Poisoning Our Lawns
Weird Culture-Bound Syndrome is Killing Us
By Michael I. Niman ArtVoice
Summertime is officially here, as evidenced by a mailbox full of home and garden circulars. The most surreal of the lot was one that arrived some time ago. It contained a half page color photo of a man lounging and reading on his deck, surrounded by home center products such as tiki torches, a bug zapper and a gas grill. Standing by his feet are his loyal dog and a woman, presumably his spouse. The man is smiling contently as the woman sprays an aerosol can upward into the back yard air.
For me, the image brought
back childhood memories of hot muggy urban summers with my next-door neighbor, a
middle aged woman obsessed with waging a personal war on bugs, wildly spraying
insecticide into the air. There
weren’t any insects, however. This
On the opposite page of my
home center circular, was an ad for a “yard guard” product.
For seven bucks any idiot could spray a pint of poison into an already
tainted potpourri of urban air. The Sunday papers are now loaded with more adds,
not only for pesticides, but fungicides and defoliants as well.
The annual war on bugs and dandelions is seemingly well under way.
It’s a form of collective insanity that anthropologists call a
Last night I took an
extended walk around my neighborhood. The
stench of poison hung thick in the air as I roamed past endless carpets of
green, professionally dosed with poisons dispatched from little lawn service
tanker trucks. On the more affluent
streets, there weren’t any dandelions for blocks, just colorful little flags
warning children and literate pets to stay off the killing fields.
This anal fixation with
dandelions – this seemingly genocidal war against grubs, this obsession with
controlling nature, this aesthetic of sterility –
is central to American summer culture.
Americans spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year poisoning their
own homes and immediate environments, all in pursuit of the “perfect” lawn.
Who Killed My Cat?
A few years ago I moved from
a relatively pesticide-free
The research presented here
is based on information provided by the state and federal government, the
herbicide/pesticide manufacturers and applicators, and articles from magazines
and medical journals.
The lawn chemicals used in
Many of the chemicals
currently in use on
Killing Our Children
The Material Safety Data
Sheets provided by the manufacturers of the chemicals sprayed on Buffalo lawns
warns applicators not to re-enter sprayed areas within 12 hours unless they are
wearing “personal protective equipment” (PPE).
The recommended equipment, depending on the product, usually includes
protective clothing, a face shield or safety goggles and a solvent class
respirator. Many lawn care
companies, however, don’t want their workers to wear such equipment since this
costume undermines the “environmentally friendly” images they are trying to
cultivate. Studies show that these
workers suffer from greatly elevated instances of brain, lung and prostate
cancers. Some workers show symptoms
of short-term pesticide poisoning. One
study found abnormally high rates of death among golf course workers, heavy
golfers and neighbors of golf courses who are exposed to higher dosages of lawn
care chemicals than the average population.
The chemicals used in
pesticide/herbicide poisoning, which are commonly misdiagnosed as flu, stress or
allergy, include: “headaches, nausea, anxiety, irritability, sleep disorders,
fever, breathing difficulties, seizures, eye pains, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea,
sore nose, tongue or throat, burning skin, rashes, coughing, muscle pain, tissue
swelling, blurred vision, numbness and tingling in hands or feet, incontinence,
hyperactivity, fatigue, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and high blood
pressure.” Long term effects may include “cancer, lowered fertility, birth
defects, miscarriages, liver and kidney dysfunction, neurological damage, immune
system disorders, and depression.” The National Academy of Sciences reports
that at least one in seven Americans is significantly hurt by pesticide exposure
each and every year.
Children, who due to their
short stature breathe air closer to the ground, are particularly susceptible to
lawn chemicals. Their skin is more
porous than adult skin. They tend to touch plants and lawns more than most
adults. They have weaker immune systems and their developing bodies are quick to
accumulate toxins. The National
Cancer Institute reports that children of pesticide using families are six times
more likely to develop leukemia, for example, than other children.
Reggie Gilbert of Great
Lakes United likened the use of lawn pesticides in populated areas to criminal
child abuse. According to Gilbert,
“Since we know that pesticides are designed to kill living things, to put them
on lawns where children may go verges on criminal behavior.”
He adds, “In a different society you would call the equivalent of child
protective services [on such a person].”
Don’t be fooled by
pesticide applicators trying to “Greenwash” their images with
environmentally-friendly sounding names. Even
companies that promise “organic” lawn care often spray the same chemicals as
their competitors. While consumers
link the term “organic” with safe and pure, and while states are beginning
to set standards for “organic” food, in this business any chemical may be
called “organic” as long as it contains carbon and hydrogen.
Currently there are no EPA or DEC standards for so called “organic”
lawn care products. “Bio-degradable”
is another potentially misleading term. According
to the EPA, pesticides labled “Bio-degradable” sometimes degrade into
substances even more dangerous than their original form.
