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By Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural
The most important reason to keep an organic lawn? The health of your family. The second? The health of your planet. If you think those two reasons are one and the same, you’re right. Traditional lawn care products that use synthetic fertilizers and chemical herbicides not only put your family and pets at risk but endanger the world at large. That’s something we all want to avoid.
Stories about the dangerous consequences of lawn chemicals abound. Nearly 50 school children in Ohio developed symptoms of poisoning after herbicides were sprayed near their school. A professional skater makes a claim in Newsweek that her health was “destroyed” after exposure to pesticides sprayed on a neighbor’s lawn (her dog died the same day). Seven dogs die after eating paraquat herbicide in Portland, Oregon park. A noted soil scientist warns the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture that a popular dandelion spray may cause infertility and spontaneous abortion.
While the anecdotes are non-scientific, science backs them up. Study after study links the use of pesticides and herbicides to a host of cancers, nervous-system disorders and other illness. The evidence shows these dangers are particularly acute for children. Add to that the overwhelming scientific evidence of the damage synthetic fertilizers do to the environment and we have to ask: why do we continue to dump tons of these products in our backyards year after year?
In the American canon, lawns rank with mom, baseball and apple pie. It’s the place your children romp and wrestle, your friends and family gather for picnics and summer holidays, the place your dog loves to play go fetch. Babies learn to crawl in the grass and children love to run barefoot through the backyard. With this kind of contact, doesn’t it make sense that we make our yards as safe as possible?
Those of us who buy and raise organic produce for our families need also consider the impact of the chemicals we spread in the name of lawn care, some 50 thousand tons a year, the vast majority of it herbicide and pesticide. Reducing our use of fertilizer through organic methods and eliminating the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides can go along way towards saving the planet. Added bonus: organically cared-for lawns can actually be healthier and more attractive — not to mention cheaper to maintain — than those dependent on expensive, regularly-administered chemical fixes.
Archeologists believe that the human love affair with grass lawns goes back to prehistoric times when our ancestors lived on the short-grass savannas of Africa. Grazed down by vast herds of game, the savannas gave those early humans an abundant source of food and a wide-ranging view towards predators. Historians trace the rise of lawns to the 17th century when European royalty used green expanses to showcase their castles and country homes. It’s no surprise that the American Golf Association joined with the U.S. Agricultural Department to push for the establishment of residential lawns in the early 1900s. Prior to 1900, the invention of the push mower went a long way towards influencing the middle class to plant grass around its homes.
Now the lawn is sacrosanct and common place, its appearance crucial in the race to keep up with the Joneses. What’s acceptable in a lawn has become even more rigidly defined in the last several decades. Fifty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon — indeed it was thought attractive — to find clover in the family yard. Today, a host of broad-leaf herbicides has sent clover down the same path as the television antennae.
While an entire movement is devoted to replacing lawns with native plants and water-wise gardens, many of us, especially those with children, barbecues and badminton sets, favor all-American grass. And there’s no reason that a well-cared for, health-conscious organic lawn can’t be just as weed-free and water-wise as the heavily fertilized, regularly herbicide-doused yards that, sadly, are the American standard.
Some 3 million tons of inorganic fertilizer are applied to American lawns each year. Much of it — nitrates, phosphorous and potassium — is produced by mining or synthesized from oil products. While nitrogen, as all gardeners know, is necessary for plant growth (as are phosphorous, potassium, sulfur and other minerals), the nitrogen used in synthetic fertilizers is commonly processed from ammonia. Often, to facilitate slow-release lawn fertilizers, ammonia is mixed with urea and formaldehyde, or it’s encased in sulfur or a synthesized polymer, some of them suspected endocrine disruptors. Think your kids don’t track something bad in from the yard every time they come indoors? Think again.
While the EPA has said such fertilizers are safe if used as directed, some experts have their doubts. And, in an effort to grow a thicker, greener lawn untold numbers of homeowners use far above recommended limits. Over-use of synthetic, nitrogen-laden fertilizers has been associated with methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome” a condition that starves infants of oxygen and can lead to coma and even death.
The best-known problem regarding nitrogen fertilizers comes from run-off. Nitrates have been found in countless rural wells across farm country and have become a problem with public water supplies as well. In addition to methemoglobinemia, it has been suggested that high levels of nitrates in drinking water can also cause cancer.
