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SOUTH PORTLAND — Sometimes, it takes a personal struggle to compel someone to work for the greater good.
That’s exactly what inspired Cumberland resident Paul Tukey, best known as a professional landscaper, to put down the pesticides and pick up the microphone to crusade against using chemicals to improve lawns.
The two groups will use the event to test community interest in pursuing citywide limits on the use of lawn pesticides in public parks and athletic fields.
“It’s a big task to undertake,” said Susan Chase, a member of Green South Portland and the Land Trust board of directors. “It’s important to educate people first.”
The workshop will begin at 6 p.m. with showing of the 70-minute documentary, “A Chemical Reaction,” which focuses on Hudson, Quebec’s successful effort to ban synthetic chemical lawn-care products with known side-effects.
That initiative started in 1984, when Dr. June Irwin, a dermatologist, linked some of her patient’s skin conditions to their exposure to chemical pesticides and herbicides.
Tukey, who produced and appears in the film, has become become a leading expert on chemical-free lawns, traveling the country and appearing on national television and radio shows to warn about the dangers of chemical lawn treatments.
But 49-year-old Cumberland resident didn’t need the movie to know the story line.
From 1988-1996, Tukey owned and operated Tukey’s Home ‘n Lawn, which serviced 850 customers with chemical pesticides and herbicides.
“From April to June, all I did was wade through weed and feed,” Tukey said. “It was the most profitable part of my business.”
But after a while, the prolonged exposure to those chemicals caused Tukey to develop an acute chemical sensitivity. After a long day’s work, he would often return home with blurred vision, nose bleeds, muscle twitches and rashes on his ankles – symptoms his doctor linked to his landscaping job.
“I’m still chemically sensitive to this day,” he said. “My wife can’t even wear perfume.”
Tukey, who founded Safelawns.org in 2006 to spread his organic message, said he is driven to change public habits, not only because of the harm he did to himself, but also because he put others at risk. He said he is still haunted by his chemical treatments at a day-care center, where children played in the grass.
“I’m ashamed of the fact that I polluted that whole area,” he said.
Land Trust President Richard Rottkov compared lawn chemicals to an addiction – one that he hopes South Portland landowners can break.
“It’s almost like drug abuse,” Rottkov said. “Your lawn becomes dependent on them.”
Tukey, who authored “The Organic Lawncare Manual” in 2007, acknowledged that homeowners cannot simply switch to an organic weed-killer and get the same results. Instead, homeowners must address the underlying factors in the soil that encourage weeds to grow.
The Friends of Casco Bay will also be at the July 14 workshop to discuss its “Bayscaping” project, which works with waterfront landowners to make natural lawn and garden decisions that will not add pesticides to the Fore River and Casco Bay.
Chase said she hopes that educating the public will eventually lead to the disappearance of those little flags, place after a lawn has been chemically treated to warn people and their pets to stay away.
“It truly bums me out,” she said. “It’s not just their yards they are impacting. It’s me and my dogs and the wildlife.”
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
A scene from the documentary, “A Chemical Reaction,” which will be shown in South Portland on July 14. Here, Cumberland resident Paul Tukey, left, talks with Dr. June Irwin, a Canadian dermatologist.