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Say 'yes' to a beautiful lawn, 'no' to toxic chemicals

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Say 'yes' to a beautiful lawn, 'no' to toxic chemicals

It’s May. That means that, by now, you’ve seen all the television commercials for dandelion control. By June, we’ll be bombarded with the ads for insect controls for our lawns and gardens. One product in particular boasts that it kills more than 200 insects on contact, as if that’s a good thing.

And when we’re done buying all those weed killers, insect killers and fungicides — otherwise grouped under the term pesticides — United States homeowners will have applied somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 to 100 million pounds of toxins around our dwellings and businesses. Where our children play. Where our cats and dogs roam.

Many communities are just saying no to this cultural malaise that makes us think we need to apply pesticides to keep up with the lawn Joneses. More than three quarters of Canada has already banned products like weed ’n feed and Roundup due to their impacts on health and the environment. The community of Marblehead, Mass., was the first in the United States to prohibit pesticides from town properties back in 1998. Connecticut stopped applying pesticides around school lawns and playing fields in grades K-8 in 2005 and on May 5 the New York legislature passed similar legislation that will take effect statewide in 2011.

Closer to home, New Hampshire may be poised to take things a step further. The legislature in our neighboring state is considering passage of HB 1456, a bill that would study the effect of a pesticide ban on both public and private property. Predictably, the lawn care industry is outraged. Some homeowners are ready to revolt.

“What I do on my own property is none of your damn business!” said one Letter to the Editor of the local newspaper in New Hampshire. “Pesticides are safe when used as directed,” said another.

The legislator who sponsored the bill, Suzanne Smith, said she had no idea how emotional people would get about this issue of dandelions on their lawns. An actual law in New Hampshire will undoubtedly take more than a year to pass through the full House and Senate, but she is undeterred by the naysayers.

“I’m doing this for the children,” she said. “The literature is very clear that pesticides are not safe for children. The packages say Keep Out of the Reach of Children, so how can it be safe to apply these products to the lawns where they play?”

The truth is that it is now illegal to make safety claims about pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged that absolute safety can never be guaranteed where pesticides are concerned. EPA approval of a product is simply a risk-benefit analysis of health and environmental risks weighed against economic benefits. In most cases, those risks and benefits are borne by differing members of society. In other words, the chemical companies and applicators get the money and the homeowners, ponds, lakes, rivers, oceans, etc. bear the risks.

“Many of these (lawn and garden) chemicals have known or suspected carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting properties,” said a report released this month by a non-partisan government health agency known as the President’s Cancer Panel. “Pesticides approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contain nearly 900 active ingredients, many of which are toxic.”

While this pesticide debate is sure to rage onward in New Hampshire and elsewhere for years to come, Maine shouldn’t wait around any longer. Four towns — Camden, Castine, Rockport and Ogunquit — are to be applauded for passing local policies that restrict pesticides on public property. As the state level, though, legislators need to at least follow the lead of Connecticut and New York and protect our children at school.

Folks also need to embrace the local resources such as FriendsofCascoBay.org, YardScaping.org, and SafeLawns.org that offer information on how to maintain an attractive, safe landscape. Shoppers should avail themselves of the organic offerings at Estabrooks, Skillins and elsewhere and vote with their wallets by avoiding the toxic chemicals. The natural products work; you just need to learn how to use them properly.

You see, no one is saying you shouldn’t have a beautiful lawn. We’re just trying to show you how to keep it green without poisons.

Paul Tukey is the founder of SafeLawns.org and the author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual. He can be reached with comments for questions at paul@safelawns.org.