Editor’s note: This article has been updated from its original text.
A lush, thick lawn is an ideal natural playground, as well as a practical ground cover for yards. Growing the ‘perfect’ lawn is something of a suburban quest, a neighborly challenge for some. For the rest of us it’s an obligation assigned the LPE (least possible effort) to maintain a semblance of green lawn.
Either way, it’s all too easy to reach for a packaged solution – lawn care chemicals which are quite effective at killing weeds and helping establish a beautiful lawn.
Some 100 million pounds of pesticides are used by homeowners in homes and gardens each year, and concern is growing about the potential hazards associated with their use. Studies show that these hazardous lawn chemicals are drifting into our homes where they contaminate indoor air and surfaces, exposing children at levels ten times higher than preapplication levels.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a study of 9,282 people nationwide, found pesticides in 100% of the people who had both blood and urine tested. The average person carried 13 of 23 pesticides tested. A study on pesticide use noted that many of the pesticides widely used today in the US are already banned or being phased out by China, Brazil and the European Union, the world’s three other major agricultural producers.
What are lawn care chemicals?
They include more than just fertilizers. Chemicals that kill weeds, insects and a variety of diseases are sold separately and in combination with fertilizers such as ‘weed and feed’. These formulations may include organophosphates, carbamates, phenoxy and benzoic acid herbicides like 2,4 D, MCPP, and MCPA, pyrethroids and organchlorines.
Do lawn care chemicals pose a health threat to my family?
Yes. Pesticides used in controlling weeds, insects, etc., are toxic. These chemicals have been created to kill pests and most are broad-spectrum biocides. This means they are poisonous to a wide variety of living organisms, including garden plants, wildlife, pets, your neighbors, your family and you. Inert ingredients, which may comprise 50 to 99% of a pesticide formula may actually be more toxic than the active ingredients.
Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 15 with neurotoxicity, and 11 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Of those same pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, 23 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 11 are toxic to bees, and 16 are toxic to birds.
How are we exposed to lawn care chemicals?
Poisons are absorbed through the skin, by the mouth, or by breathing sprays, dusts, or vapors. You or your children can be poisoned if you apply or are present during application of the chemical. Also if you touch contaminated grass, shoes, clothing, lawn furniture, etc., or put contaminated objects (toys, golf tees, blades of grass etc.) or fingers in the mouth.
Children and pets are at higher risk for health effects from exposure to pesticides than adults because their internal organs are still developing and maturing. Children are often more exposed to pesticides than are adults because they play or crawl on grass or floors where pesticide powders and granules normally settle. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that 50 percent of the 2 million yearly poisoning occurrences from pesticides involve children younger than six years old.
Why doesn't my doctor diagnose pesticide poisoning?
Pesticide manufacturers are not required to release health information to the medical profession. Many doctors are not knowledgeable about pesticide poisonings and often misdiagnose these symptoms as allergies, flu, or some other illness. Doctors often state that the symptoms are psychosomatic. Many are afraid of a large chemical company taking them to court over a pesticide poisoning diagnosis – taking a toll on their time and finances.
For doctors who want to learn more about diagnosing pesticide poisoning, the EPA has provided a report with tools for clinicians.
Are lawn chemicals safe when dry?
No. Many chemicals remain active from a month to over a year. During this time, they can release toxic vapors. Breathing these vapors, even from neighbors lawns or while playing on or mowing contaminated grass, can cause illness.
What are the symptoms of lawn care pesticide poisoning?
They are deceptively simple and similar to those of other illnesses. Pesticides attack the central nervous system and other vital body centers. Some symptoms include: sore nose, tongue, or throat, burning skin or ears, rash, excessive sweating or salivation, chest tightness, asthma-like attacks, coughing, muscle pain, seizures, headaches, eye pain, blurred or dim vision, numbness or tingling in hands or feet, nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, tissue swelling, anxiety, suicidal depression, irritability, angry outbursts, disturbed sleep, learning disabilities, fatigue, dizziness, unexplained fever, irregular heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, stroke, death.
Even without apparent symptoms, exposure may still be harmful. Long term problems may include: lower male fertility, miscarriage, birth defects, chemical sensitivity, immune suppression, cataracts, liver and kidney dysfunction, heart disturbances, and cancer.
Is the government allowing unsafe chemicals on the market?
Yes. The EPA makes no claims to protect us from harmful pesticides. In fact, it is a violation of federal law to label any pesticides as “safe”, “harmless”, or “non-toxic to humans or pets”. The US Congress states, 90% of pesticides in current use lack health and safety tests required for registration, yet they continue to be sold and used. Of the most widely used products on lawns, most are lacking health and safety data required for registration. More than 70 pesticides employed legally in the US have already been banned in Europe.
Some municipal and state governments, however, are enacting bans on specific pesticides in the absence of action from the EPA. In 2018, Portland banned the use of synthetic pesticides on public and private property. In 2017, California added glyphosate, an ingredient in the lawn chemical Roundup, to the state’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals and substances known to cause cancer. Takoma Park, Maryland, banned 23 lawn pesticides considered dangerous to human health, and other jurisdictions are following these examples.
Can lawn care chemicals contaminate my drinking water?
Yes. Pesticides and fertilizers can and do leach into private and public wells and water supplies. Unfortunately, there currently is no program to monitor our drinking water for this type of contamination. Many of the most widely use lawn care chemicals have been detected in ground water (e.g., 2,4-D, Sevin, Diazinon, and RoundUp).
Are there alternatives to toxic lawn care chemicals?
Yes. Natural landscape maintenance programs can achieve a healthy, pest-free landscape using the latest scientific developments in organic agriculture and horticulture. For example, corn gluten is a natural pre-emergent weed killer and fertilizer now available to home owners. Lawns can be enriched naturally by thin spreading of compost in the spring and fall. Also, natural lawn care practices will lead to a healthy vigorous lawn which resists pests and disease.