Towns and cities nationwide are going organic in the management of land within their jurisdictions because it eliminates the use of chemicals that have known environmental and public health hazards.
Maine is on the forefront for good reason, being a coastal state with waterways that need protection and steeped in the tradition of marine biologist Rachel Carson, who, with the publication of “Silent Spring” over 50 years ago, alerted the nation to the adverse effects of DDT and other pesticides on people and wildlife.
Since the 1960s, as U.S. pesticide use to kill insects, weeds and fungus has climbed to nearly a billion pounds a year, with per-acre use in parks, home lawns and golf courses in some cases higher than in agriculture, a number of safety myths have emerged and are voiced in Charles McNutt’s June 17 Maine Voices on South Portland’s proposed lawn-pesticide ban.
• Myth 1: Our health is adequately protected by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Maine Board of Pesticides Control.
While Maine relies on the EPA for the underlying assessment of pesticides’ legal use patterns and allowable harm, epidemiologic and laboratory studies link pesticide use to disease outcomes, including cancer, neurological and immune system effects, reproductive disorders, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, respiratory problems and learning disabilities.
The effects on vulnerable population groups, such as children and those with pre-existing health conditions, are elevated. The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in 2012: “Children encounter pesticides daily and have unique susceptibilities to their potential toxicity. … Recognizing and reducing problematic exposures will require attention to current inadequacies in medical training, public health tracking and regulatory action on pesticides.”
• Myth 2: The environment is adequately protected by the EPA and the state.
The ecological hazards of pesticides and their impact on complex biological systems in nature are even less studied than human health effects. With the severe decline of bees and other pollinators, the EPA recently acknowledged that bees experience many indirect exposure pathways to a widely used bee-toxic insecticide, such as contaminated surface water, plant sap, soil and leaves, and said it “lacks information to understand the relative importance of these other routes of exposure and/or to quantify risks from these other routes.”
This deficiency extends to the life-sustaining microbiome, or microbes, in the soil and in mammalian species, performing critical digestive, immune and biological functions.
• Myth 3: EPA toxicity classifications assess the full range of acute and chronic effects.
The toxicity classification of pesticide products does not tell the full story because it is limited to immediate effects and not long-term illnesses, such as cancer. Equally important, incomplete data are not a part of the classification. So the public is not aware that the pesticides have not been tested for their ability to disrupt the endocrine system, the message center of the body, or the increased toxicity associated with mixtures of multiple pesticides on a treated lawn or playing field.
• Myth 4: Pesticides used on private and public property stay where they are used.
Pesticides move off the use site through drift and runoff. Those not allowed for indoor use find their way into houses through air currents and being tracked inside. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the overwhelming majority of the most popular pesticides have been detected in surface waters, including popular herbicides.
In referring to various pollutants, including pesticides and fertilizers, the Maine Department of Environment Protection states on its website, “Individually small amounts of pollutants may seem insignificant, but collectively they add up to create the largest source of pollution to Maine’s waters.” As a result, pesticide use on all property is a community public and environmental health concern.
• Myth 5: Beautiful lawns require toxic pesticides.
Toxic pesticides are not necessary for beautiful turf, just as they are not needed in a $40 billion organic food industry. Organic turf systems focus on building soil health to support healthy lawns that do not threaten the health of children and pets that play on them.
Numerous practices and organic-compatible products work in concert with nature to enhance soil biology and the resiliency of grass and other plants, and cycle nutrients naturally. They also reduce energy and water use, sequester atmospheric carbon and provide business opportunities for retailers and service providers. It’s a win-win for health, the environment and business.