayer, that’s your first exposure route. The spray becomes airborne, and some of those tiny droplets drift across the fence to your airspace. During a heavy rain, run-off may carry some excess chemical residue to your yard or garden, where it sinks into the soil and gets absorbed by any resident plants.

Try to find friendly ways of talking to your neighbors about pesticide use. If you can avoid accusatory language (“Stop poisoning my children!”) and focus on chatty information sharing (“Did you hear about that new Roundup study? And they say less than 10% of those chemicals even reaches their target — what a waste of money!”), you may have a chance of piquing interest and affecting habits.

If you’ve had success with natural weed-control products like corn gluten, pass it on. It’s easier to let go of an old habit if there’s a good substitute on the horizon. Not everyone is ready to convert their yard to an untamed wildlife refuge — luckily there are simple organic methods for keeping your lawn looking great.

How can I maintain my lawn without pesticides?

To go chemical-free, you have lots of options. If you’d like to keep your lawn green, and healthier than ever, focus on building soil health and the grass will thrive. Often, you can “read the weeds” to learn what your lawn needs for optimum health. Each troublesome plant provides a clue to a soil or moisture deficiency. This empowering approach requires a little effort in the beginning, but the payoff is a low-maintenance beautiful lawn that can show your neighborhood non-toxic lawn care really works!

Others are choosing to convert all or some of their lawn into lower-maintenance landscaping. Again, this requires some initial energy to plan and establish plants. Many of these beautiful plants, though, virtually take care of themselves once established. If you live in a drought-prone region, consider a Xeriscape to dramatically reduce your “water footprint”.

Don’t worry, there’s plenty of help available as you transition to a safer, healthier yard space. Natural lawn care products are easier on the earth, and encourage the whole family to get up-close and personal with your grass without fear. No one wants to picnic in a chemical-hazard zone!

How do lawn pesticides impact the non-human ecosystem?

Runoff associated with watering and rainfall, in addition to wind-borne drift, guarantees these pesticides won’t stay put. Inevitably they make their way into local waterways, from tiny streams into larger rivers, lakes, and oceans. In these water systems, they continue killing bugs, just as they do on your lawn. Aquatic invertebrates, including many larvae, worms, crustaceans, and other bottom-of-the-food-chain organisms, are extremely sensitive to lawn pesticides, and can be destroyed on a massive scale. What happens when these invertebrates are decimated? The creatures which depend upon them begin to starve. The effects ripple up the food chain, affecting everyone. In response to obvious human impacts such as declining lobster populations, a few states have begun to restrict use of certain products known to be toxic to aquatic life, but efforts have been tentative thus far.

Perhaps most urgently, bee populations are in crisis, and the evidence points squarely to pesticide use. Swift action may be needed to rescue bees from the devastating effects of chemical agents such as Fipronil and neonicotinoids. If we don’t want to live in a world without the many fruits and vegetables pollinated by flying insects, it’s time to form a cooperative alliance with things that buzz.

How can I start a similar initiative in my community?

What do Ogunquit, Maine, and Takoma Park, Maryland have in common? On the surface, relatively little. One is a tiny beach town with a tourism-based economy, the other a relatively urban commuter-suburb of Washington, D.C. The Takoma Park movement was driven by a group of concerned mothers. In the beginning, two women began researching locally popular pesticides — what they learned caused them to take action, distributing pamphlets and gathering signatures at local events. They contacted scientists and oncologists. They found that many neighbors were surprised to learn dangers were associated with the harmless-looking bottles found at local stores.

The Ogunquit ordinance was likewise written by regular private citizens who cared. One great thing about living in a little community: it feels possible for an ordinary person to make a difference. But no matter where we live, any of us ordinary people have the power to sow the seeds of change. It starts with making connections. Don’t go it alone — talk to friends, or put up a notice at your local organic gardening center looking for like-minded people with energy to collaborate. Visit your town hall or municipal office to find out how to get a measure on your next ballot. Depending on where you live, regulations vary; often a certain number of voters’ signatures are required to get an initiative on the ballot, so you’ll have a chance to meet a lot of folks in your neighborhood.

Ogunquit is a small town, but they’re setting a big example. Take the inspiration and pass it on! Whether you’re working on converting to organic methods on your own property, spreading the word about the downsides of pesticides in your neighborhood, or getting political and working on passing laws in your area, you’re making ripples. Coming together one by one from near and far, these ripples grow into a wave of real change.