HARBORSIDE — Eyes are on Portland, where key city councilors were recently presented by the group Portland Protectors with a draft ordinance prohibiting the sale and application of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for use in outdoor settings, public and private.

To its credit, the city no longer applies herbicides around public schools or on lawns in municipal parks. Still, however, there is a policy of spraying sidewalks, traffic islands and other public spaces. And thousands of homeowners spray, or pay others to spray, herbicides and insecticides on their lawns.

Add to those the other private entities – golf courses, hospitals, schools, etc. – waging war on weeds and insects, and it’s no wonder that birds, bees and other pollinators are undergoing massive declines.

Submitted to the City Council’s Transportation, Sustainability & Energy Committee, the draft ordinance includes a sentence stating that the presence of weeds, vegetative overgrowth and common fungal diseases does not constitute an emergency and thus should not warrant a waiver. This precautionary approach is arguably the ordinance’s greatest strength, and we must count on the good sense of Portland residents to ensure that it is retained, along with stringent enforcement provisions.

Overzealous advocates for the chemical eradication of “invasive” plants must learn from biologists like Mark Davis and David Theodoropoulos (cited in the article “Weed Whackers,” in the current issue of Harper’s magazine) that there are other ways of assessing the role of such plant species – as well as controlling nuisance vegetation like poison ivy.

Likewise, before any toxic control strategy is adopted to combat mosquitoes or ticks, advice should be sought from those with proven expertise in heading off such infestations, such as Beyond Pesticides (Beyond Pesticides.org) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER.org).

When Paul Tukey – founder of safelawns.org and a national leader in the movement toward organic lawns – lived and worked as an organic landscaper in the Portland area, he taught thousands of people to build healthy soil for lawns that require no chemical inputs. His methods – a blueprint for lawn-care companies to capture niche-market opportunities – are an eco-friendly alternative to the industrial lawn.

In the system used by the national lawn care company TruGreen, chemicals like the weed killer glyphosate (Roundup) and the bug killer malathion, both newly classified as “probably carcinogenic,” pose threats not only to those who apply them but also to abutting neighbors. Children and pets are particularly at risk for cancer and damage to all organ systems, especially (in the case of insecticides) to the brain.

And when weeds and insects become resistant to chemicals sprayed on them, more applications of still more toxic substances are added on. Thus, as Roundup and other herbicides lose effectiveness, we are seeing formulations of glyphosate combined with 2,4-D (an ingredient in Agent Orange).

No longer can chemical manufacturers claim that damage from their products depends on the dose. Exposure to only minute amounts of some compounds – those in the combination weed killer-fertilizer products known as “weed-and-feed,” for example – cause endocrine disruption, which is linked to abnormalities in reproductive function, neurological and developmental disorders and physical deformities in both humans and wildlife.

After several years of recent monitoring, Friends of Casco Bay reported finding pesticides in water sampled at 13 sites along the coast between Portland and Brunswick. Among the chemicals identified are 2,4-D (the herbicide used in weed-and-feed products) and propiconazole (a fungicide).

Only two of the scores of pesticides sprayed on turf to kill insects as well as weeds and fungal diseases, these poisons invariably drift away from their targets, causing harm to people, domestic animals and aquatic life.

With rising sea levels and the threat of catastrophic storm surges during hurricane season, every emergency-preparedness plan must anticipate unsecured chemicals – yet another reason to prohibit pesticides that can more easily contaminate waterways, wells and reservoirs when raging currents move them around.

Next April, when Beyond Pesticides’ annual national forum is held in Portland, we hope to have charted significant progress. (For more information about Portland Protectors, see the group’s Facebook page.) We hope and expect that Portland’s forward thinking, like that in South Portland and Ogunquit, will inspire other towns and cities to follow their stellar example.

It can’t happen too soon. Grass genetically engineered to withstand Roundup is about to hit the market.

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