A two-story home and 2.4 kids. A two-car garage. A nice, well-manicured lawn. This is the American dream. For over two generations, the lawn has dominated the American home ethos. Indeed, in many places, the lawn has taken on a larger-than-life, nearly religious status—protected from any kind of modification or deviation by homeowners’ associations and local governments. Lawns and similar spaces occupy over forty million acres of land in the U.S., an area larger than the state of North Dakota.
Maintaining these pristine, unnatural ecosystems comes at a high cost. Lawn mowers and similar equipment account for 5 percent of air pollution in our nation and a fair amount of the noise pollution as well. Lawns also require large amounts of water to maintain their appearance of perfection, accounting for one-third to two-thirds of all urban fresh water usage! Generally, the more that an area is water-insecure or stressed, the more that lawns and landscaping contribute to the problem by relying on the already limited water supply to not shrivel and die.
The real surprise for many, however, may be this fact: “Homeowners spend billions of dollars and typically use ten times the amount of pesticide and fertilizers per acre on their lawns as farmers do on crops; the majority of these chemicals are wasted due to inappropriate timing and application. These chemicals then runoff [sic] and become a major source of water pollution.”1 Although agricultural land takes up far more space than lawns and similar landscapes, pesticide usage in urban areas is far more concentrated. Canadian researchers coming to the same conclusion reported “that 3.65 times more pesticide was used per hectare in urban settings than in agriculture.”2 Thus, while we think of pesticides as a rural, agricultural problem, these chemicals are just as much or more an urban, green-space issue.
For those of us interested in a Wise Traditions lifestyle, issues related to farming and food tend to attract most of our energy and attention—we look at how food is raised or grown and which chemicals (if any) are applied to it, knowing that these things matter to our health and the health of our families and communities. What may be less evident to many of us is the fact that we also should not lose sight of what is happening right outside our front door.
FRONT YARD DANGERS
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines “pesticides” broadly to include: “any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest”; nitrogen stabilizers; and substances (or mixtures of substances) intended as plant regulators, defoliants or desiccants.3 Some are naturally derived, while others are laboratory created. A few have significant benefits and are even used in organic agriculture. All have dangers and drawbacks, however, many of which are understated, not fully understood or not adequately studied.
Looking solely at the subcategory of herbicides (which does not include fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides or other lawn and landscape chemicals), the EPA estimates that Americans use almost one hundred million pounds of herbicides for home lawns annually. Even more troubling than the sheer quantities applied is the fact that some chemicals or formulations are allowed for residential, non-food-crop application on lawns even when they are banned or restricted for agricultural uses.
Almost every single pesticide on the market is linked to significant human or animal health concerns. According to a Beyond Pesticides fact sheet on thirty commonly used lawn pesticides, “13 are probable or possible carcinogens,13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 15 with neurotoxicity, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 27 are sensitizers and/or irritants, and 11 have the potential to disrupt the endocrine (hormonal) system.”4 Over half of the thirty lawn pesticides also are toxic to birds, while 80 percent are toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, and a third are deadly to bees.4
TOXIC TOLL ON POLLINATORS
In a study done in 2016, Purdue University researchers made some startling discoveries about honeybees. Our all-important pollinating pals have been the focus of national attention for many years because of the devastating impact of colony collapse. Purdue entomology professor Christian Krupke commented on the “astonishing” number and diversity of pesticides detected in the pollen samples gathered for the study, noting that “bees in our study were exposed to a far wider range of chemicals than we expected.”5
The researchers assembled weekly pollen samples for four months from three sites: a meadow site, a treated cornfield and an untreated cornfield. They found that crop pollen was only a minor part of what the bees collected, with most of the pollen instead gathered from uncultivated plants, especially plants in the clover and alfalfa family. Even though clover is one of nature’s ways of supplying nitrogen (for free!), clover is one of the plants that the chemical cartels take particular pains to try to eradicate. “Turf builder” lawn products boast about how their products are “guaranteed” to “clear out” dandelions and clover.6
Among the approximately thirty pesticides found in the pollen samples for all three sites, the most common chemical products were fungicides, herbicides and “typical crop disease and weed management products.” Summarizing the study, another member of the research team stated, “These findings really illustrate how honeybees are chronically exposed to numerous pesticides throughout the season, making pesticides an important long-term stress factor for bees.”5 Emphasizing the point that agricultural chemicals are only “part of the problem,” Krupke observed that “homeowners and urban landscapes are big contributors, even when hives are directly adjacent to crop fields.”
