Public Health & Recreation

Lawn Chemicals Feed Health, Environmental Problems

Be aware of all these flags this spring. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

’Tis the season when the smell of synthetic fertilizer fills the air.

The amount of toxic chemicals dumped on lawns and public grounds annually to jolt grass to life and kill pests is staggering. Witness the many yellow and white flags now stuck in residential lawns throughout southern New England.

There’s a good reason these warning flags are planted. Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides: 17 are probable or possible carcinogens; 11 are linked to birth defects; 19 to reproductive impacts; 24 to liver or kidney damage; 14 possess neurotoxicity; and 18 cause disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Another 16 are toxic to birds; 24 are toxic to aquatic life; and 11 are deadly to bees, according to Beyond Pesticides.

Counting farmers and exterminators, about a billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States to eliminate weeds and insects, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

This heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilizers has turned neighborhood soil into de facto dumping grounds for lawn-care chemicals that threaten public health and the environment.

Scotts fertilizers — the company that sponsors the Johnson & Wales University athletic fields that rim the edge of Narragansett Bay in Providence — and the concoctions driven around in tank trucks generally contain a lot of nitrogen- and phosphorus-laden chemicals. These granules and sprays are often petroleum-based products designed to feed grass until the next application, generally within a few weeks. While these chemicals hang around “feeding your lawn,” they are breaking down and working their way into the environment.

Poisons from these artificial fertilizers can seep into groundwater, or turn to dust and ride the wind. They cling to people and pets who walk, run and lie on treated grass. They get kicked up during youth sporting events.

These chemicals can be inhaled like pollen, causing nausea, coughing, headaches and shortness of breath. For asthmatic kids, they can trigger coughing fits and asthma attacks.

If directly ingested, synthetic chemicals such as ammonium phosphate, potassium chloride and urea can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Studies have shown that these chemicals can linger in body tissue for years.

As stormwater carrying nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runs off into streams and rivers and eventually into larger waterbodies such as Narragansett Bay, Long Island Sound and Buzzards Bay, they impact ecosystems, contaminate drinking-water supplies and cause algae blooms that suck oxygen from water.

Also in those sacks of Scotts fertilizers and in commercial sprayers are pesticides, herbicides and fungicides designed to kill bugs and weeds. “Weed and feed” products like those with 2,4-D are bad for people and pets. A growing body of scientific evidence continues to confirm the widespread health effects of such products, and 2,4-D, the pesticide in most of these products, is a neurotoxicant that contains half the ingredients in Agent Orange, according to Beyond Pesticides.

In fact, pesticides are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency because most are carcinogens or suspected carcinogens. They are also especially bad for children and pregnant women, according to studies.

In Rhode Island, synthetic lawn chemicals are used routinely by about 40 percent of the state’s school districts, according to a 2008 report. State law requires schools using pesticides to inform officials, teachers and parents when pesticides are applied.

The 16-page report noted that pesticide exposure has been linked to a number of chronic health problems, including cancer, birth defects, endocrine disruption, asthma, neurological disorders and immune system deficiencies.

ecoRI News staff Tim Faulkner contributed to this report.

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  1. There’s so much speciousness to unpack in this article, it’s hard to know where to start. My time is limited, so i’ll only mention a few.

    [ "Counting farmers and exterminators, about a billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States to eliminate weeds and insects, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit." ]

    But, if the article is about lawn chemicals, how is this relevant? Significantly more pesticide product is used in agricultural settings than in landscaping.

    [ "…2,4-D, the pesticide in most of these products, is a neurotoxicant that contains half the ingredients in Agent Orange, according to Beyond Pesticides. ]

    2,4-D was one of the two active ingredients in Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the Vietnam War. The other was 2,4,5-T. 2,4,5-T cannot be manufactured without a significant level of dioxin contamination. This was the compound responsible for the mutagenic issues that manifested in the years after the war. So, invoking Agent Orange is pure straw man. Most 2,4-D breaks down relatively quickly in biologically active soil. Neurotoxic effects in mammals requires long-term, significant ingestion.

    [ "In fact, pesticides are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency because most are carcinogens or suspected carcinogens. " ]

    This is pure nonsense. Pesticides have been regulated by federal law in some fashion since the early 20th Century. Early regulation primarily was concerned with quality control. Later revisions (FIFRA) put pesticide regulations put pesticides under the EPA at the federal level, and, usually, under state departments of agriculture at the state level. Regulations have increasingly been concerned with human health and environmental effects. Potential carcinogenicity is not the only or even primary reason why a pesticide falls under EPA regulation.

    Scheduled lawn applications are problematic, and, by the nature of how they are designed, tend to over-apply more product than is needed. A good case could be made for taking these kinds of products off the market.

    But toxicity and potential for human health and environmental issues varies not only with the particular chemistry, but with how they are applied, and how often. Not all uses of all "chemicals" result in the dire consequences this article would have us think.

    Nick Novick
    Small Planet Landscaping

  2. The CDC states that 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are used across the country …. and that’s repeated annually. That means hefty profit for the chemical industry, but not so good for the rest of us. Thank you for this excellent article. I’ll share it! This is information we need to spread!

  3. these also need to be banned from application in Newport and hopefully all of RI. We are right by the water. Absolutely should be banned from a city and state level if possible.

  4. We are having earlier and earlier algae blooms in Narragansett Bay. Please think about the health of our drinking water and the bay when applying "lawn chemicals". Grass wants to grow! If you do nothing, the grass still grows and is green until August when it naturally goes dormant and brown. It will come back.

  5. Most lawn chemicals have been banned in Europe. The state of Maryland is trying to ban them there. WE need to do more of this. There is so much potential for catastrophy in the aisles of Ace Hardware.

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