NASHUA, N.H. — It’s very easy to identify a problem and try to solve it with efforts that seem logical on the surface, only to find that the solution actually makes the problem worse – it’s called “the law of unintended consequences.” Last month, we saw just that.

Ogunquit voters passed a ballot initiative banning both homeowners and professionals from using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on private property.

Supporters of the measure have hailed its passage as a key step in respecting critical environmental systems and making the environment healthier for our families. While these supporters can be applauded for their goals, they have missed the mark.

A healthy lawn stands second only to forest soil in its ability to capture and filter pollutants. While it seems counterintuitive, research clearly shows that adding the proper amount of fertilizer to a lawn at the right time helps minimize pollutants in our water supply.

How? The ability of grass to filter pollutants increases as its density increases. More plants equal more filtration. These plants have an incredible root system that not only allows the grass to trap pollutants, but also retain rainwater that would otherwise be lost to runoff. The dense canopy of a lawn serves to dissipate the energy of falling rain, allowing it to soak in.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “These pesticides are toxic, and we shouldn’t use them at all.” The old adage in toxicology is “the dose makes the poison,” which is why some people find it acceptable to use the most toxic substance known to mankind as a cure for wrinkles. If Botox can be made acceptable, doesn’t it stand to reason that the same is true of pesticides?


Today, licensed applicators are taught to evaluate before applying and use spot application techniques instead of broadcasting over the entire lawn area.

The truth of the matter is that pesticides are more technologically advanced and used more sparingly than ever before. Some products do not even require a warning label and are so nontoxic that the Environmental Protection Agency has designated them as either exempt or minimum risk products.

Unlike Botox, which is used mostly for cosmetic purposes, pesticides are used to protect plants from predators and disease and to keep lawns from inadvertently allowing more pollutants to escape into Maine’s groundwater.

Surely, by utilizing organic sources, Ogunquit residents are protecting groundwater, right? It’s not that simple. “Organic” is not always synonymous with “safe” or “good for the environment.”

Surface waters can be polluted by phosphorus, and the largest source of phosphorus in the environment is the innocuous tree leaf. Over half of phosphorus pollution can be traced to tree leaves – and they’re completely organic.

Organic fertilizers like Milorganite – a byproduct of processing municipal sewage sludge – and NatureSafe – a byproduct of the poultry industry – contain phosphorus or heavy metals that cannot be removed in the manufacturing process.


Alternately, the lawn care industry voluntarily removed inorganic phosphorus from standard lawn fertilizers years ago for the betterment of the environment. I’ll bet you didn’t know that.

Your lawn is also the largest environmental consumer of the element nitrogen, and specifically a lawn care product called urea.

Urea is “synthetic,” because it is created when nitrogen in the atmosphere reacts to natural gas. But here’s where things get interesting.

Urea is an organic compound – you and I are manufacturing the exact same molecule in our bodies right now and will pass it off in our urine. Properly understood, urea is a synthetic organic fertilizer – synthetic because it is manufactured, organic because it is a molecule containing carbon.

Not so cut and dried, is it?

The majority of nitrogen pollution in surface and groundwater comes from household septic systems. Lawn fertilizers are a minor contributor to nitrogen pollution, and through common-sense practices and proper application techniques, it can be nearly eliminated. By prohibiting synthetic fertilizer, Ogunquit will accomplish nothing in reducing water pollution.

Turfgrass professionals practice environmental stewardship every day by ensuring that lawn care programs are created with both integrated pest management and best management practices as their core.

It is through the research and recommendations of scientists not only in Maine, but also throughout New England – people who make it their life’s work to understand the role of turfgrass in the environment – that we maximize not only the enjoyment of our lawns, but also their important role in keeping our environment clean.

— Special to the Press Herald

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