Many people apply lawn chemicals on their properties to achieve the much-touted gorgeous, green, weed-free lawn. Lawn chemicals, however, can be deadly.
“The entire U.S. population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals, some of which are used in residential and commercial landscaping,” according to the latest edition of a report called Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, by the President’s Cancer Panel.
The report continues, “Many of the chemicals have known or suspected carcinogenic [cancer-causing] or endocrine [hormone]-disrupting properties.”
Pesticides approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use on people’s lawns -- insecticides, herbicides plus fertilizers --contain almost 900 “active” ingredients, many of which are toxic to humans and other living creatures. Pesticides also contain solvents, fillers and other “inert” ingredients -- ones that the federal government doesn’t require to be tested for their potential to cause cancer and other diseases. All these chemicals, both the active and inert ingredients in them, are heavy contributors to water pollution and therefore contaminate our drinking water. As the report says, some of the same fertilizers and pesticides that people use to obtain a perfect lawn are ones that agribusiness uses on our growing food.
"Using lawn chemicals is similar to cigarette smoke in that it’s not just a personal thing that affects just the smoker."
The report also says, “Homeowners can be exposed to fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides when they mow their lawns after chemicals have recently been applied and by handling and applying chemicals themselves.”
Children are especially at risk because of their rapidly developing bodies. They undergo exposure to lawn chemicals when playing in areas treated with those chemicals. Further, people can be exposed by swimming in or eating fish from contaminated bodies of water.
Even if you wear elaborate, expensive clothing that protects you from pesticides when you apply them, you’re still polluting the environment, maiming and killing pets and wild animals and exterminating the minute, beneficial organisms that keep the soil healthy.
Lawn chemicals’ ill effects have come to the attention of Bloomington resident Diane Jung, who recently joined the Bloomington Environmental Commission. Jung founded a small organization, Lawns for Life, that educates people about lawn chemicals so they cease using them.
Jung is gradually replacing the grass on her property with others plants, among them a small, deer-proof vegetable garden, flowers, bushes and trees.
LG:: What is Lawns for Life?
DJ: Lawns for Life is a task force affiliated with the Bloomington Environmental Commission and the Center for Sustainable Living. It consists of a group of people who are interested in increasing awareness about lawn chemicals and the harmful effects to the soil and all the things that rely on that soil for their life, including people and particularly children and pets and wildlife. Imagine birds getting their food out of toxic soil; it’s dangerous for them as well.
Lawns for Life signs are available to anyone who wishes to help promote this cause by putting the sign in their yard to indicate their lawn is safe and toxin-free. Brochures are also available at an informational table at the Farmer’s Market.
We’re saying in a positive way, “Stop using poisons on your lawn" and that your lawn can be a place that nurtures life rather than hindering it because of the use of lawn chemicals. We’re also about trying to change people’s perceptions of what we’ve been conditioned to think is a beautiful yard. That’s not to say your yard shouldn't look nice, but it doesn’t have to look nice in standard ways in order for you to be considered a good lawn citizen. In recent years, there is a lot of concern about the global environment. Lawns for Life offers a way of thinking that can bring this home in a very real way and gives us the opportunity to take action to nurture our own piece of the planet.
LG:: How did you happen to start Lawns for Life?
DJ: I am sensitive to toxins as a result of a job that I had a very long time ago when I worked with leather-dye chemicals. Several people who worked with the leather dye became very sick quickly and had to quit their jobs. I didn’t have immediate reactions, but over time my ability to process toxins in my body just didn’t work well. I had bad reactions to things like cigarette smoke, car exhaust, paint and other common toxins. I found myself having similar adverse reactions to lawn chemicals.
At this time I was jogging regularly with a friend and it became sort of a game; as we’d be jogging along, I’d say, “We’re going to see one of those yard flags sometime soon." And, sure enough, every time, there it was, the little yard flag warning that poisonous lawn chemicals had been applied. And, by the way, those little flags are mandatory for commercial lawn services per the Indiana Pesticide Review.
I found it then, and still do, astonishing that people would do such a thing to their yards, putting themselves, their families, and pets at such risk. So, I said to my jogging friend, ”One of these days, I’m going to have my own yard sign that says, “I am not poisoning my yard, and therefore I’m not poisoning anyone else either."
Using lawn chemicals is similar to cigarette smoke in that it’s not just a personal thing that affects just the smoker. I can feel ill from applications that are applied in my neighborhood. But not only that, in the long term it's going into the soil and eventually contaminates our sources of drinking water. Like many things over the years, such as cigarettes, lead paint, asbestos, and we could add many other things we thought were harmless, we now know otherwise.
