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Herbicide Causes Problems on Golf Courses
(Beyond Pesticides, September 4, 2003) State officials in Florida are struggling to rectify the discovery of elevated arsenic levels in the soil and groundwater in South Florida golf courses, according to Naples Daily News. Some officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) believe the pesticide monosodium methane arsenate (MSMA), commonly applied on golf courses to kill weeds, is the underlying cause of the excessive arsenic levels, and are calling for restrictions on the chemical's use. Others, including golf course lobbyists, agriculture officials and the pesticide industry, claim further research on MSMA's toxicity is needed before such restrictions are put in place.

The contamination was discovered several years ago and was reported in a Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management study, which found 37 percent of wells tested at municipal golf courses exceeded the recommended arsenic level of 50 parts per billion. 76 percent of the wells exceeded the federal Environmental Protection Agency standard of 10 parts per billion, set to go into effect in 2006. The arsenical herbicide MSMA is widely used on area golf courses, including where arsenic was detected. A 2002 DEP survey of Florida golf courses found that 96 percent reported using MSMA. Only 10 percent of the respondents, though, had systems in place to clean up arsenic; 1 percent had staff trained to do the job, and another 1 percent had contracted companies to clean up the chemical in case of a spill.

Golf course superintendents and an industry task force formed by MSMA manufacturers APC Holdings, KMG-Bernuth Inc. and Luxembourg-Pamol Inc. responded with their own statistics and scientific reports showing that arsenical herbicides bind with organic material in soil, which minimizes leaching. Joel Jackson, spokesman for the Florida Golf Course Superintendents Association, claimed that levels of arsenic detected are too low to be dangerous, stating, "Dose makes the poison."

In his estimation of the risk posed by exposure to arsenic, Jackson neglected to account for total body burden that humans bear. Most human beings contain within their body a number of chemicals from environmental contamination. As this load increases, so does the potential for chemical sensitivities and other health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released the second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, which detected a total of 89 chemicals in the volunteers tested, including herbicides. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), in partnership with Mt. Sinai School of Community Medicine and Commonweal, released a similar study, Body Burden: The Pollution In People, in which subjects contained an average of 91 compounds, most of which did not exist 75 years ago.

MSMA, which in addition to golf courses is also registered in Florida for use at cemeteries, school playgrounds, parks and residential homes, is linked to adverse effects in neurotoxicity and is a sensitizer and irritant.

There are alternatives to this toxic herbicide, even for golf courses, which are among the most extensive users of pesticides. In fact, use of this and other herbicides can actually be detrimental not only to human health but to the greens themselves. Heavy pesticide use often results in dependency on increasingly larger amounts of pesticides as pests develop resistance to the chemicals, and beneficial insects and plants are inadvertently destroyed. Such chemical excess raises concern about the health and safety of those on the golf course, drift over neighboring communities, water contamination, and effects on wildlife and sensitive ecosystems. Dr. Samuel Epstein, an expert in environmental toxicology at the University of Illinois Medical Center, states, "Golfers are greatly exposed to pesticides. Direct contact encourages absorption of toxic materials through the skin and sometimes ingestion. Recently sprayed pesticides do volatize on hot days, leading to additional risk of inhalation." Some acute symptoms golfers and workers on the course may exhibit due to pesticide exposure include memory loss, fatigue, headaches, nausea and dizziness. Long-term concerns include birth defects, neurological disorders and certain types of cancer. A study commissioned by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) found that golf course superintendents have a higher than average rate of mortality due to cancer, including lung, brain and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Although the study did not establish a cause and effect relationship between pesticides and cancer, it did raise concerns. Dr. Burton Kross, who presented the study, stated, "In light of this study and other health-effect research about pesticides, a prudent strategy for golf course superintendents and their workers is to minimize their exposure to pesticides."

In creating a safer golf course, public education is critical. People walking the course have a right to know the potential dangers. When pesticide spraying takes place, signs should be posted notifying golfers and workers. Danger can be avoided even more so by practicing techniques that dodge the need for pesticides altogether, such as choosing a durable type of grass that will out-compete weeds and incorporating native plant species as part of the turf. The Firethorne Golf Club in Lincoln, NE, for example, uses prairie style roughs. An irrigation system, proper grass height and soil aeration, as well as continual testing of pH and nutrient levels also keeps pest problems in check.

For more information regarding golf and pesticides, see Beyond Pesticides' Golf Program Page.