What is happening in our urban spaces can only be described as widespread biological and chemical warfare, and research confirms that people are right to worry about it. In 2012, a study showed that modern, chemical-based lawn care—the kind provided by the now ubiquitous lawn service companies across America—is causing tumors in dogs.7 Dogs’ malignancy risks were even higher when owners themselves applied insecticides in the home. Highlighting the broader relevance of the study, the authors noted that dogs and their owners have similar environmental exposures and that “dogs may serve as sentinels for [environmental] risks.”
Research shows that residential pesticide exposures do not just increase cancer risks in dogs but also affect people, especially children. A 2015 meta-analysis (a study of studies) found a strong association between childhood exposure to indoor residential insecticides and childhood cancers.8 Pointing out that “more and more pesticides are being used…in landscape maintenance and in the home,” the study specifically noted the importance of looking at exposures to nonoccupational and nonagricultural chemicals. These lawn and other urban landscape chemicals inevitably find their way into homes and other indoor spaces—tracked in not just by pets but on clothing, shoes or toys or transported through windows or ventilation systems.9
It bears pointing out that many of the chemicals used in urban environments are the same or similar to the ones used by farmers. For example, a chemical called 2,4-D, a leftover from World War II that originally was used exclusively in agriculture, is now the herbicide of choice in most lawn treatment programs. (2,4-D famously was one of two active ingredients in Agent Orange.) Studies have shown that 2,4-D accumulates in the home long after a lawn has been sprayed and is detectable in household dust, on indoor surfaces and in indoor air; moreover, after lawn application of 2,4-D, the indoor exposure levels are about ten times higher than just prior to lawn treatment.10 The toxicity of 2,4-D has been demonstrated in studies in the wheat-growing regions of the Midwest (where 2,4-D remains in widespread agricultural use), with “increased rates of certain birth defects, especially in male children, and lower sperm counts in adults.”11
A well-publicized study of agricultural exposures published by University of California-Davis researchers in 2014 raises similar concerns about residential use of the same chemicals. The study found that mothers who lived in proximity to agricultural operations that applied pesticides had a substantially higher risk of having a child with autism spectrum disorder or developmental delay.12 In addition, some pesticides that were banned decades ago still show up in the environment as well as in animals and humans. Prohibited chemicals that persist in the environment or food chain also have been associated with increased autism risks and lower IQ.13
CHILDREN AT RISK
As the use of pesticides in agriculture has continued to skyrocket (despite the promise that genetic modification and other new technologies would lead to reductions in the chemicals’ use), data on the increased use have been tracked and reported. In contrast, the quantities of pesticides used in urban environments (including by government) are shrouded in secrecy and almost impossible to ascertain.