The most visible, pervasive problem from nitrogen and especially phosphorous in fertilizer is eutropication, or oxygen depletion. This is the process that has created the infamous ocean “dead zones” near coastal areas and destroyed fish populations in fresh water lakes. The fertilizer stimulates the growth of algae which then consumes the oxygen needed by fish and other aquatic plant life. The U.S., Britain and other countries have begun strictly controlling the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers on agricultural land in the hopes of limiting eutropication. And some states, like Minnesota, have severely limited phosphorous use (it’s estimated that half of America’s lakes are eutropic). In the meantime, application of lawn fertilizers is booming.
More than a billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States. While the use of commercial and agricultural pesticides has decreased in recent years through the implementation of wise-use practice and regulation, the use of pesticides on lawns has increased. This is due to heavy advertising and promotional campaigns by lawn care companies, and the rise of franchise care services like Tru Green-Chem Lawn, Scotts Lawncare, Lawn Doctor and others. The EPA estimates that the ratio of pesticides used on American lawns to that used on American agricultural land, acre to acre, is now ten-to-one (herbicides are typically classified as pesticides; what follows in this section focuses specifically on insect-control products)
The dangers of synthetic pesticide use have been known for decades. The National Coalition for Pesticide Free Lawns reports that of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogencity, 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. Pesticides have been recently linked to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.
It’s well known that children are at greater risk of pesticide-related disease than adults. According to the EPA, “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. There are ‘critical periods’ in human development when exposure to a toxin can permanently alter the way an individual’s biological system operates… Children’s behaviors, such as playing on the floor or on the lawn where pesticides are commonly applied, or putting objects in their mouths, increase their chances of exposure to pesticides.”
Pesticides typically contain 5% active ingredients. The other 95% “inert” ingredients can be just as dangerous as the active ingredients. Yet pesticide companies aren’t required to list them on their labels. As reported by the environmental organization Beyond Pesticides, many of the commonly used inert ingredients, including ethylene chloride, a nerve poison, are even more dangerous than the active ingredients.
The irony here is that many fertilizers contain pesticides as well as herbicides in their formulas. Families using such fertilizers to green their lawns may not even have a problem with pests. But they’re getting pesticides whether they need them or not. Likewise for applications from commercial lawn spraying services.
Herbicides are the single largest component of the fertilizer-pesticide-herbicide mix annually poured on our lawns. Like pesticides, over-exposure to herbicides can have deadly consequences. Studies have linked herbicide exposure to cancers of the colon, lung, nose, prostate, and ovary as well as to leukemia and multiple myeloma. Occupational exposure to herbicides of the sort suffered by agricultural workers and those who spray our yards has been shown to lead to an increased risky of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Not surprisingly, it’s been found that pets can be at extreme risk from herbicides. A National Cancer Institute study found that dogs were two times more likely to develop lymphoma if their owners used a popular herbicide on their lawns four or more times a year. None of these risks, in light of effective alternatives, seems worth it to rid one’s yard of dandelions.
The risks seem intolerable when we consider that safe alternatives exist to keep our lawns green and healthy. In fact, safe lawn and landscape products may be more effective than the use of commercial synthetics. And organic lawn care practices have a large, positive impact on the environment as a whole. But their immediate impact on your family and others who gather and play on your lawn is direct and substantial.
Start by weaning your lawn off chemical fertilizer. Instead, provide your grass with the proper pH balance and the nutrients it needs. The same fertilizer that temporarily greens up your lawn also adds moisture and nutrient depleting salts. Spring and fall applications of compost, coupled with the introduction of grass clippings (don’t use a bag when you mow) will supply most lawns with the nitrogen they need to grow rich and thick enough to crowd out most weeds. Weeds come up anyway? Use the safe, old-fashioned method to get rid of them: dig them up. For persistent problems, try organic lawn additives like corn gluten meal. If, after testing, your lawn is found to need certain nutrients, use organic products and spread them carefully to avoid runoff.
While many state and municipalities are beginning to heed calls for safer lawns in parks, playgrounds and other public spaces, others are following business as usual. A number of organizations are pushing for safer, chemical-free lawns, both in public places and for homes (and even Major League Baseball fields). They range from local groups seeking to educate the public on the dangers of traditional lawn care practices to those resisting the practices of national chemical lawn-care franchises. For the sake of our health, they deserve support. But most important is to remember this: the changes that protect the health of our friends and loved-ones — especially our children — begin in our own backyards.