Is having a weed-free lawn worth it?
Kamyar Enshayan, Ph.D.
“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.