Shiny Green Poison?

An emerald-green lawn is a beautiful lawn. At least many Americans think so. Yet this kind of lawn, relying on heavy pesticide use to kill weeds, may have poison beneath its shiny surface. Pesticide exposure may increase the chances of cancer, cardiac disease, reproductive system problems, afflictions of the nervous system such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimers, and other health problems. Pesticides also get into our environment, harming pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and into our waterways, affecting fish and other aquatic life.

pest 400x267 Shiny Green Poison?Aware of these dangers, Montgomery County, Maryland has just approved a ban on pesticide use for cosmetic purposes, passing a bill introduced by County Councilmember George Leventhal by a 6-3 vote on October 6th. “I’ve heard from hundreds of constituents expressing anxiety and concern over exposure,” Leventhal says, pointing to stories about “children running across grass, coming home with angry marks on their feet” and “dogs developing little tumors.”

The ban will apply to public areas and to private properties beginning in 2018, the first major locality in the United States to do so. However, pesticides will still be legal for gardens and such uses as stopping noxious weeds such as poison ivy.  The ban, however, does not apply to agriculture or to sports fields, although it does require a plan to maintain fields without pesticides by 2020.

The ban is unique for larger jurisdictions in the United States. Ontario, Canada, however, enacted a similar ban in 2009, while much of Canada has restrictions on pesticides. San Francisco, California has also restricted the use of pesticides on government property since 1996.

All of these restrictions are based on the precautionary principle, that the likelihood of danger, even if unproved, should be enough to spur action. The links between pesticide and health problems are uncertain. Such connections are notoriously difficult to establish given the number of environmental factors and the length between cause and effect. Still, many studies establish a likelihood that pesticides contribute to an array of health problems.

“You have to understand, there’s not conclusive evidence, in medicine there’s very rarely conclusive evidence, it’s always developing” explains Leventhal. However, “many, many journal articles” show a link between pesticide exposure and “cancer, brain development, responding to disease.” For instance, the International Agency for Research on Cancer recently called glyphosate, the key ingredient in Round-Up and numerous other pesticides, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Without pesticides, how do homeowners grow healthy lawns? The alternative approach is called integrated pest management, which begins with observation and weeding by hand. Cutting grass only to a height of three inches and using a mulching mower also makes for stronger turf, more resistant to weeds. The next line of defense is biological controls from microorganisms or insects that target pests. And planting local vegetation is another way to maintain a healthy yard with fewer pesticides.

Montgomery County has been a trend-setter in a number of public health areas, leading the way in banning trans-fats, polystyrene, and coal tar. Its pesticide bill may cause others to follow. “This legislation has been getting a great deal of attention,” exclaims Leventhal, given that Montgomery County’s location means extensive coverage in the Washington Post.

Ontario’s ban occurred for similar health-related reasons. “Our position is that cosmetic pesticides represent an unnecessary risk to the environment and to human health,” says Kate Jordan, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. “We took a precautionary approach.” She describes the Ontario ban as one of the strongest and most comprehensive in the world. Still, there are exceptions, including “pesticides used for health and safety, poison ivy, structural termites and bed bugs.”

Pesticides are also acceptable for agricultural uses, since “farmers already had stringent rules on use, handling, and storage,” says Jordan. Other conditions to which the ban doesn’t apply relate to safety issues, road maintenance, and forestry.

The results have been notable. Within a year after the ban, “concentrations of three of the most common pesticides” showed an 80 percent decrease. There was, of course, opposition from lawn companies and some homeowners, but “overwhelmingly, the response has been positive,” says Jordan. Partly this is due to education and outreach prior to and coinciding with the ban.

The Ontario law is not the first. Some 20 years ago, San Francisco introduced similar restrictions, at least on city properties. The attempt to apply a total, ban, however, was brief. “Pesticides are tools that we have to use sometimes,” points out Chris Geiger, Manager of Integrated Pest Management for the San Francisco Department of the Environment. “People get into a black or white and that doesn’t work. The question is how to minimize harm from pests and how to minimize harm from pesticides.”

