Perceived Dangers Prompt Organic Lawn-Care Products


c.2005 Newhouse News Service

Go on and admit it. The yard next door really rankles you, with its profusion of dandelions in spring, followed by a bountiful harvest of crabgrass and clover. And then the whole mess browns out in mid-July because no one bothers to water it.

Get used to it. Your neighbor, whether he knows it, is in the vanguard of a movement that prizes natural lawns where children can sit and pick four-leaf clovers, where dogs can nibble grass, and where no sign reads: Keep off the grass for 24 hours.

The truth be told, however, your neighbor’s environmentally pure lawn could also be aesthetically pleasing.

There are signs that the multibillion-dollar lawn-care industry is going to help him out.

It’s already happening in Canada, where 71 municipalities have banned the use of lawn pesticides — an umbrella term for herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

In June, Scotts Canada met the gaping hole in its market by introducing EcoSense, a line of organic lawn and gardening products, including weed-control sprays, insect dusts and a lawn fertilizer. The company is a subsidiary of Scotts, based in Marysville, Ohio.

While there are no plans to sell the EcoSense line in the United States, the U.S. division plans to renew its efforts to develop a line of organic lawn and gardening products, spokesman Jim King said.

Scotts’ news comes as numerous U.S. environmental groups are stepping up their campaigns to ban or restrict the use of lawn pesticides.

Americans use pesticides lavishly — an estimated 90 million pounds each year on lawns and gardens, not including products used by lawn-care and pest-control professionals, according to the Audubon Society.

Pressure to use the products comes from the big players in the lawn-care industry, said Diana Post of the Rachel Carson Council, named for the author of the 1962 blockbuster book “Silent Spring.”

“A lot of money has gone into promotion and they’ve been effective,” Post said.

Pesticides are poisons that don’t necessarily stay put. When it rains, they run off the land into streams and groundwater, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pixie Hamilton said.

They also drift when they’re dusted or sprayed, and they can be tracked indoors onto floors where children and pets play. Research shows pesticide residues may remain for up to a year.

A growing body of scientific evidence links pesticide exposure with a vast array of medical problems, including asthma, childhood leukemia, birth defects, brain cancer, soft tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, behavioral and learning disorders, and delayed motor development.

Children are particularly vulnerable because they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, creating greater lung exposure to fumes and vapors. And, because children are small, they absorb pesticides at a higher concentration. Their brains and nervous systems are less able to repair damage caused by these toxins.

Even when the toxins exist at low levels, they are dangerous, University of Wisconsin researcher Warren Porter said. “Ultralow doses at the right point in time can have devastating effects on the future development of embryos, as many top-notch scientists have demonstrated.”

The perceived dangers have resulted in the following campaigns:

  • The National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns is calling for communities to ban or restrict the use of chemical lawn pesticides.
  • A coalition of 20 groups has asked Home Depot and Lowe’s home-improvement store to carry a full range of organic lawn products and to reconsider the sale of “weed and feed” products. Both companies say they carry a sufficient range of products to satisfy consumer demand.
  • Toxics Action Center, a New England-based group, has called for a boycott of TruGreen ChemLawn, which serves more than 2.5 million households. ChemLawn spokeswoman Bridget Glavez said, “All of our products are registered by the Environmental Protection Agency.” She said that the company will offer organic care next year.

The EPA is in the process of evaluating the risks of older pesticides and assessing their risks, spokeswoman Enesta Jones said.

About 78 percent of the pesticides have been reviewed, with some re-registered and others canceled or deregulated, she said. The studies used in the recertification process are supplied by the manufacturers of the chemicals under review.

The EPA maintains that re-registered pesticides are safe when used according to directions. The risks associated with older pesticides, Jones said in an e-mail, “are mitigated by changes in their use brought about by changes in product labeling.”

But only about half of consumers actually read the label before they use a pesticide, said Paul Parker, of the Center for Resource Management, a nonprofit organization focused on environmental problems. “The information on the labels is written for attorneys concerned about liability issues, not people,” he said.

Although the EPA mandated label changes in 1996, the possibility of human error persists.

For example, pesticide use in or near schools caused more than 1,500 children and school employees to become ill between 1998 and 2002, according to a study in July’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

These stories of illness are all too disquieting to F. Herbert Bormann, co-author of “Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Ecological Harmony” (Yale University Press, $18).

“I would venture to say that people tending their lawns don’t consider the big picture: that their piece of the world is part of the planet.”

Oct. 6, 2005

(Fran Henry is a reporter for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. She can be contacted at

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