Sunday, December 18, 2005

America's Turf Terror (IV)

The former members of the 9/11 commission said recently that the U.S. Congress and the White House have done a miserable job protecting the country from another terrorist attack. Especially harsh criticism was leveled against Congress for not securing chemical plants. Surprised? Why? The industry has been buying politicians for years, as well as deliberately misleading the public.

One of the national lawn care companies states in its sales brochure that it's got chemicals for early spring to deal with "winter stresses." In the early summer it has chemicals to help you "prepare" for the nasty summer. In the early fall the candy man has the elixir to help your sensitive mono-turf recover from the "stresses of summer." And of course they promise winter protection for your lawn's "winter survival." How did nature survive before humans developed all these chemicals and tools to create and protect our precious, artificially induced neighborhood turf? If it talks like a snake oil salesman....

It's legitimate to ask what did they know and when did they know it, as far back as the end of World War II. After the war the chemical companies reworked the original formulas. Lower doses were created to kill insects instead of people. The toxicity to humans, however, did not suddenly vanish. What did become more difficult was establishing cause and effect and the connection between symptoms and exposure. But fifty years later we've learned a lot about the cumulative and possibly long lasting effects of these toxins on the environment, on animals, and on people.

For many researchers and scientists it has already talked like a duck. A number of commonly used lawn pesticides may have links to cancer, kidney and liver disease, birth defects, and neurological disorders, to name just a few possibilities. Pesticides have been found in groundwater, and are toxic to birds, bees, fish and aquatic organisms.

DDT, the pesticide that was banned back in 1971, still turns up in animal tissue more than thirty years later, along with PCBs, chlordane, dieldan, and a host of other synthetic chemicals. A Canadian study sponsored by Environmental Defense, examined blood and urine samples of volunteers living in different parts of the country. All the volunteers had high levels of assorted chemicals, which included pesticides. The Center for Disease Control in the United States has also conducted similar studies and has come up with similar results.

The chemical fertilizers we pour on our lawns, and golf courses--a disturbing story all its own, are "stimulants." They wash away and increase concentrations of nutrients that can end up intensifying algae growth and decreasing dissolved oxygen in water.

We Americans clearly love our poisons. By some estimates at least 90 million pounds of pesticides are tossed on our lawns and gardens. We also tend to apply them more intensively than farmers do on their crops. Agriculture averages about 2.7 pounds per acre, while homeowners average somewhere between 3.2 to 9.8 pounds per acre for lawns.

The Audubon Society has estimated that a "typical" lawn might receive as much as 20 pounds of fertilizer and 10 pounds of pesticide a year. Finally, a one-third acre lawn could consume 170,000 gallons of water in a summer!

The Environmental Protection Agency has listed lawn mowers as an important source of ozone-causing pollution. In fact, the EPA found that lawn and garden equipment in metropolitan areas (where most of us live) increases air pollution in some cases by more than 20 percent. A member of the California Air Resources Board once said that using a gasoline-powered lawn mower for one hour is like "driving a minimum of 10 cars." This person also added it could be "up to 30 or 40" if you're using an old lawn mower.

Want a lawn that's fairway smooth? Sam Snead's voice whispers from the past. Well, not as much as we once did, Sammy ... fortunately. But we're still poisoning ourselves and our children to death. But don't worry. Trust us. Be happy.

There are plenty of alternatives to "plastic" lawns, as well as ways to change stupid laws. Just a few places to begin:

Wild Ones:
"When Cities Grow Wild":
National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns:
EPA, "Lawn and Gardens":
Refuse to Use Lawn Chemicals:
Lawn Mower Pollution:
Pesticide Action Network North America:

SourceWatch: A good place to find out about industry "front" groups.

About your friendly chemical industry:

Environmental Working Group:
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: "What is CHEERS?"
Chemical/manufacturers top recipients:
AlterNet, "Open to Attack" 10/29/03

Saturday, December 10, 2005

America's Turf Terror (III)

We are watching the entire United States, but particularly the border states of New York, Connecticut, Maine, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington, for any activity relating to banning pesticides.
[Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, 2005 (pesticide/fertilizer lobbying group)]

What are the final pieces in America's multi-billion dollar "grass" trade industry?

Weed control ordinances started appearing in the mid-1940s, and over the next fifty plus years they arose in practically every metropolitan area of the U.S. Within a remarkable uniformity of acceptable appearance, there were also numerous differences. It was generally agreed that grass had to be kept short, but short could mean no more than 10 inches in some towns, 12 inches in others, 14 in some, and so forth.

Everyone agreed that "weeds" were bad, but what constituted a weed could vary considerably from one town to the next. Once you got beyond crabgrass, dandelions, and one or two other all-purpose villains, the weed menace got murky.