Unfortunately, pesticide use in urban environments involves far more than the neighbor’s front lawn. In fact, municipalities use pesticides in and on almost every nook and cranny of the urban landscape, including parks, playgrounds, parking lots and medians, sidewalks, boardwalks and campgrounds.14 Children generally spend more time outdoors on lawns, sports fields, playgrounds and other such places than adults, which means that urban pesticide usage has a disproportionate impact on them. As children fall, crawl, roll, tussle, tumble and explore—while adults generally sit idly by (all too often on their smartphones!)—children are touching, smelling and even tasting and eating their environment. Philip Landrigan, a professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, notes, “Pound for pound, children receive much higher exposures to [pesticides] than adults do, just through normal daily activity. . . . Because children are growing quickly, ‛they take into their bodies more of the pesticides that are in the food, water and air.’ . . . They also roll around in the grass and put their fingers in their mouths, which greatly increases exposure.”9
Some companies and applicators leave small flags after treating a lawn or other area, but many do not. Even worse, the warnings are woefully inadequate considering how long the treatments persist on the foliage and surface. For instance, the claim is often made that glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup) breaks down quickly—within a few days—once applied. However, research has shown that glyphosate persists in soil and water far longer than that, with a half-life that sometimes reaches a year.15,16 A brief study in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2017 reported that the average level of glyphosate detected in participants’ urine increased by 1208 percent between 1993 and 2016.17 Over the same period, there was also a significant increase—almost 500 percent—in the prevalence of glyphosate samples that exceeded the “limit of detection” (the lowest concentration detectable). A jury recently awarded a school groundskeeper two hundred and eighty-nine million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages from Monsanto, agreeing that Roundup had caused the man’s terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Gardening chemicals also should undergo careful scrutiny. The organophosphate insecticide malathion, which has been linked to cancer in various studies,18 is used in home gardens, schools, greenhouses and other settings. As described in the Journal of Pesticide Reform,19 malathion is persistent and pervasive. In one instance, even a week after applying malathion on a home garden, the substance continued to show up during hand rinsing. In another incident, after a home gardener sprayed malathion on his garden, it drifted into an adjoining school’s ventilation system, where it sickened and sent three hundred children to the hospital.
WATERWAYS AND DRINKING WATER
It isn’t just lawns and urban green spaces that we should worry about—our swimming holes, streams, creeks, ponds and similar recreational waters are also contaminated. Research shows that many of these spots serve as collection and concentration sites for pesticides, especially during times of the year when both rainfall and pesticide application are high.20 Urban waterways exhibit signs of heavier pesticide contamination than those in rural areas. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about half of urban streams tested in the 1990s were contaminated with pesticides, whereas nine in ten urban streams exhibited contamination a decade later.21
These same chemicals contaminate drinking water. Beyond Pesticides reports that more than 10 percent of public drinking water treatment systems in the U.S. do not meet the pesticide-related requirements set by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974—which the EPA is supposed to monitor.22 The National Water Quality Assessment Program has criticized EPA “for not setting adequate water quality benchmarks for pesticides.”22 Research in Sri Lanka illustrates the health implications of pesticides in drinking water.23 Investigating an epidemic of chronic kidney disease in that country, researchers found that farmers exposed to glyphosate via drinking water were five times more likely to develop kidney disease than farmers drinking herbicide-free water.24 These findings prompted the Sri Lankan government to ban imports of glyphosate.25
STOPPING OUR CITIES FROM SPRAYING
The end result of all this exposure to chemicals on our lawns and in our urban landscapes is that we have turned the entire human populace into a gigantic science experiment. We are witnessing more and more tragic health outcomes and greater accumulation of pesticides in each of us with every passing year. So, what should we do?
First, we can’t neglect the importance of working—where we live—to fix the broken approach to nature that dominates modern life. We need to change hearts and minds not just in the Midwest—the endless corn and soy belt—but on Sunnyside Drive and Little Corner Lane in countless cities and towns across the entire country.
Second, each of us should seek to manage our own land and lawn as organically as possible. In many cities, there are now natural and organic lawn care companies (if we can’t or don’t want to do it ourselves). Those with small spaces can consider using a non-motorized lawn mower. For all of us, it makes sense to convert as much space as possible from resource-consuming lawn to resource-producing edible and medicinal landscaping. Those who don’t want to do it themselves can look for a trustworthy urban farmer who needs more space! Thanks to Curtis Stone and others, the urban farm movement is growing rapidly.26 In this way, we may not only end up with less yard work but can have tasty, beyond-organic produce at the same time.
Third, it is important to realize that this issue goes far beyond just a few lawns and pieces of land. Various state and local laws, along with rules imposed by homeowners’ associations (HOAs), have locked many in as perpetual slave customers of lawn chemical services and companies. Unfortunately, the originally positive intentions of HOAs (to keep a community well-maintained and respectful) have turned into an all-out war on the environment, with lawn care and landscaping rules and requirements that forbid or heavily restrict food production, require the use of large amounts of pesticides and generally turn neighborhoods into ecological wastelands.
