Don’t Attack Your Lawn with Pesticides

By Shawn Dell Joyce

Who uses more pesticide, farmers or homeowners? According to a recent Virginia Tech study, homeowners commonly use up to ten times as much chemicals as farmers. According to the study, the pesticide application rates for farmers is 2.7 pounds per acre, while homeowners (and lawn care companies) slather on 3.2 to 9.8 pounds per acre.

Each year, homeowners apply an astonishing 90 million pounds of pesticides — at least — to their lawns and gardens, according to the Boston-based Toxics Action Center. In fact, homeowners represent the only growth sector of the U.S. pesticide market, as agricultural uses of these chemicals are declining. This market trend was started by the pesticide industry in an attempt to establish new markets for old products. That’s because most lawn pesticides were registered before 1972, and were never tested for many human health hazards like carcinogenicity, neurotoxicity, and environmental dangers.

Lawn chemical companies are still not required to list all the ingredients on their containers, which means risks still exist for home gardeners. Many toxins are hidden on the product label by being classified as “inert.” Inert does not mean “inactive” and in the case of benzene and xylene, can be even more toxic than the listed chemicals. Some of the listed chemicals include components of defoliants such as Agent Orange, nerve-gas type insecticides, and artificial hormones.

The blue meanies of lawn chemicals are 2,4-D, Captan, Diazinon, Dursban, Dacthal, Dicamba, and Mecocrop. These chemicals were registered without a full safety screening. A combination of several of these toxins is usually found on store shelves. 2,4-D is a hormone disruptor, Dursban concentrates in the environment, and Diazinon is an organophosphate which damages the nervous system.

Some of these chemicals have been banned for use on golf courses and sod farms due to massive water bird deaths, but are still widely used on lawns and gardens.

To be clear: Pesticides applied on lawns can be harmful to humans who inhale them, ingest them, or absorb them through skin contact. These chemicals also get tracked into our houses on our shoes and pets. An Environmental Protection Agency study found outdoor pesticide loads build up in carpets and can remain there for years, where they do not degrade from exposure to sunlight or rain.

This leaves our pets and children most vulnerable, as they most frequently play on lawns and carpets, and breathe in toxins. The Toxic Action Center report notes that “children’s internal organs are still developing and maturing and their enzymatic, metabolic, and immune systems 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 permanently alter future development.”

The EPA’s risk assessments indicate that home lawn care products account for 96 percent of the risk associated with using this chemical for women of childbearing age, and that anticipated doses are “very close to the level of concern.” EPA studies found that rats exposed to the most common lawn chemical (2,4-D) in utero showed an increased incidence of skeletal abnormalities, such as extra ribs and malformed ribcages. In rabbits, 2,4-D and its diethanolamine salt caused abortion, 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,” even though some lawn chemicals may advertise “safe” on the label. The EPA fined Dow Elanco for “failing to report to the agency information on adverse health effects (to humans) over the past decade involving a number of pesticides,” including Dursban.

The concern that certain widely used lawn chemicals can cause birth defects has prompted California to require that consumers are informed about these risks. California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment announced its intention to list the herbicide 2,4-D and related compounds as developmental toxicants under California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act. Ontario and other Canadian governments have moved to similarly ban toxic lawn chemicals.

How can you help avoid the risks?

  • Participate in the National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat program.
  • Learn to love tall grasses, wildflowers, butterflies, and birds, creating habitats that are the aesthetic match of any manicured lawn.
  • Visit for a copy of their report and to sign the Refuse to Use ChemLawn pledge.
  • Try Integrated Pest Management strategies offer alternatives that work better and have less harmful effects.

Shawn Dell Joyce is the director of the Wallkill River School in Montgomery.

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