By Susan Gallagher, Chief Naturalist,Carbon County Environmental Center
The Times News, © 2001

September 29, 2001

Keep of[f] the grass! The phrase echoes through small town America, as gardeners labor to keep neighborhood kids from trampling manicured lawns and flower beds. But in this age of chemical dependency, warnings to avoid turf come in more subtle forms as well: small, tastefully written signs that alert passersby of recent lawn pesticide applications. The signs are necessary because some of the chemicals used in these applications are absorbed through the skin. You don’t need to eat the grass to be exposed to poison, you just have to touch it or walk across the lawn in bare feet. Keep off the grass? I’ll say!

Imagine your child being sent home early from school with a headache, fever, nausea and vomiting – later you learn that a schoolyard pesticide application is the most likely cause. It happened at a Montgomery County school in 1994.

Or imagine being accidentally sprayed by a hose from a lawn care truck. After being told the spray is harmless fertilizer, you later become ill. Only at the insistence of your physician is it revealed you’ve been drenched with Dursban, a chemical toxic to fish, birds, mammals and aquatic life (a chemical applied at a rate of about 20-24 million pounds annually on America’s lawns and gardens). Such was the fate of a Michigan postal worker several years ago.

About two thirds of American home owners treat their lawns with pesticides, either on their own, or through a lawn care company. The American Cancer Society cautions 95 percent of the chemicals we use are known or suspected carcinogens. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that one out of seven people in the U.S. are significantly harmed by pesticide exposure each year, with symptoms often mistaken for allergies or flu. But hey! No more annoying crabgrass!

While many continue to debate the safety of chemicals used to control weeds, insects, rodents and other pests, the list of possible side effects from exposure to some of these substances reads scarier than the latest Stephen King novel: vomiting, nausea, anxiety, slurred speech, depression, confusion, immune system dysfunction, reproductive problems, organ damage, and in extreme cases of acute exposure, respiratory arrest, unconsciousness, convulsions, and death.

Everywhere, concerns over pesticide misuse are making the news: The Montreal suburb of Hudson, Quebec, recently banned the use of lawn pesticides in a bylaw defended all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. Quebec’s Environment Minister is now considering a similar ban on pesticides used for cosmetic purposes across the entire province.

In Salt Lake City, Utah, concerns over the discovery of pesticides and other chemicals in shallow aquifers led to concerns over the safety of drinking water.

Several common pesticides have recently been banned by the EPA, but with sales allowed to continue through 2001. Environmental groups fear retail stock of the chemicals will be offered at sale prices, increasing the use and possible misuse of the products throughout the country. Scientists investigating potential West Nile virus threats are detecting high levels of pesticide residues in many dead birds submitted for testing. Birds and other wildlife can also absorb certain lawn care chemicals through their feet, or suffer “secondary poisoning” after feeding on prey animals exposed to pesticides.

There are also cautions against composting grass clippings and other yard waste from chemically treated lawns. The chemicals can show up later in your vegetable harvest, if the compost is used to fertilize garden beds.

Fortunately, your backyard need not be “toxic green,” especially if you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty. Start with a soil test. Your local Cooperative Extension office can supply all the information you’ll need to determine what, if any, fertilizers your turf requires. Runoff from improper or excessive fertilizer applications is a source of what is termed “non-point source pollution” in waterways – contamination coming from a source that’s hard to pin down or “point” to. Grasses and shrubs given the right amounts and kinds of fertilizers are much less likely to require the use of chemicals for pest control.

Where insect pests are concerned, don’t assume the worst. About 90 percent of backyard bugs do no harm. In reality, they help form the base of a natural garden food chain. Proper mowing and watering are vital. Turf specialist agree these may be the most important factors in keeping your lawn in top shape and preventing thatch buildup. The healthier your grass and other plants, the more resistant they’ll be to diseases and pests. In the long run, a pesticide-free lawn will save you money on chemicals, reduce your risks of exposure to toxins, and offer the kids a place to go barefoot.

A lawn can be a great thing. Healthy turf can prevent erosion, filter rainwater runoff from storm gutters and roofs, and moderate summer heat. Add a few trees, shrubs and ground cover, and your little piece of the earth can become a haven for you, your family, and plenty of backyard wildlife.

So why poison yourself? Roll up your sleeves and get some of that rich, therapeutic soil under your fingernails. Do a little hard weeding, or sprawl out on some fresh smelling grass with the latest issue of Organic Gardening. Most important, take off your shoes and enjoy the feel of some soft turf underfoot. Keep off the grass? No way!