Saturday, October 22, 2005

Better Lawns Through Chemistry

Better Lawns Through Chemistry

Better Lawns Through Chemistry (2001)

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
--Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now

So how green is your localized valley...and your complexion?


Chemical lawn treatments have produced excellent looking lawns, but appearances are not everything. These products may contain high levels of phosphorous that can damage the environment. According to the Journal of Production Agriculture, run-off of phosphorous promotes algae growth in lakes. The treatments also contain fast release nitrogen fertilizers that have high concentrations of chemicals, requiring the 24-72 hour waiting period before stepping onto a treated lawn.

Potential problems from chemical products include run-off into water supplies, loss of landscaping such as shrubbery and flowers, neighbor and/or neighborhood objection to use of chemical treatments, and according to the Environmental Defense Fund, the chemicals have been linked to human illnesses and pet and bird deaths.

To combat these side effects, organic products and treatments have been developed. Chemical lawncare services began offering organic based programs over ten years ago and in 1988 the national lawncare service industry began using organic systems, due in part to consumer demand and environmental concern. These products contain low levels of phosphorous and have slow release nitrogen qualities.

However, Mark Miles, CEO of Greener Pastures and lawncare expert warns, "Many of these products are often not as safe or environmentally friendly as represented. They are disruptive to commercial and residential lawns for the simple facts that they carry a highly offensive odor and potentially harmful materials." Some of these traditional organic treatments are sewage based or use products of animal origin. They too are prone to run-off and take a long time to settle, creating a greater chance of these products being inhaled or digested by people and pets

And you're thinking -- give it a rest. Just getting a green lawn isn't comparable to documented hazards like radon or asbestos. You're being alarmist and must be hard up for a post today.

Okay. Bury your head in your lush Bermuda. Or rub the clippings out of your eyes and read a bit of The Best Control by Stephen Tvedten:

The United States General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has also tried to alert the public to lawn chemical dangers. GAO's undercover team noted many fictitious claims by many in the lawn "care" industry. Many included illegal claims of product "safety". Others were just deceiving, such as the ChemLawn claim that a child would have to ingest ten cups of treated grass clippings to equal the toxicity of one baby aspirin. In fact, the real danger is not that people will be grazing the lawn, but that most poisonings come from inhaling pesticide residues or absorbing them through the skin.

Most spray do-it-yourselfers are just as ignorant when it comes to proper protection and safety precautions. Studies show most don't even look at the warnings on their toxins. They don't wear gloves, goggles, or protective clothing to decrease exposure. Worse, many don't keep people off the contaminated area after chemicals are applied. Homeowners commonly use up to ten times as much pesticides per acre as farmers. A Virginia Tech study for the state legislature found that most homeowners have no idea how much nitrogen they use when fertilizing and that they routinely apply chemicals in ways that damage water supplies.

Pesticides drift and settle during application. In the Antarctic ice pack alone there are 2.4 million pounds of DDT and its metabolites from years past. Lawn pesticides engulf the home and are easily tracked inside, readily inhaled and absorbed through the skin. They do harm by attacking the central nervous system and other essential organs. Symptoms of pesticide poisoning are often deceptively simple, commonly mis-diagnosed as flu or allergies. They include, but are not limited to, headaches, nausea, 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, anxiety, irritability, sleep disorders, hyperactivity, fatigue, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, spontaneous bleeding, and temporary paralysis. Long-term consequences include lowered fertility, birth defects, miscarriages, blindness, liver and kidney dysfunction, neurological damage, heart trouble, stroke, immune system disorders, menstrual problems, memory loss, suicidal depression, cancer, and death.

The National Academy of Sciences reports that at least one out of seven people are significantly harmed by pesticide exposure each year. Increasingly, reports from many people around the country are "beginning to link their 'feeling terrible' with the fact the neighbors had the lawn sprayed the day before," notes Catherine Karr, a toxicologist for the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. Unfortunately, except for industrial accidents, tests for pesticide poisoning are rarely performed, partially because they are expensive. Doctors also attribute most pesticide poisoning symptoms to stress, allergies, influenza, or an overactive imagination.

The nitrogen tickles my elbows, honey...

Tiptoe Through the Phosphate Ions

And many lawn treatment companies are quick to say their sprays are organic, inert, and water soluble. Nathan Diegelman, in Poison in the Grass, mows down such reassurances:

Contrary to what lawn "care" companies would like people to believe, herbicides (weed killers) and other pesticides are not "magic bullets". They are broad spectrum biocides, and by their very nature can harm organisms other than targeted species. This includes homeowners and their families, neighbors, pets, and all other forms of life. The pesticide industry downplays this by claiming their chemicals are heavily diluted, but doesn't mention the toxins are still extremely dangerous in small amounts. They also are unwilling to mention all of what is in their mixtures. Many components are classified as "inert", which allows them to be kept hidden from the public and not listed on product labels. These are more than just fillers or solvents. "Inert" does not mean "inactive" -- some, such as benzene and xylene, are more toxic than listed chemicals.

Listed chemicals can be just as dangerous. They include components of war-time defoliants like Agent Orange, nerve-gas type insecticides, and artificial hormones. Some the Federal Government has even prohibited from use on it's own property. Many pesticides are not safe when dry. Water evaporates, but most pesticides remain and continue to release often odorless and invisible toxic vapors. In areas where lawn spraying is common, they accumulate in a toxic smog throughout the entire season. Some pesticides remain active for years after application. DDT is still showing up in higher rates in women's breast milk than the government permits in cow's milk. Fat soluble pesticides accumulate over time in our bodies, then are released at potentially toxic levels when illness or stress results in our fat reserves being metabolised. A large portion of a woman's lifetime exposure to such pesticides is released in the breast milk for her firstborn child.

I now think of my lawn as plutonium. I'll mow it using a sealed glove box.

Or, maybe, I'll just stay sealed inside my house and hang out with the bacteria in the ducts and the mold in the basement.


I tried posting this entry on and off for several hours today, but Blogger consistently refused to cooperate.


Tim said...

The city I live in, Toronto, Canada, just banned the use of all lawn pesticides this year.

They had already been banned for about 10 years on public property (schools, parks..).

Because of the controversy and public discussion around it, I discovered that many people consider the dandelion to be a "weed." Just as if it were some lawn pollutant. People wondered how they would now get rid of them.

Many of my neighbors went out with table knives and tools and dug all the dandelions out of their lawn by hand!

I've always thought dandelions were a nice wild flower. But with my neighbours, it's as if they're been exposed to some Orwellian influence and brainwashed into thinking that they're evil and must literally be rooted out.

The world can be pretty wierd.

Neil Shakespeare said...


Love that, dude!

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