One local “natural” lawn
care company uses the same chemicals as their toxic competitor, only, according
to a spokesperson, they use a lower quantity of poison by spraying smaller areas
and spraying less often as they wean pesticide dependent lawns from their
poisons. Some companies actually do
offer a totally pesticide, fungicide and herbicide-free program – but this is
rare. Be sure to read the fine print
if you order this option to make sure you are really signing up for a toxic-free
lawn care program.
Lawn companies often
misrepresent the ingredients of their products, claiming that they are only
spraying fertilizers and not pesticides. When
More frightening is the
prospect that the company did not actually know exactly what chemicals they were
spraying. According to Gilbert, EPA
guidelines exempt lawn care chemical manufacturers from having to list all of
their ingredients, by allowing them to classify ingredients under the anonymous
category of “inert ingredients.” These
inert ingredients can contain the active ingredients of other dangerous
pesticides or fungicides and vice-versa. The
catch is that if the chemical in question has an ancillary purpose in the new
concoction and is not it’s primary ingredient, it joins a potentially toxic
stew of “inert” ingredients, with consumers and applicators ignorant as to
what they are spraying. Such
anonymous ingredients make up over 63% of one of the lawn pesticides regularly
applied in the City of
I can’t say for certain
that lawn chemicals killed my cat. The
cat’s death spurred me to look into the problem, but I never looked deep
enough to actually find a smoking gun. I
missed the cat for a short while, but got on with my life.
When biologist Sandra Steingraber was herself diagnosed with bladder
cancer, it was not a minor passing event in her life.
She has spent the ensuing 23 years both successfully fighting cancer, and
fighting to uncover what caused her cancer.
Her research has so far culminated in the publication of her 1997 book,
“Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment,”
which has been hailed as groundbreaking by critics.
In “Living Downstream,” Steingraber, who is both a scientist
and a poet, explains correlations between chemical and pesticide use, and
different disease clusters.
In a 1998 interview with Multinational
Monitor, she gives the example of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It is a cancer that has tripled in incidence since the 1950s, yet there
are no personal lifestyle or hereditary risk factors.
The disease, however, is clustered in areas where pesticide use is the
strongest. She explains how one
study shows that “Dogs whose owners regularly use certain kinds of weed
killers have twice the rate of canine non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma than dogs whose
owners don’t use lawn chemicals.” In
humans, she explains, farmers, golf course workers and veterans exposed to
defoliants during service, have a higher rate of contracting the disease as
While Steingraber’s work
has been generally well received, it got a scathing review in the New England
Journal of Medicine. The
reviewer, it turned out much to the embarrassment of Journal editors, was
a senior executive at the W.R. Grace chemical company, though he hid this fact
from readers. Going up against an
industry that is a major force in many areas of the
Poisons in the Wind
Lawn pesticide manufacturers
recommend that their product not be applied if there is a breeze or if
rain is predicted within 24 hours as both water and wind will carry the poisons
to adjacent properties. The
applicators, however, often ignore these precautions much as they ignore advice
to wear protective equipment. One applicator who serviced clients on my
While the regulations
controlling the commercial application of lawn chemicals are weak, regulations
governing what homeowners can do on their own property are nonexistent.
Homeowners can apply any amount of toxic pesticides and fungicides,
without having to notify neighbors or post warning signs.
They can also apply “persistent” chemical contaminants that
accumulate in the environment, potentially rendering their land contaminated for
decades. The only recourse for
neighbors whose properties are contaminated by drift, either in ground water by
air, is a civil suit.
Opponents say no drift by
any definition should be allowable. They
go further, questioning the sanity of needlessly applying some of the deadlier
chemicals in production to residential environments as part what they term a
silly culture-based war on grubs and dandelions.
Pesticide Culture Has to End
Steingraber argues that
pesticide culture has to end, stating, “We can’t continue in the direction
we are going. It is essentially
premeditated murder. We don’t know
who the victims are, but we know that when you release certain chemicals into
the environment, a certain number of people are going to get cancer and die
because of that. That is just wrong.”
The Buffalo City Council,
years ago, passed legislation which prohibits the use of such chemicals on
public property such as parks, banning the use of pesticides that are “toxic
to nontarget organisms.” City workers must now “employ pest control
strategies that are the least hazardous to human health and the environment.”
Time will tell, over the long run, exactly how city officials will
interpret this and whether or not they will follow the law.
The city’s lack of enforcement of its Living Wage ordinance, however,
does not bode well for the prospects of enforcement of the pesticide ban.
The law is also seriously flawed since it does not ban the application
such chemicals on private property.
On a positive note, the
The people I spoke with at
the local lawn care companies were courteous and helpful.
They, in fact, provided much of the information used in this report.
This amicability, however, doesn’t alter the fact that they are selling
a product which is toxic to our children, pets and families – even
when used as directed.
For more info on the hazards of lawn care products, see:
(The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides – 503-344-5044,)Http://www.beyondpesticides.org
(The National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides,) or contact NY
Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, 33 Central Ave.,
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