May 9, 2002
Do we need pesticides in lawn care?

By Linda Erskine-White

The lawn care industry may answer this question with a vehement "yes," while others may say that pesticides hold no place in our present and future lawn care regimes. Further to the point, some industry professionals, environmentalists and the general public believe that chemicals should hold no place in any industry, be it food or lawn care. And, at a time when municipalities are restricting the application of pesticides to control weeds and insects in their public spaces, lawn care professionals need to be aware of all sides of the pesticide issue and realize they need to look at all perspectives, including public education to remain a viable part of the lawn care industry.

     The Lawn Care Commodity Group of Landscape Ontario took a step in that direction at Congress 2000, when they invited Janet May of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) to speak to delegates about the always-controversial pesticide debate. There she presented her findings and indicated how she would like the lawn care industry to react to what she sees as an obvious trend away from using pesticides and blanket applications to control weeds and insects, to using more environmentally friendly and organic products and looking at lawn care in a more holistic approach.

     As May points out in her seminar/debate, what the lawn care industry needs to realize is that the environmentalists working on the pesticide issue do not want the lawn care industry to go out of business. In fact, quite the opposite is true. She does not dispute the fact that turfgrass is an ideal surface for recreational areas such as parks, playgrounds, sports fields or golf courses. She also adds it is common fact that most people have a front and back yard, and that there will be those who do not have the time or the interest in gardening to maintain these lawns on a regular basis. "From that," she says, "you can assume that there will always be a need for people to take care of lawns and gardens as a business."

     What she does dispute, however, is the tactics that some lawn care companies use to attract and attain new clientele. The worst, May notes, is through the use of telemarketers who are not well informed about what they are trying to sell. "I have to admit, I do give these telemarketers a hard time when they call," she says, mainly because they know nothing about lawns or their care, and often make up answers to make the sale. They misinform the public about the actual products, insisting, as they are told, that these products are environmentally friendly and pose no danger when people and/or pets are exposed to them.

     This misinformation is not just reserved for telemarketers, however, as actual industry members have also misrepresented anything from warning signs and advertising to whether or not a product is "safe" when exposed to people and/or pets. When homeowners asked the reasons for warning signs, May comments that they were told by industry people "signs are placed there to keep people off the lawn because the pesticide would not work as well. "The lawn care industry could gain a lot of credibility if these industry members were honest about the dangers and why signs are used," she stresses.

     This also extends to promotional brochures stating that a lawn care company's products are "environmentally safe or friendly," and are biodegradable and don't pollute the water.

     A study conducted by Environment Canada and Toronto Works and released by TEA disputes this claim made by many in the lawn care industry. "We did what some would describe as the 'worst case scenario.' We looked for lawn care pesticides in our water - and we found them. To people at TEA, this was not a surprise because we had been looking at what is going on all over the world, and 2, 4-D and Diazinon are being detected," says May. It just doesn't help the situation when companies' advertising state that these products are biodegradable and do not pollute the water when this study says differently, she continues. The lawn industry may argue that these studies are a dime a dozen, and that each study finds a different and often conflicting result. One study in particular, conducted by the University of Guelph, found that humans, when exposed to pesticides, showed little adverse effects, and that most pesticides were able to pass through the body in a 72-hour period. The problem with this study, May argues, is that it looked at only one spectrum of individuals - on average, healthy, white males, weighing 160 lbs. "They did not look at a healthy spectrum of society, including children," she says, adding that the study also looked at the effects of only one exposure, not the thousands of times individuals may have been in contact with pesticides over the last 20 or 30 years, and it did not incorporate potential long-term effects.

     "All this proved to me was that the human body is a pretty miraculous machine that can take something like 2, 4-D in and eliminate it from the body in 72 hours. It's just really good at getting toxins like that out of the body," she says.

     There are many individual issues surrounding the whole pesticide debate. And, as May indicates, providing incorrect information to the public is just one of them. Environmentalists, especially TEA, are concerned about individual safety, either the applicator's safety or the safety of those being exposed, whether voluntary or involuntary, to these pesticides.

     The biggest issue for May is that she does not have a choice of being exposed to pesticides if they are sprayed on a neighbour's lawn. Pesticide drift poses the most problems, as applicators continue to defy regulations that state pesticides cannot be applied on days when the wind reaches over 10 km per hour.

     "I do not wear makeup because of health concerns but that affects one person, me and the rabbit that the eyeliner was tested on," she says, but adds that when pesticides are sprayed and drift into the atmosphere, that choice is taken away.