Many of our schools, park systems and sports areas also are prime customers of the chemical cartels. Thus, we need to think about minimizing our kids’ exposure to dangerous chemicals not just in the foods they enjoy during recess, but in the areas they play in during recess. Meeting with the people in charge of these places is an important step, and we can point out not just the dangers of these chemicals (especially to children) but also the immense environmental and economic benefits of managing greenspaces organically. We need to show up at city, county and other meetings and take a stand to get municipalities off the herbicide and insecticide bandwagons.
Finally, we should attempt to persuade neighbors, HOAs, churches, community groups and other entities to manage ecosystems as naturally as possible, or retain lawn and landscaping companies that share a pesticide-free orientation. The places where our children play— parks, recreational areas, athletic fields and playgrounds—should be of particular focus and concern. This may mean changing our expectations about weed control.27
Ultimately, we need to realize that tolerating a few weeds is a small price to pay to help improve and protect the health of our children and our ecosystems. Let’s reclaim not just our food supply but our communities from Bayer/Monsanto and the other pesticide peddlers—one block and one acre at a time.
Common Urban Lawn and Landscape Chemicals
Urban lawn and landscape chemicals include the following:
• 2,4-D: An herbicide developed by Dow Chemical in the 1940s, and one of the principal ingredients of the infamous
• Clopyralid and aminopyralid : Herbicides responsible for the loss of thousands of gardens and similar growing
spaces through their ability to contaminate compost easily and persist for years once introduced into the soil.
• Glyphosate : The active ingredient in Roundup.
• Triclopyr : An herbicide that causes severe birth defects in rats, even at low levels of exposure.
• Malathion : A carcinogenic organophosphate insecticide.
• Diquat : Used as an herbicide, plant growth regulator and dessicant, Diquat “may cause severe poisoning with
nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, convulsions, and even death.”28
Most pesticide formulations also contain large amounts of “inert” ingredients—sometimes 90 percent or more of
the product. These may be as or more dangerous than the active ingredients in the pesticides.29
Managing Lawns Naturally
If you have a lawn, here are some natural lawn care tips:
1. Learn to love a diverse lawn. Clovers, far from being unsightly, are crucial to both the health of the soil and our ecosystems, providing food for numerous pollinators.
2. If you feel compelled to suppress certain weed species, try corn or similar pre-emergent, natural herbicides, and pull the weeds that remain before they produce seed.
3. For soil-borne pests like grubs, try beneficial nematodes.
4. To improve the health of your soil, use organic methods such as manual aeration and natural fertilizers like worm
castings, compost teas and other similar methods and approaches.
Studies show that these approaches are as effective and less costly over time! In fact, they are so effective that some
major institutions such as Harvard have completely transitioned to them.30 A report on Harvard’s approach describes the many benefits of organic lawn care: “Harvard now composts 500 tons of grass clippings, pruned branches, leaves and other material which used to cost about $35,000 per year to dispose of off campus. They have also saved an additional $10,000 per year not buying synthetic fertilizers or compost made elsewhere. Additionally, Harvard has reduced water use in irrigation by 30 percent, amounting to almost 2 million gallons per year.”31
Recently, I received a message from someone wanting to purchase worm castings from my son, who has a little side
business on our farm producing this high-quality plant food. A few weeks later, I found myself meeting a stranger along the roadside so he could collect twenty-five gallons of worm poop. Curious, I asked what he hoped to use it to grow. “My lawn!” Over the summer, he has sent me occasional pictures of how marvelously his organically managed lawn is doing, despite the difficult weather we have had in this region this year.
1. Polycarpou L. The problem of lawns. Columbia University Earth Institute, June 4, 2010.
2. Pim L, Cooper K, Keenan K. Urban versus agricultural: pinning down the numbers on pesticide use. Intervenor 2002;27(1-2).
3. “What is a pesticide?” https://www.epa.gov/minimum-risk-pesticides/what-pesticide.
4. “Lawn pesticide facts and figures.” https://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/lawn/factsheets/LAWNFACTS&FIGURES_8_05.pdf.
