Alternatives to the American “Lawn” Part II: Pesticides

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Hotline, Winter 2002

by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director

Many of us have a chance to design a small piece of the planet, that being the property that often accompanies our home. It might be large or small, but we Americans usually end up planting grass in it, creating a lawn. Trouble is, the exemplar American Lawn is anything but sustainable. It requires fertilizer, water, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and an assortment of lawn care equipment that creates air and noise pollution.

Perhaps pesticides and other synthetic chemicals are the most worrisome aspect of lawn maintenance. Pesticides are used by three quarters of U.S. households (74 million out of 100 million);1 an estimated 76 million pounds in 1997.2

Diazinon is the most widely used lawn pesticide and is a key ingredient in other pesticide products. It is used to control insects and grub worms. On December 5, 2000, the EPA announced the elimination of all indoor uses of Diazinon and the phase out of lawn, garden and turf use by 2003. And you thought all those chemicals you were dusting, squirting and spreading around were safe. After all, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962.

Think again! Diazinon is one of the leading causes of acute insecticide poisoning for humans and wildlife. Diazinon is highly toxic to birds, mammals, honeybees, beneficial insects, freshwater fish and invertebrates following acute exposure. Between 1994 and 1998, it accounted for more bird kills than any other pesticide, the majority caused by residential use. Just one granule or seed treated with Diazinon is enough to kill a small bird.3

2,4-D is the most widely used residential herbicide with 7-9 million pounds used annually. This is the most popular crabgrass and dandelion killer in America. This chemical is among a class of chemicals, chlorophenals, that may be associated with lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells.4 One study of pet dogs indicates that exposure to 2,4-D doubles a dog’s chances of getting cancer.5

In a science journal review of 98 health studies related to the use of herbicides and other pesticides, half the studies found an increased cancer risk.6

What about weed and feed? When you use weed and feed products on your lawn, you’re spreading both weed killers and fertilizer. You may have a violet here and a dandelion there but you are spreading chemicals everywhere. This is not efficient or necessary, and can also lead to runoff problems. “Scientists doing water quality testing in Puget Sound area streams commonly found the three weed killers in most weed-and-feed products (2,4-D, MCPP and dicamba).”7

Healthy soil is a necessity for healthy grass. Many soil organisms are beneficial, including earthworms which play a big role in keeping grass healthy. They tunnel through the soil, allowing air and water to penetrate. They also recycle thatch back into the soil. Overuse of pesticides and quick-release fertilizers can cause a vicious cycle of damaged soils, creating weakened lawns subject to disease that then require more pesticides to kill the diseases.

A velvety grass lawn, in general, is just not a smart or easy-to-maintain landscape. Consider other alternatives.

1. Environmental Protection Agency, Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage: 1996 and 1997 Market Estimates, 1996-1997
2. Ibid.
3. Environmental Protection Agency, Diazinon Revised Risk Assessment and Agreement with Registrants, January 2001
4. Rachel’s Environment and Health News, #726 June 7, 2001, Environmental Research Foundation, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036
5. Ibid., #726 and #250
6. Local Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County, 130 Nickerson St, Suite 100, Seattle WA 98109
7. Ibid.
8. Maryland, Dept of Environment, bay.html