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Living Lawns Or Pesticide Peril?

Pictured are buttercup flowers. Photo by Becky Nystrom

Springtime is here, and the backyard beckons.

Our lawns and landscapes grow more lush, lovely and greener with each new day. But green is not necessarily “green” from an environmental standpoint, especially when it comes to lawns.

While America’s turf collectively covers an area the size of Michigan, most of these mowed and manicured spaces are biologically barren, offering little of value to wildlife. Unless a diversity of wildflowers, native grasses, “weeds,” woody shrubs and hedgerows are allowed to grow there, beneficial bees, wasps, beetles, bugs and spiders find it difficult to complete their life cycles, and in turn, so too do songbirds, frogs, bats and other wild creatures dependent upon them. Native species especially suffer. Nesting, resting, feeding and nursery areas for wild things become fragmented and marginalized, and nature’s rhythms are disturbed and disrupted. And as humans labor intensively to manage, mow and tend their beloved lawns, fumes, noise, fertilizers and pesticides pollute the air, land and water, at great cost to people and nature alike.

Worst of all are the pesticides, which are poisons intentionally designed to impair and kill, and which harm beneficial species in addition to those targeted. Homeowners apply some hundred million pounds of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides to their lawns and landscapes each year, often in the form of “weed and feed” products, and the trend is on the increase. Heavy application in suburban lawns and gardens far exceeds that for other land areas in the U.S., including agricultural lands. Ironically, lawns most heavily managed with chemicals, such as golf courses, tend to have the most serious pest problems, since the “pesticide treadmill” leads to resistant strains of aggressive, often non-native pests, while decimating beneficial species and natural biological controls. Pesticides can also drift into our homes and contaminate indoor air and surfaces with toxics. And water, that precious resource for all life, is being polluted at unprecedented rates. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey show that 2,4-D is the number one “weed and feed” herbicide most frequently detected in streams and shallow ground water throughout the country and that 56% of streams contain one or more pesticides at concentrations exceeding federal standards.

Of the 30 most commonly used lawn and landscape pesticides identified by the EPA, nearly all have potential for serious impacts on human health, with special risk to infants and children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. According to Health Impacts of 30 Commonly Used Lawn Pesticides, beyondpesticides.org, 17 are possible or known carcinogens, 11 are associated with birth defects, 19 are linked with reproductive problems, such as reduced fertility and low sperm counts, 24 can cause liver or kidney damage, 14 are neurotoxic, impairing the nervous system, 18 are suspected or known endocrine (hormone) disrupters and 25 are sensitizers and/or irritants associated with asthma, inflammation and allergic reactions.

While more research is needed, troubling findings are emerging. A National Cancer Institute study reports that household and garden pesticide exposure increases the risk of childhood leukemia nearly sevenfold. Dogs whose owners use 2,4-D lawn products are at higher risk for canine malignant lymphoma and bladder cancers. Studies by the American Cancer Society reveal increased human risk for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in association with pesticides such as mecroporp (MCPP) and glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, extensively used on lawns and agricultural lands alike. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer recently concluded that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Dicamba, 2,4-D, and MCPP, often found together as Trimec, and glyphosate are known respiratory irritants that can inflame skin and mucous membranes, trigger asthma and cause coughing, nausea, and vomiting. Infants exposed to weed-killers within their first year of life are 4.5 times more likely to develop asthma by the age of five. Many lawn pesticides are estrogen-mimicking endocrine disruptors, and exposure can increase miscarriage and breast cancer risk in women and interfere in reproductive development in males.

Beyond human health, pesticides harm wildlife, including honeybees, butterflies, ants, earthworms, ladybugs, songbirds and other beneficial creatures. They also threaten tiny soil microbes so critical to nutrient recycling, decomposition and the natural fertility of the earth. Additional impacts occur when heavy rains and erosion wash these toxics far downstream, leading to contamination of lakes, rivers and drinking water supplies. Of the 30 pesticides noted earlier, 19 have been detected in groundwater, 20 have the potential to leach into drinking water supplies, 30 are toxic to fish and other aquatic life, 22 are toxic to birds, 29 are toxic to bees, 14 are toxic to mammals and 11 have the potential to disrupt developmental pathways in numerous organisms from frogs to fish and reptiles.

Let’s stop this craziness. There are healthier, more life-sustaining ways to create lovely green landscapes and support wildlife and enhanced environmental quality at the same time. For help creating non-toxic or less-toxic lawns and healthy backyard habitats, contact the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, Cornell Cooperative Extension or a local organic landscaping services. An abundance of excellent information may also be obtained at the Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns at beyondpesticides.org, Lawns and Landscapes, rodalesorganiclife.com, The Dark Side of Lawns, and National Wildlife Federation’s nwf.org, Garden for Wildlife.

Becky Nystrom is a retired SUNY JCC biology professor, current board president and founding trustee of the CWC, and a longtime CWC volunteer and supporter. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.

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