5. Purdue University Agriculture News. “Honeybees pick up host of agricultural, urban pesticides via non-crop plants.” May 31, 2016. https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2016/Q2/honeybees-pick-up-astonishing-number-of-agricultural,-urban-pesticides-via-non-crop-plants.html.
7. Takashima-Uebelhoer BB, Barber LG, Zagarins SE et al. Household chemical exposures and the risk of canine malignant lymphoma, a model for human non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Environ Res 2012;112:171-176.
8. Chen M, Chang CH, Tao L, Lu C. Residential exposure to pesticide during childhood and childhood cancers: a meta-analysis. Pediatrics 2015;136(4):719-729.
9. Mascarelli A. What to know before you spray your lawn with pesticides. The Washington Post, July 7, 2014.
10. Nishioka MG, Lewis RG, Brinkman MC, Burkholder HM, Hines CE, Menkedick JR. Distribution of 2,4-D in air and on surfaces inside residences after lawn applications: comparing exposure estimates from various media for young children. Environ Health Perspect 2001;109(11):1185-91.
11. Solomon G. Agent Orange in your backyard: the harmful pesticide 2,4-D. The Atlantic, Feb. 24, 2012.
12. Shelton JF, Geraghty EM, Tancredi DJ et al. Neurodevelopmental disorders and prenatal residential proximity to agricultural pesticides: the CHARGE study. Environ Health Perspect 2014;122(10):1103-1109.
13. Lyall K, Croen LA, Sjodin A et al. Polychlorinated biphenyl and organochlorine pesticide concentrations in maternal mid-pregnancy serum samples: association with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability. Environ Health Perspect 2017;125(3):474-480.
14. Steenbergen H. Rounding up herbicides in the city. Sustainable Food Trust, Feb. 5, 2016. https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/glyphosate-in-the-city/.
15. Myers JP, Antoniou MN, Blumberg B et al. Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: a consensus statement. Environmental Health 2016;15:19.
16. Trager R. Glyphosate persistence raises questions. Chemistry World, Feb. 25, 2016.
17. Mills PJ, Kania-Korwel I, Fagan J et al. Excretion of the herbicide glyphosate in older adults between 1993 and 2016. JAMA 2017;318(16):1610-1611.
18. Lerro CC, Koutros S, Andreotti G et al. Organophosphate insecticide use and cancer incidence among spouses of pesticide applicators in the Agricultural Health Study. Occup Environ Med 2015;72(10):736-744.
19. Brenner L. Malathion fact sheet. Journal of Pesticide Reform 1992;12(4).
20. Johnson HM, Domagalski JL, Saleh DK. Trends in pesticide concentrations in streams of the western United States, 1993–2005. J Am Water Resour Assoc 2011;47(2):265-286.
21. Langlois K. More pesticides are permeating urban streams. High Country News, Sept. 30, 2014.
22. Toher D. Pesticides in my drinking water? Individual precautionary measures and community action. https://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/infoservices/pesticidesandyou/documents/watertesting.pdf.
23. Jayasumana C, Gunatilake S, Senanayake P. Glyphosate, hard water and nephrotoxic metals: are they the culprits behind the epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology in Sri Lanka? Int J Environ Res Public Health 2014;11(2):2125-2147.
24. Sarich C. Newly released: study confirms chronic kidney failure 5 times higher in glyphosate-ridden areas. Natural Society, March 5, 2015.
25. Sarich C. Breaking: Sri Lanka first country to ban Monsanto’s glyphosate due to study on chronic kidney disease. Natural Society, March 18, 2014.
27. “Challenges for use of glyphosate alternatives in urban landscapes.” http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/phag/2016/05/27/challenges-for-use-of-glyphosate-alternatives-in-urban-landscapes/.
29. “Inert or ’other’ ingredients.” http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/inerts.html.
30. Raver A. The grass is greener at Harvard. The New York Times, Sept. 23, 2009.
31. Heft T. Harvard University’s organic lawn care. Big Blog of Gardening, Oct. 19, 2009. http://www.bigblogofgardening.com/harvard-universitys-transition-to-organic-lawn-care/.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2018.