Penalities varied as well, from only a slap on the wrist to hefty fines for violations. The stated reasons for enacting these laws were numerous. For some communities weed control laws "protected" the public from neglectful homeowners. Sometimes it was because tall grass and weeds were considered a fire hazard or an attraction to rats and mosquitoes. In some cases weed control laws were enacted because weeds supposedly produced pollen and therefore caused suffering among people with allergies.

Once in a while the ordinance was thought important because it helped prevent the growth and camouflage of, er, possibly an illegal substance? The lawn and garden industry, in general, was more than happy to encourage and promote all the half-truths and outright fairy tales that have blanketed America, pretty much to the present.

It is not uncommon today in many communities across America, perhaps on a spring Saturday in June, to find the noise levels approaching mid-town Manhattan at rush hour. SUV-sized lawnmowers lumber across the grass, while the sound from the house next door might be the whirl of the omnipresent weed whacker, or better still, the screech of the leaf blower. Down the street someone with furrowed brow is clutching the gasoline or electric powered hedge clippers.

Finally, at the corner house, the lawn company truck pulls up. This time it's the chemical folks about to put down the "needed" spring fertilizer, the June herbicide, or maybe the quarterly fungicide. Next time it might be the lawnmower guy with his gargantuan machine. He'll race across the lawn, give a quick once over with the "whacker," and then hop back in his truck. Time is money. Turn on your lawn sprinkler and relax.

The devil--as we've often heard--is in the details. The details, as we're learning more and more, could be long lasting and quite unpleasant. But that's the next, and final, story.

The pesticide and fertilizer lobby in the United States may have to become even more vigilant. The Supreme Court of Canada recently upheld a Toronto pesticide ban, which permits Canadian cities to stop the use of "controversial" lawn chemicals. Croplife Canada, a trade association that includes pesticide producers, had been fighting the Toronto law for two years. Is it only a matter of time before these "dangerous" ideas seep across America's northern border and destroy our way of life? Thank goodness for Homeland Security and the Patriot Act.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

America's Turf Terror (II)

Somewhere west of Laramie there's a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I'm talking about. This is the first sentence of the now famous 173-word advertisement for the Jordan Motor Car Company that appeared in the 1920s. The age of modern advertising began in this decade. Anything could be sold to the public these modern day alchemists told their clients ... and they were mostly right.

The 1920s proved to be a sparkling new era for American lawns and all it represented. The wealthy created gardens on large estates from the east coast to the west coast. The popularity of golf took off in the 1920s. As more and more Americans started playing the game, it wasn't long before a few perceptive businesses and advertisers started encouraging homeowners to create that golf course "look" with their own lawns. The Depression and World War II slowed things down but only momentarily.

The chemical companies had been kept busy during the war developing various compounds and mixtures, in the fight against fascism. What they had discovered and developed during wartime, they were determined to market during peacetime.

A "new" series of summer insecticides appeared in the 1950s. They included DDT, DDD, BHC as well as chlordane, aldrin, and dieldrin. Some of the phosophates included parathion, diazinon, and metacide. The list went on and on. Some "experts" even talked about the future for curing plant disease might be chemotherapy. Cancer patients were apparently not the only ones with some hope now.

A number of lawn care people recommended products that had been developed by military chemical warfare specialists--as a weapon against crabgrass. Chlordane was initially thought to be the most effective herbicide. Then came potassium cyanate, followed by lead arsenate and ammonium sulfate. One chemical company came out with a product that was advertised as the ultimate in the war against broad-leaved weeds, the now infamous 2,4-D. Some fifteen years later this became the main ingredient in the defoliant Agent Orange used in Vietnam.

What a glorious time! Farmers were spraying crops with all these modern chemicals, wherever and whenever they could. Don't worry. Be happy. Trust us. Homeowners put down new lawns, poured on water, fertilizer, and lime. We mowed the lawns, not letting the grass grow more than a few inches. Then we added chemicals to kill "weeds," insects, and those damn rodents. We rested a while. Then we started all over again and again, and again. A drug-addicted landscape rapidly spread across America. Don't worry. Be happy.

But someone spoiled the party in 1962. A little known marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service named Rachel Carson wrote a book entitled Silent Spring. Perhaps what we were doing to our planet might be very bad Ms. Carson suggested; the massive, indiscriminate use of pesticides had to stop if we wanted a livable environment. The lawn care industry, especially the chemical companies, did not like what Rachel Carson had to say. But of course the industry, then and now, knew only one way to deal with any critic. They attacked her. She was threatened with lawsuits, and accused of being unqualified and hysterical, among other things. But a lot of unquestioned beliefs were beginning to unravel in the 1960s.