The Pesticide of Last Resort

In the summer showdown between lawn-care lobbyists and parents against toxic sprays, whose grass is greener? Connecticut’s finding out.

You see them everywhere this time of year—little yellow flags emblazoned with a circle and a line through a couple of stick-figure children. “Pesticide Application,” they warn, “Please Keep Off.” So parents keep the kids playing inside on a warm afternoon, rather than outside on the grass.

Connecticut kids are luckier than most. Last fall, the state became the first to ban the use of pesticides (which includes herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides) on the grounds of elementary and middle schools—a decision that has put it at the forefront of a nationwide movement, and also in the crosshairs of the multibillion dollar lawn-care industry. For the rest of the country, it sends a clear message. “It says that aesthetic uses of chemicals are unacceptable especially when children are exposed,” says Jay Feldman, executive director of Washington-based Beyond Pesticides.

One common herbicide in popular “weed and feed” lawn-care products, 2,4-D, constituted about 50 percent of Agent Orange, and has been linked to birth defects, neurological problems, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and liver and kidney damage. In Canada, as many as 160 municipalities have banned the use of pesticides with 2,4-D.

More than 78 million households in the US use home and garden pesticides, feeding pesticide sales that top $9.3 billion a year. Part of the problem is the lawn-care industry’s successful shaping of public perception, says Ted Steinberg, the author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn. “The PR machine coming out of Scotts is spending millions to convince the public that they need toxic chemicals to manage a home lawn,” he says. The lawn-industry lobby has also succeeded in prohibiting a municipality from having pesticide regulations that are stronger than the state’s.

To win the ban in Connecticut, a coalition of health care professionals and policy experts named Environment and Human Health, Inc. prepared several reports on lawn pesticides, one of which anti-pesticide groups nicknamed “the bible.” Among other things, the group found pesticides in 6 out of 53 local wells. They also discovered there were few laws covering the use of pesticides in schools. But, because of the preemption laws, there was little the towns could do. “Anyone could spray with no training,” says Nancy Alderman, founder and president of EHHI.

Lawn-care lobbyists have been fighting back. Richard Tice, executive director of both the Connecticut Grounds Keepers Association and the Environmental Industry Council of Connecticut (formerly named the Professional Pesticide Users of Connecticut), calls the bill “asinine.” A better approach, he says, is integrated pest management, or IPM, a strategy that recommends pesticide use as a last resort. Tice, for now, is not too worried about his industry’s future. “The normal person just doesn’t care,” he says, “Look at the amount of yellow signs you see out there. If the concern was there amongst the general public, then no one would apply pesticides.”