Poisoning Our Lawns

Our Weird Culture-Bound Syndrome is Killing Us


By Michael I. Niman ArtVoice June 5th 2003


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 was Brooklyn , “the concrete jungle.”  But away she sprayed.  Carrying out what she thought was her civic duty, ridding the world of bugs.  A few years later she died of cancer. 

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 “culture-bound syndrome.”

Buffalo ’s Killing Fields

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 East Side neighborhood, to a somewhat toxic but dandelion-free West Side neighborhood.  The arrival of springtime heralded a parade of lawn-care trucks.  Poisons were dispatched on the lawns.  Little warning flags came up.  I made sure to close my windows whenever I knew the lawn trucks were around.  I didn’t, however, keep my cat, a compulsive grass eater, in the house.  He was a vocal and somewhat surly 18-pound early riser.  I’d let him out in my sleep.  Two weeks into lawn spraying season he began vomiting up grass, then blood.  Four weeks later he was dead.  I began to do research on lawn chemicals.  I wanted to know who killed my cat.

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 Western New York contain known neurotoxins and carcinogens which enter our bodies through our lungs as particulates and vapors when we breath, through our skin when we come in contact with treated areas and through the food we eat as chemicals migrate to neighboring vegetable gardens.  We also ingest them in both well water and some municipal water as they migrate into the watershed.

Many of the chemicals currently in use on Buffalo area lawns are agricultural pesticides and herbicides, which their manufacturers recommend not be used in close proximity to residential dwellings.  Farmers, while spraying their fields, are careful not to spray near their homes.  Many outer ring suburbanites as well, don’t spray within 20 or 30 feet of their own houses.  Here in Buffalo and the tightly packed first ring suburbs, however, not only do homeowners and professional applicators spray within 30 feet of the target property’s home, but usually within 30 feet of neighboring homes as well.  Often neighbors are not aware of the spraying schedule and have not had proper notice to properly seal their houses.

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 Western New York attack the central nervous system and other organs in the body.  Pesticide poisoning affects individuals differently.  The longer we are exposed to these chemicals, the more our resistance breaks down.  Fat-soluble pesticides accumulate over time in our bodies and are released at potentially toxic levels when illness or stress causes the metabolism of fat reserves. 

Symptoms of 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].”

“Organic” Poisons

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 a Michigan postal worker became seriously ill after coming in contact with lawn spray, the company, a national chain pushing a “natural” “green” product, assured her doctor that there were no pesticides in their mix.  Only after tests on the postal worker’s body tissue determined the presence of pesticides, did the company admit to using them.

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 Buffalo .  While these chemicals may be more toxic than the core poison in the mix, they may also be harmless.  Under current labeling laws it is nearly impossible to find out.  One thing, however, is certain: With 95% of lawn pesticides currently labeled by the EPA as possible carcinogens, the odds of finding a “safe” pesticide are slim.  

Living Downstream

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 well.

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 U.S. economy is never easy.  The same reviewers who praised Steingraber’s work write for newspapers who themselves have shied away from any such work, despite decades of ample evidence on the dangers of toxic pollution.  A quick look at any Sunday newspaper, with its dozens of pages of colorful ads for lawn chemicals and other pesticides and fungicides, demonstrates the economic pressures on journalists to ignore the subject, even as their own families fall ill around them.

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 Buffalo street was particularly sloppy, holding his wand high in front of him instead of to the ground as per directions.  The result is strong drift to neighboring yards and public sidewalks.

New York State DEC regulations prohibit the spraying of lawn chemicals on windy days.  These guidelines, however, are often not followed.  The DEC is vague on what constitutes a “windy” day, and more vague on what constitutes contamination, or “drift” to an adjacent property.  According to the DEC, drift to a neighboring lawn is ok since the chemical in question is a “lawn” chemical, toxic and carcinogenic as it may be.  Drift to a neighbors swing set or vegetable patch, according to a DEC Buffalo office spokesperson, however, is not allowable.  During the past 16 years, however, the local DEC office has never detected such drift.  Despite this non-detection, however, these chemicals are now present in waterways and aquifers throughout the Great Lakes watershed and most of the country. 

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 nation of Cuba has demonstrated to the world the viability of organic farming.  Denied access to American pesticides by the U.S. economic embargo against that country, and later unable to buy any foreign pesticides due to the collapse of the Cuban economy in the early 1990s, Cuban agronomists began experimenting with organic alternatives to chemically dependent agriculture.  Despite the challenges of a tropical environment, they succeeded in all but eliminating pesticides from their island nation.  Certainly we in Buffalo can do the same for our lawns.

Nice Folks

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:

 http://www.cqs.com/elawn.htm, http://www.chem-tox.com/pesticides/index.htm,http://www.pesticide.org (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., Albany , NY 12210 . This article is adapted from an earlier version published in the August 9th 2001 edition of Blue Dog Press and has been reprinted in response to requests from various Buffalo residents. As always, Dr. Niman’s previous articles are archived online at http://mediastudy.com.

©Copyright 2003

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