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Scarborough group floats pesticide prohibition for town property

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Scarborough group floats pesticide prohibition for town property

SCARBOROUGH — A nation of men wakes up to technicolor-green grass, perfectly manicured on the Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia.

The year is 1967, and the Masters Tournament is being broadcast in color for the first time.

Cumberland-based "safe-lawn" activist Paul Tukey says that's the moment that changed everything, creating the culture of the pristine, weed-free lawn. It wasn't long, he said, before the pesticide advertisers were cashing in.

"All the men in the country said, 'Wow, look at that grass!'" he said. "And they wanted it.”

Nearly 30 years later, Tukey was a commercial landscaper in Falmouth when he found himself in the hospital with blurred vision and a bloody nose. The doctors said it may have been caused by the pesticides he was using on people's lawns every day.

Since then, he has become a leading voice against the use of synthetic pesticides, creating films, going on speaking tours and writing books on the subject.

One of the people he inspired was Marla Zando, a Scarborough resident who leads a group called Citizens for a Green Scarborough. They want a town policy against the chemical weed- and bug-killers. 

Zando said she felt compelled to look into the town's pesticide use after reading an article written by Tukey.

“I started doing research, and the town started looking at the issue with me in December," she said. After learning landscapers hired by the town predominantly used synthetic pesticides, she was motivated to do more.

"We need to be less concerned about having a perfect-looking lawn," she said. "We need to be OK with some species of weeds. ... I'd rather have dandelions than have pesticides sprayed to kill them. These chemicals are made to kill living things. It's a big concern of mine.”

Citizens for a Green Scarborough has been working with town's Ordinance Committee since January, crafting a proposed policy that would prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides on town-owned property. It's expected to go before the Town Council this month.

The policy would also create a Pest Management Advisory Committee to develop and oversee a program that works without synthetics, the widespread use of which the policy calls "a major environmental problem and a public health issue."

The policy also outlines "allowable products" that could be used to control unwanted plant and insect life. The products include natural or organic pesticides, as well as other insects, such as lady beetles, which can be introduced to kill off other kinds of unwanted bugs.

Town Manager Tom Hall said that while the town's contractors use chemical pesticides, they are probably not the worst offenders in the town.

“Probably the average homeowner is the worst offender, and I count myself among that," Hall said. "We're naive, and end up using more product than we need.”

Hall said professionals know how much product to use and try not to use any more than that because it's not cost effective. He also said they try not to use chemicals in conditions where it could spread to other properties, like rainy or windy days.

Despite that, the proposal only instructs the town to prohibit pesticides on its own property – parks, playgrounds and playing fields. Hall said doing any more than that might be perceived as government overreach. But the way the science of less dangerous pesticides is moving, Hall said it may be moot.

“Policy or no policy, I have no doubt that over time we'll convert, but we need time and experience," he said.

To that end, the town is conducting an experiment behind Town Hall.

On one portion of a field, they're going to continue to use synthetic pesticides. On another part, they'll take the organic approach. That way, they'll have a side-by-side comparison. 

Hall also pointed out that while environmental and health concerns are very real – all synthetic pesticides carry a label warning the user to keep the product away from children – the chemical stuff is often more effective.

Because of that, there's a provision in the policy proposal that would allow the use of traditional pesticides in emergencies or when all other methods didn't work. 

Tukey said he's OK with that, although he's unsure how often it might happen.

“If some pest is going to harm people, then use the chemical," he said. "But dandelions never hurt anyone.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.