In a time when our world around us seems to be following the theme of reduction, life is booming on the south end of the University of Northern Iowa’s campus. For the last two years, University grounds keeping has not sprayed this part of campus (insert exact range). In just two short years, what once was lost has returned: at least 4 different kinds of clover and birdsfoot trefoil.
Birdsfoot trefoil is a herbaceous perennial legume. As a legume, this mighty plant supplies essential nitrogen back into our soils, and as a perennial with branching roots, its ability to hold water and soil in place is powerful, making it a highly effective cover crop. The other various types of clover share similar properties to the birdsfoot trefoil. Clover is a nitrogen-fixing plant, making synthetic fertilization unnecessary when incorporated into a lawn. It is also drought-tolerant, so even in these scorching summer weeks, its unashamed green color shines through.
While I sat admiring this breadth of life, numerous tiny bees and other pollinators constantly and diligently visited the plants within the beautiful bounty of diversity. Some people may see the clover as invasive weeds and the pollinators as pesky bugs, but experiencing their world up close, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Their humble presence exudes generosity, giving essential nutrients to the soil, sources of nourishment for the pollinators, and in turn those pollinators being the foundation of our food chain. Giving an enriched visual appeal through pops of color in the landscape. They give us a return on our finances, keeping us from having to continually invest our dollars year after year to ensure that the only color we see is green and the only soil benefit we see is nonexistent.
By not spraying the lawn, more life has returned to campus. There is more habitat to support that life. There is no worry of toxins leaching into the earth. There is no fear of chemical exposure. There is simply a gentle spirit of timelessness, shaped like a fuzzy little oval, steadily bobbing from flower to flower.
Emily Dvorak is the Good Neighbor Iowa Program Manager at the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa.
Walking to work during lawn spraying season can be tricky
I have to zigzag away from the sidewalks filled with beads of weedkillers/fertilizer combination (“feed & weed”). And then when I reach work, it is basically impossible because the weed killers are everywhere.
It is well documented that these weed killers are brought inside under your shoes or by pet paws, and will remain in your carpet and are re-suspended in the air for months to come. And kids with their frequent hand-to-mouth habits are highly vulnerable.
“Your lawn is in battle mode” was printed on the envelope I received from the lawn care company. “Harmful weed and pest threats liked dandelions, sedges, clinch bugs, or grubs are showing up… [The company] is addressing these issues in your neighborhood right now,” the letter said. In “addressing these issues,” this company and homeowners alike, spread war defoliants, insecticides and fungicides- substances highly hazardous to life. And the most common weedkiller in the lawn “battle” is 2,4-D, a herbicide with not a very distinguished military career.
In “Families of Fallen Leaves: Stories of Agent Orange by Vietnamese Writers” we learn that between 1962 and 1971 the U.S. military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other weedkillers on Vietnam. The soldiers and civilians who were exposed, and later their children, suffered from chronic illnesses including diabetes, cancer and birth defects. Agent Orange has three ingredients: 2-4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2, 4-D), 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), and dioxin (a highly toxic byproduct of manufacturing process of the other two ingredients).
All lawn cared ads mailed to our house featured images of weed-free lawns and kids and parents with bare feet on the lawn. In all cases, highly poisonous substances were marketed as crabgrass “preventer” or green and “preen,” or “sedge ender.” Some were “long lasting,” meaning the residue will continue to be dangerous for months. Some were systemic, meaning “just mix and put at the base of the plant it becomes part of the tree or shrub,” killing pollinators and other beneficial insects as well.
As I write this, a friend is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, and her immune system is not at peak performance. This time of year, she could be walking to work where the lawn is sprayed with 2,4-D (which always has some dioxin with it.) As she picks up her kids, school grounds are sprayed while the kids are there and she can smell the drift. At home, across the street she could smell the park that was just sprayed. These constitute an unnecessary and preventable chemical trespass.
The U.S. Institute of Medicine concluded there is a connection between exposure to Agent Orange and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), allowing veterans to qualify for care. Now, 50 years after the war, there are about 500 new cases of CLL diagnosed annually among VIetnam veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says.
The medical evidence of harm regarding common household pesticides is sobering: Household and lawn weedkillers and insecticides use can increase risk of childhood leukemia as much as sevenfold; children born to parents exposed to pesticides have higher incidence of range of neuro-developmental disorders; children living in households where pesticides are used suffer elevated rates of leukemia, brain cancer and soft tissue sarcoma.
The weight of evidence is over-whelming. Is a weed-free lawn worth it? “Your lawn is in battle mode.” Nearly six decades of marketing has resulted in a learned cultural urge so unhealthy. The shame-based messages are clear: If there are any other plants in your lawn, you are being negligent, you are not a good neighbor, you are not doing your part. There is also an assumption that “these chemicals have been tested and are fine,” ignoring the political nature of how a chemical stays on the market even when there is strong evidence of harm.
We already know it is possible, practical and effective to keep a basic green turf without any use of harmful pesticides or excessive fertilizers. I know school grounds managers who are doing it on the toughest of all situations- athletic turf. In Canada, because of the above-mentioned evidence, cosmetic use of pesticides has been outlawed. As a result, the concentration of lawn weed killers in nearby streams declined by 80 percent. The state of New York has done the same in all K-12 schools.
With children’s health as the focus, we can connect the dots. Park directors, school grounds managers, child care centers, facility managers and parents: Commit to significant reduction and eliminate routine pesticide applications. We need to show our children that we can do this simple task and signal our willingness to take on much bigger threats to their future, such as poverty and climate change.
Kamyar Enshayan is the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa.