SOUTH PORTLAND — Commercial pesticides have the potential for serious health effects while also contributing to environmental pollution, according to experts who spoke at a recent city-sponsored meeting on how to grow pesticide-free lawns.

The Aug. 31 event at South Portland High School was held in advance of an ordinance that will prohibit residents from using pesticides on their landscapes beginning next spring. It was sponsored by the city and Bees, Bays and Backyards, a program of Protect South Portland.

The workshop, attended by several dozen people, also outlined methods and reasons for growing a healthy landscape without using offensive chemicals. 

The City Council passed an ordinance Sept. 7, 2016, that bans synthetic pesticides from turf, landscape and outdoor pest management activities. The exceptions are those listed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “allowed substances.”

The ordinance, which went into effect for municipal properties – excluding golf courses – on May 1, will go into effect on May 1, 2018 for residents. A year later the pesticide ban will be put in place for both the municipal golf course and the privately owned Sable Oaks Golf Club.

The ordinance does not apply to poisonous plants such as poison ivy, pests of significant health importance, such as ticks and mosquitoes, and destructive insects, such as carpenter ants and termites. 

During the workshop, Jay Feldman, national director of the advocacy group Beyond Pesticides, based in Washington, D.C., spoke about the dangers of pesticides. Chip Osborne, a national lawn care expert and member of Beyond Pesticides of Marblehead, Massachusetts, gave tips on growing an organic landscape and alternatives to having a lawn.

‘These materials kill living things’

Feldman told the audience the active ingredients in pesticides “are by nature biologically and chemically active against the target pest, be it an insect or fungus. By definition, these materials kill living things.”

Feldman stressed that not only does the active ingredient in pesticides pose a problem to the health and welfare of people and the environment, but other ingredients can pose an even greater risk.

He said inert ingredients that manufacturers don’t have to disclose are often as toxic as the active ingredients. Inerts  – most are petrochemicals such as benzene, toluene or xylene – make up the largest portion of pesticide products, according to Feldman, who also warned residents that pesticides can include contaminants and impurities that are hazardous.

Feldman added that metabolites, which are also often more “hazardous than the active ingredients,” are formed when pesticides are mixed with air, water, soil or living organisms.

According to Feldman, there have been 763 studies linking pesticide exposure to health outcomes, including 359 studies on cancer. He said of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 16 are suspected carcinogens; 17 are known or suspected to affect the human hormonal system; 25 cause kidney or liver damage and many are linked to birth defects or are reproductive toxicants.

Of the same 30 pesticides, he said, 19 are groundwater contaminants and almost all are toxic to birds, aquatic life, and bees.

The grass can be greener

Osborne said another reason for growing organic is “because we want the landscape to get better,” which, he said, is even more possible because the salt and chemicals used in conventional pesticides and fertilizers harm the soil. 

Osborne said prime grass-growing season for the area begins around Labor Day and continues for about eight weeks, when important sideways root growth occurs.

Osborne told the audience that “we need to a adopt a systems-based approach” rather than replace one product for another. 

“There is absolutely too much grass in the world. That is not to say that we shouldn’t have some around our homes,” Osborne said. He said other options besides grass are perennials, and residents should consider native plant species as often as possible.

Osborne said organic fertilizers are more cost-effective than many people realize because less is needed than conventional fertilizers. He added that kelp and seaweed, although not considered to be fertilizers or soil amendments, are good additions to a lawn care program.

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.


Jay Feldman, national director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Beyond Pesticides, speaks at an Aug. 31 workshop at South Portland High School on how to grow healthy, pesticide-free lawns.