     The choice to follow a product label and/or wear the recommended safety protection when applying pesticides rests in the hands of the individual applicator. As May explains, "We do see applicators wear shorts and t-shirts while spraying," when they should be wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, chemical resistant gloves, socks and boots, and even face and eye protection. Over-application is another problem, explains May, noting that the label of most pesticide products indicate that for good turf management, two applications per year per treatment site are adequate. May collects advertising from some lawn care operators, which offer control treatments that exceed this recommendation. "One package offered six weed control treatments and four insect control treatments - and this was just the deluxe," she says. "There was also the 'Ultimate' package, which included unlimited treatment of insecticides and herbicides."

     The brochure went on to say that the company's program would meet a lawn's specific conditions. "I don't think ultimate spraying where you go out and spray every time a customer phones addresses the cause of the lawn's problems and it doesn't really offer long-term sustainable solutions."

     The best solution is for lawn care companies and individuals to address lawn care problems by looking at the root of the problem. This means looking at environmental and soil conditions, plant culture and biology. "Organics require a much more intensive knowledge base and a lot more expertise than just spraying pesticides. You have to know about pests, plant and pest identification and the conditions in which they thrive," says May, but admits that it is also very difficult to find information and professional workshops on organic lawn care and alternatives. But, times are changing, and May says we just have to look at the organic food market to see the direction lawn care will take in the next century. The organic food industry, an $11 billion (U.S.) industry today, is estimated to reach $100 billion (U.S.) in the next 10 years. And, May notes, "it is only a matter of time before people start to say 'If I don't want to eat pesticides, then I certainly don't want them to be sprayed on my lawn to the frequency that they are.'" The trend in Canada is certainly that people are moving away from pesticides in lawn care to accept other alternatives, she says, and it makes even more sense that the lawn care industry starts to look at the alternatives and figure out how they can move in the direction that people want.

     These findings were backed up in 1999 by a survey conducted by TEA of 600 residents in Etobicoke and North York, two communities with a number of large-sized properties, and which seemed to TEA to have a high instance of pesticide applications. They received 130 responses to the survey, which did not recognize TEA as the author.

     The survey found that 64 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that lawn pesticides pose a threat to water quality, while 68 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that they pose a threat to human health. 70 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that pesticides pose a threat to wildlife and household pets.

     "The lawn care industry is approaching a crossroads. It can continue to fight new and existing regulations and listen to people who are stuck in the way things were in the last century, or they can wake up and smell the 2, 4-D and move into the new century." May sees the next chapter in the lawn care industry as one where these companies can start to offer consulting services, lawn seed and organic care programs. May believes that this course of action could be more sustainable than simply supplying spray services because they will provide ongoing, healthy solutions and advice, and as seen in the organic food industry, people seem to be willing to pay extra for these services.

     She does, however, worry about those companies ready to jump on the "organic" bandwagon. "How do you prevent people from jumping on the organic bandwagon when indeed they are not," she says, adding that some people may think that this is another way to charge more money for the same services. "We just hope that most are ethical and don't try to use such tricks."

     And, while May is optimistic about the recent changes to the Pesticide Act, she believes more changes are needed in the industry, and continues to work promoting organic alternatives to consumers and the trade. She is, however, happy to see Landscape Ontario, this year, offer an organic lawn care course as part of their continuing education program, and endorse other alternatives to its members. Part of that endorsement came in the form of a book produced by the City of Toronto and endorsed by L.O. entitled "Get a great lawn with all the trimmings," which outlines how to look after a lawn without using pesticides.

     The only problem May sees is with the introduction of organic products to the market. It is in fact the same problem that plagues the chemical manufacturers creating the pesticides in use today. The government is very slow to introduce and approve products to the market. But, with the organic market's burgeoning popularity, the acceptance of organic lawn care as a practice, and with individuals in the industry ready to take up the fight, May hopes that the development, registration and acceptance of such products will meet with few roadblocks.

     So, do we need pesticides in lawn care? There will be members of the lawn care industry who will still say yes. However, May hopes that open communication with the lawn care industry will enlighten even a few on the alternatives that the public seems willing to embrace.

Janet May of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) has worked on the pesticide issue for the past 10 years, and has been instrumental in many committees and organizations such as the Organic Landscape Alliance, created to meet the need for information on alternatives in lawn care.

This article is a summary of Ms. May's presentation at Congress 2000, held January 11- 13 at the Toronto Congress Centre.