Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Taming toxic lawns


In their quest for the perfect lawn, American homeowners use more chemicals on their lawns than farmers use, according to recent studies.

Each year, homeowners apply at least 90 million pounds of pesticides to their lawns and gardens, according to the Boston-based Toxics Action Center. Homeowners represent the only growth sector of the U.S. pesticide market, as agricultural uses of these chemicals are declining. The pesticide application rate for farmers is 2.7 pounds per acre, while homeowners (and lawn care companies) slather on 3.2 to 9.8 pounds per acre. According to a recent Virginia Tech study, homeowners' use of chemicals is commonly up to 10 times higher than farmers' use.

This market trend was started by the pesticide industry in an attempt to establish new markets for old products. Most lawn pesticides were registered before 1972 and never were tested for many human health hazards, such as carcinogenicity and neurotoxicity, or environmental dangers.

Lawn chemical companies are not required to list all the ingredients on their containers. Many toxins are hidden on product labels by their being classified as "inert." "Inert" does not mean "inactive." When benzene and xylene are listed, for example, sometimes the "inert" chemicals are more toxic than they are. Some of the listed chemicals include components of defoliants, such as Agent Orange, insecticides similar to nerve gas, and artificial hormones.

The blue meanies of lawn chemicals are 2,4-D, captan, diazinon, Dursban, Dacthal, dicamba and mecoprop. These chemicals were registered without full safety screenings. Combinations of these toxins often are found on store shelves. 2,4-D is a hormone disruptor; Dursban concentrates in the environment; and diazinon is an organophosphate and damages the nervous system. Some of these chemicals have been banned for use on golf courses and sod farms because of massive water bird deaths but still are used widely on lawns and gardens.

Pesticides applied on lawns are harmful to humans who inhale them, ingest them or absorb them through the skin. These chemicals also are tracked into our houses on our shoes and pets. An Environmental Protection Agency study found that outdoor pesticides build up in carpets and can remain there for years because they do not degrade from exposure to sunlight or rain.

This leaves our pets and children most vulnerable to breathing these toxins, as they most frequently play on lawns and carpets. The Toxics Action Center report notes, "Children's internal organs are still developing and maturing and their enzymatic, metabolic, and immune systems may provide less natural protection than those of an adult." Researchers caution that children are most vulnerable in the fetal and adolescent stages, when chemical exposures can alter future development permanently.

The EPA's risk assessments indicate that the chemicals in home lawn care products account for 96 percent of the risk associated with using these chemicals for women of childbearing age and that anticipated doses are "very close to the level of concern." The EPA's studies have found that rats exposed to the most common lawn chemical, 2,4-D, in utero show an increased incidence of skeletal abnormalities, such as extra ribs and malformed rib cages. In rabbits, 2,4-D and its diethanolamine salt cause abortions and skeletal abnormalities, as well as developmental neurotoxicity and endocrine disruption. Even though many lawn chemicals are legal and widely available, that doesn't equal "safe."

Some lawn chemicals advertise "safe" on their labels, but that is not often the case. The EPA fined DowElanco for "failing to report to the Agency information on adverse health effects (to humans) ... involving a number of pesticides," including Dursban. This information was kept hidden from the EPA until a number of personal injury claims against DowElanco exposed the connection.

Instead of using chemicals on your lawn, do the following:

Learn to love tall grasses, wildflowers, butterflies and birds, and create a habitat for them in your backyard. It will be the aesthetic match of any manicured lawn (

Visit, and sign the Refuse to Use ChemLawn pledge.

Try integrated pest management strategies, which are alternative methods of pest control (

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