But even knowing of the harms, we are so slow to change! Again, using cigarettes as an example, back in that day, smoking was considered sophisticated and the educated smoked. In the film the King's Speech, a doctor even recommends smoking to calm nerves.
"Even knowing of the harms, we are so slow to change!"
Companies market their toxic lawn chemicals using the motivation that we need this in order to have this “look” for the desired good lawn citizen status, as someone who cares about what your yard looks like and who helps to maintain the neighborhood property values. This way of thinking is engrained in us by marketing of lawn chemicals and is very big business, especially so in our country.
So it’s all a bit complicated and difficult to convince people of the truths about lawn chemicals. Some people don’t seem to want to be convinced lawn chemicals are bad, and others truly believe they’re not. Someone even recently said to me “They wouldn’t sell us something if it was harmful.”
Getting back to your question of how this got started, the idea came around 15-20 years ago. At that time though I think I was too angry about feeling poorly from being exposed to these lawn chemicals, and I couldn’t put a positive bent on my ideas. However, I never stopped thinking about it, but I seemed to have convinced myself it was just me and my hypersensitivity and perhaps I had some hesitancy about taking on the challenges of this topic.
But then I started hearing more and more about the problems with it truly being harmful in both a personal and much bigger environmental global sense.
One day I ran into a City Council member who I talked to about my ideas, and he then shared this with the Bloomington Environmental Commission. Soon after, I was invited to give a presentation to them, and this is when it all finally got started.
That was late 2008. From there I started meeting with a few people, primarily Heather Reynolds, a professor in biology at IU, and Lucille Bertuccio, an IU professor and also with Bloomington's Center for Sustainable Living. We brainstormed, trying to come up with a positive slogan, and when "Lawns for Life" came up, we all liked it. Lawns for Life is also about diversity and turning your yard into more than a lawn.
"One day I hope that having a toxin-free lawn will contribute to the property value of a home and a neighborhood in Bloomington."
I’m doing that myself but feel we need to especially target lawn chemicals because that’s the urgent problem. As people address this issue of making their lawns non-toxic, I hope it will grow into other ideas. This certainly has been the case for me. Now I take into consideration the birds, rabbits, and other wildlife who also call my yard their home. It's such a nice way to consider my yard.
LG:: What is your goal for the program?
DJ: One day I hope that having a toxin-free lawn will contribute to the property value of a home and a neighborhood in Bloomington. Our goal is to help people think about their lawns, consider why they use lawn chemicals, be convincing that lawn chemicals are not necessary and in fact, harmful, and then ultimately to result in safer and healthier decisions about their lawn care.
Other more lofty goals for the rather near future are to contribute to a consensus and tipping point where the Lawns for Life concept becomes mainstream and the norm. Ultimately, I would like to see a ban against using toxins on lawns in Bloomington and far beyond in our country.
How my own yard looks is important to me. I’m an artist, and aesthetics matter to me, but if given a choice between a nontoxic yard that was attractive to me versus a yard that looked nice (according to how we've been taught), I would definitely choose the nontoxic yard. I would hope that some day everyone would feel that way, but I would also hope that people would continue with the aesthetics, having that be something important within their abilities.
My hope is to find a middle ground where proponents of different yard styles are not offensive to each other. Compromise on both ends of this spectrum seems needed and most worthwhile to reach the goal of toxin-free lawns as the norm.
LG:: Have you had any problems with pesticide companies?
DJ: Lawns for Life isn’t big enough to start have problems with pesticide or lawn care companies. There are some larger groups concerned with this issue, such as SafeLawns.org.
"Lawns for Life signs are available to anyone who wishes to help promote this cause by putting the sign in their yard to indicate their lawn is safe and toxin-free."
There are some indications that concerns about lawn chemicals are being noticed by these companies, however. Their marketing more and more “suggests” their products to be all about nature. Some have changed the name of their company and in their advertising picture lush green lawns along with flowers as well as children playing on the lawn along with their pets.
Green is now “in,” and the companies are using this in their marketing approaches. Some companies have created a green line of products.
LG:: Any final remarks?
DJ: I’m optimistic that the people of Bloomington will come to the conclusion that it is not logical, nor practical, nor wise to continue the practice of using lawn chemicals -- and rally to serve as a great example for other communities to follow. What gives me the most consolation is knowing there are so many who dedicated their lives and their academic professions to creating a safe and healthy Bloomington.
Each of us must realize that we all have responsibility to nurture our own piece of the planet, and, all added up, this will make the difference for the well-being of the entire world.
Linda Greene can be reached at .
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Diane Jung, .