Think Before You Spray
By Melissa Grieco, Rye Garden Club Conservation Committee
“Are you walking across a toxic lawn to get to your patch of organic kale?” asked Edwina von Gal, President of Perfect Earth Project, an East Hampton-based nonprofit, when she addressed a gathering of residents at a recent event organized by the Town of Rye Sustainability Committee.
While eating ‘clean’ organic products for health and environmental reasons is a priority for many Rye households, there seems to be a disconnect between concern for eating safe food and concern for the dangers posed by chemical landscaping. Von Gal says that while it seems rational that the same criteria that govern one’s food choices in the grocery store would also apply to one’s lawn care decisions, surprisingly, this is often not the case.
Come early spring, the proliferation of little yellow placards that emerge like a sunny crop of daffodils on numerous Rye yards lends anecdotal evidence to the continuing use of chemical treatments on lawns, flowerbeds and outdoor areas.
The use of these conventional garden pesticides is coming under increased and, some say long overdue, scrutiny. Two recent back-to-back developments concerning the dangers of pesticide use in both landscaping and agriculture are highlighting the shared implications between the two practices.
The first ground-breaking event involved a California Superior Court ruling delivered by a jury on August 10, 2018. The landmark verdict in the case of Johnson v. Monsanto Co. determined that Monsanto’s Roundup weed-killer caused a terminally ill man’s cancer and that the corporation failed to warn him of the health hazards from exposure.
The second major development occurred five days later with a report published by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), alleging the presence of high levels of glyphosate in several conventionally grown (i.e. chemically treated) popular oat-based foods, including Cheerios and Quaker Oats. Eye-popping headlines such as “Breakfast With a Dose of Roundup?” scrolled across newsfeeds.
Glyphosate, the main active ingredient in Roundup, is the second most commonly used herbicide in homes and gardens. Homeowners use glyphosate-based Monsanto products for weed control in their flowerbeds, lawns, driveways, and patios. These Monsanto-manufactured products are sold under several brand names including Roundup Weed and Grass Killer, Roundup Extended Control Weed and Grass Killer Plus Weed Preventer, and Roundup Poison Ivy Plus Tough Brush Kill.
It’s not an uncommon sight in Rye to see a landscape crew or weekend warrior gardener armed with an oversized spray pump out targeting errant crabgrass and other hapless weeds with copious amounts of this substance.
Research shows that children and pets are more sensitive to the dangers of lawn pesticides than adults. Children have developing organs and systems and spend more time closer to the ground while putting fingers, toys and other objects into their mouths, which transfers pesticide residue. They also have more skin surface relative to their body weight and experience greater exposure to garden chemicals.
Pets spend time a significant amount of time outside where they also collect pesticide residue on their footpads and fur. This residue then gets ingested via grooming and is tracked into the house where it sticks to carpets, rugs and furniture.
A recent six-year study conducted by Tufts University showed that exposure to lawn pesticides raised the risk of canine malignant lymphoma by as much as 70 percent. Another study indicates that exposure to herbicide-treated lawns has been associated with a significantly higher bladder cancer risk in dogs.
Glyphosate is the also the most commonly used herbicide in the United States’ agricultural sector. The chemical is used in agriculture as both a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide and crop desiccant (which involves spraying a crop right before harvest to render it drier and easier to reap). Many commodity seeds including soybean, corn, and canola have been genetically modified to become glyphosate-tolerant and are referred to as ‘Roundup Ready’ crops.
Despite the recent court verdict and release of the EWG report, scientific opinion remains divided over the safety of glyphosate. The World Health Organization classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015. California listed glyphosate in its Proposition 65 registry of chemicals known to cause cancer in 2017.
The EPA classifies glyphosate as a Group E chemical, which indicates the agency has determined there is “evidence of non-carcinogenicity in humans.” However, accusations of undue influence by Monsanto upon their research and findings have muddied the water. The different conclusions are as variegated and mottled as the clover in a naturally landscaped lawn.
Given the latest developments it seems prudent to minimize exposure to this substance on the home front through both an organically based diet and chemical-free lawn.
The good news is that transitioning to natural landscaping is a simple and easy change to make. Organic “green” lawn products are readily available at most garden centers and many lawn care companies now offer organic landscaping. Local organizations including Rye Garden Club, Rye Sustainability Committee, and Rye Nature Center work to educate homeowners on the dangers of pesticides and herbicides, and to advocate the non-toxic alternatives available.
Rye residents can reduce their ‘toxic load’ and protect the health of their families, pets, and the environment by embracing a healthy lifestyle that includes what’s on your plate and your yard. Together we can uproot the need for those little yellow warning signs every spring.