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Daily News Blog

03
Dec

High Income, Peer-Pressure Correlated with Chemical-Intensive Yard Care Practices

(Beyond Pesticides, December 3, 2019) Common yard care practices are driven by income, age, geography, and peer-pressure, according to research funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the journal PLOS ONE. Lawns cover 63,000 sq ft in the United States, four times as much land as corn, making them the largest crop in the country. So while decisions over whether to irrigate, fertilize, or spray pesticides are made at the household level, even minor changes in practices could have major impacts on the environment.

“The apparent widespread nature of industrial lawncare, and the well-known associated negative environmental effects at the local-scale suggest a need to better understand the drivers, outcomes, and geographic variation in yard care practices, across the U.S.,” the study reads.

Researchers surveyed over 7,000 households in six major U.S. metropolitan areas, including Boston, Baltimore, Miami, Minneapolis-St Paul, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. Participants responded with their age, income level, the number of neighbors they know by name, and whether they used pesticides, fertilizers, or irrigated their yard within the last year.  Overall, the survey found that 80% of people irrigate their yard, 64% fertilize, and 53% apply pesticides.

Unsurprisingly, individuals living in water-starved areas like Phoenix and Los Angeles are more likely to have irrigated their yards than those living in cooler, wetter climates. Irrigation also increases 8% when homeowners know their neighbors by name. Individuals who know their neighbors are also 9% more likely to fertilize their lawns. And age is also associated with a similar increase in the likelihood of fertilizer use.

The most significant association is found between income level and land management practices. Higher income individuals are 23% more likely to irrigate their property, 26% more likely to fertilize, and 16% more likely to apply pesticides.

“It’s eye-opening that most people felt they needed to water their lawns and apply pesticides,” says Doug Levey, PhD, a program director in NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research through its Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research site. “If neighbors expect this of each other, more and more lawns will be treated in these ways. The ecological and economic costs would also increase.”

Pesticide use on home lawns is associated with a range of diseases and health impacts. As Beyond Pesticides has documented, of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 16 are linked to cancer, 17 are endocrine disruptors, 21 are reproductive toxicants, 12 are linked to birth defects, 14 are neurotoxic, 25 cause kidney liver effects, and 26 are irritants. Lawn pesticides also harm pets, contaminate water, kill off wildlife, and disrupt proper ecosystem functioning.

Synthetic fertilizers can present similar health concerns, with nitrate pollution linked to birth defects, cancers, and thyroid problems. Their use damages soil microorganisms, impeding their ability to sequester carbon. They’ve been known to run-off or leach through groundwater into rivers, lakes and streams, resulting in eutrophication and oftentimes massive dead zones. A major drawback with the current study is that the authors did not differentiate whether the fertilizers used were organic or synthetic. By working alongside natural processes and feeding microorganisms in the soil, organic fertilizers pose significantly less risk than their synthetic counterparts.

The study provides some important insights into how the country can move in a better direction in the management of our own lawns and landscapes. The general finding that many are “keeping up with the Joneses” indicates that higher income households and those who know their neighbors are more likely to employ potentially hazardous and resource-intensive practices. In that sense, those in a community who make the switch toward less-intensive organic land care can set an example that their neighbors are likely to follow.

States and communities are already working to incentivize safer practices on home lawns and landscapes, with some encouraging folks to ditch their lawn all together. Minnesota recently established a program to pay homeowners to turn their lawns into bee-friendly habitat, appropriately addressing the issue raised in the study that cost may be an impediment to home landscape management. More and more local communities are passing policies that protect pollinators, and stop toxic pesticide use on home yards. And some, like South Portland, ME, are considering expanding pesticide restrictions to include synthetic fertilizers.

For more information on safer lawn care practices, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Lawn Care 101 and Read Your Weeds fact sheets. Before resorting to a toxic pesticide, check out the ManageSafe webpage to see if you can manage your weed or pest problem without chemicals. Most importantly, if you’re limiting hazardous lawn care practices on your yard, make sure to tell your neighbors about your success, and encourage them to follow suit.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: National Science Foundation, PLOS ONE

 

 

 

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