The answer, for San Francisco at least, is a list that says which pesticide to use under what conditions, while outright banning the worst ones. Often, however, pesticides are applied where they are simply unnecessary. For instance, says Geiger, San Francisco used to control English Daisy in its parks, until “someone had to stop and say wait, this is Golden Gate Park, why are we treating in meadows?”

San Francisco’s methods have led pesticide application to fall by over 80 percent, at least on city properties, and the most harmful pesticides are gone. Certain other cities and counties have followed San Francisco’s lead, moving toward natural pest management and minimal pesticide use when necessary. Notable areas include Seattle, Washington, Santa Clara County, California, Thurston County, Washington, and a few municipalities in New York.

Unlike Canada, however, there has been almost no restriction on cosmetic pesticides for individual homeowners in the United States. The exceptions are tiny Ogunquit, Maine and Takoma Park, Maryland, which passed restrictions on cosmetic pesticide use in 2013 and provides a model for the Montgomery County law. In most states, however, regulation of pesticides is left to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In California, for instance, “several cities have tried to regulate within city limits and they failed in court,” says Geiger.

Still, Geiger hopes to educate homeowners regarding minimal or zero use of pesticides. He suggests that “we think before we spray the landscape with chemicals; there are too many bad lessons from that.” Indeed, Geiger advises homeowners that “you almost never need insecticides or herbicides in residential yard” as long as you’re willing to put up with a few irregularities. “A weed is only a weed if you don’t want it.” Geiger is especially critical of “weed and feed” mixes, which create unnecessary applications pesticide and fertilizer.

Nevertheless, many people remain tied to traditional yards. In Montgomery County, not surprisingly, some lawn care companies and residents have opposed the law. “Bill 52-14 doesn’t ban pesticides,” exclaims Eric Wenger, President of Complete Lawn Care, located in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Instead, he argues, it pushes their use underground. Wenger believes that the law will end up allowing only individuals lacking knowledge to apply pesticides, while licensed people “that actually know what they’re doing are restricted from using pesticides properly and safely.”

Leventhal replies, “It is true that chemicals prohibited for lawn use will still be sold here in Montgomery County, where they will still be allowed for other uses.” Therefore, “people who want to use them for illegal purposes may theoretically do so, but I think the effect of the law, and the signage that will be required in stores that sell the products, will be to educate people about better ways of maintaining their lawn that don’t require frequent application of poisons.” The idea is to get the large majority of homeowners to give up dangerous pesticides, although enforcement will be difficult as the law doesn’t provide for inspection of individual properties.

Wenger further argues that the Maryland Department of Agriculture already regulates pesticides and that they, not Montgomery County, “have people with the knowledge and understanding” to enforce any regulations. In addition, there are questions about whether Montgomery County is authorized, under state law, to legislate such a ban. In April, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General determined that state law might preempt aspects of Montgomery County ban, although the county attorney disagrees. Still, the legislation is likely to bring about lawsuits.

This consideration helped spur Councilmember Roger Berliner to propose an alternative law. At a recent hearing, he worried that a full ban is “way ahead of our public,” that it would be like going “from zero to sixty when we haven’t laid the foundation.” His alternative legislation would have relied on education, requiring homeowners to sign a document identifying health risks before applying pesticides. In the final vote, however, the County Council decided to go with more comprehensive legislation.

Whatever the legal and practical questions, it’s appropriate that the pesticide ban occur in Montgomery County, where Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the book that launched the modern environmental movement. Carson was instrumental in warning of the dangers of unbounded use of pesticides. Ironically, she died of breast cancer, perhaps linked to long-term exposure to pesticides. It is therefore fitting that Montgomery County be the place to launch this bold experiment in removing dangerous pesticides from our environment.