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Commonly Asked Questions About Chemical Lawn Care

A Beyond Pesticides Factsheet

While the professional lawn care industry rakes in annual sales of $1.5-2 billion, we have received an increasing number of phone calls from people requesting information about these services. Many of the questions asked are similar in nature, revealing common misconceptions that are rampant among the public regarding the use of lawn care pesticides. Listed below are a few of these questions, along with the answers. We hope this will arm you, the consumer, with enough information to make informed choices about protecting the health of your family while properly caring for your lawn.

Companies keep telling me that the chemicals they use are registered with the EPA. Is this registration a guarantee that the products are safe?

Any pesticide legally used in this country must be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This registration does not constitute an approval rating or safety claim of any sort -- nor does it guarantee that the chemicals have been fully tested for environmental and human health effects. In fact, of the 36 most commonly used lawn care pesticides registered before 1984, only one has been fully tested and evaluated - sulfur. Health effects of these 36 lawn pesticides show that: 14 are probable or possible carcinogens, 15 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 24 with neurotoxicity, 22 with liver or kidney damage, and 34 are sensitizers and/or irritants. A child in a household using home and garden pesticides is 6.5 times more likely to develop leukemia than in a home that does not. Obviously, EPA approval is not a guarantee of safety; in fact, EPA believes that no pesticide can ever be considered perfectly "safe." Additionally, the U.S. General Accounting Office, and the New York and Pennsylvania Attorneys General have charged various companies with misleading advertising and prohibited safety claims.

If these products aren't safe, why have they been registered?

Pesticides are, by their very nature, poisons. The federal law governing pesticide use relies on a risk-benefit statute, which allows the use of pesticides with known hazards based on the judgment that various levels of risk are acceptable. However, EPA, who performs this risk assessment, assumes that a pesticide would not be marketed if there were no benefits to using it and therefore no risk/benefit analysis is done "up front." Pesticides lacking data on health and environmental effects since 1972 (and in use for much longer) are still registered, although the required toxicity studies have yet to be performed/submitted. Scandals surrounding two pesticide testing laboratories revealed that fraudulent data had been submitted -- data that are still considered valid in the involved pesticides' registrations. And yet, EPA's evaluation process is considered a legitimate indicator of a pesticides' acceptability, continually allowing carcinogens to be deliberately introduced into our environment. But what level of risk could be considered reasonable for a green lawn? Beyond Pesticides believes that the "benefits" of using lawn care pesticides for aesthetic, unnecessary purposes does not outweigh the health risks associated with exposure to these poisons. Their registration is totally unacceptable; a healthy beautiful lawn can be attained without the use of these poisons.

Can my kids and pets play safely on the lawn when it is dry?

Pesticide residues will remain on the grass even if it is dry. While inhalation and dermal exposures are considered major routes of exposure for lawn pesticides, very few studies have been done to determine the health effects of such exposures. However, one such study on Triumph (active ingredient isazophos) found exposure to residues on the grass to be unacceptably high. The Occupational and Residential Exposure Branch within EPA has been trying to gather more data on this aspect of lawn care pesticide exposure. However, the President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has repeatedly denied permission to EPA to request these exposure studies from manufacturers.

How can I control the weeds in my yard without harming my family?

Non-toxic weed control does not begin with finding a safe herbicide to use on your lawn. The quick-fix that chemicals offer does not address the fact that weeds are but a signal or symptom indicating the overall condition of your lawn, and are not just an isolated problem. For instance, is your lawn being cut high (2-4 inches) and often? Is there proper drainage and aeration in your lawn? If not, your lawn may not be as healthy as it could be, and the opportunistic weeds are gaining a foothold in your yard. This overall perspective is one of the principles behind an organic pest management (OPM) program, the concept upon which all non-chemical pest control methods are based.

How can I ensure that my lawn care company is really using an organic program?

This spring, more than ever before, organic lawn care companies and "all-natural" services have been sprouting up across the country. The increasing marketplace for "environmentally friendly" products is also opening the door for fraudulent and misleading claims on all fronts. It is ultimately the responsibility of the consumer to determine the validity of the companies' claims. But how does one accomplish this?

 

1) Do not simply take the company's marketing claims at face value; find out what products (and their active ingredients) will be used -- they will speak for themselves. Contact Beyond Pesticides if you need help with this.

2) Investigate the toxicity and environmental effects of each ingredient. There is at least one fertilizer on the market that bills itself as "natural based," but in reality, this product contains a small percentage of composted chicken manure mixed with a large percentage of synthetic, petroleum-based fertilizer. Be cautious of the word "organic" - one definition of organic is any class of chemicals containing carbon, which most pesticides contain.

3) Question the service people you contact. When a service provider asserts that he or she has an alternative lawn care or indoor pest control service, find out the specifics of their program - an integrated pest management program is only as good as the principles of the person providing it. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What products do they consider acceptable?
  • Do they monitor for pests (good) or spray on a fixed schedule (bad)?
  • Do they attempt to determine the cause of a pest problem and fix it (good) or do they treat the symptoms only (bad)?
  • Do they perform yearly soil tests?
  • Do they keep records of their monitoring results?
  • What training do they have in alternative services?
  • Is most of their business is chemically-based programs or alternative ones?

Make sure you read the fine print on any contract or literature: some companies will choose to use "plant protection chemicals" (pesticides) if a "special situation" arises. Get what you want in writing, and hold them to their commitment.