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Consumers Beware: Toxic Chemicals on Your Lawn & Garden Are Hazardous

From People, Places & Plants Magazine

History tells us that "safe when used as directed" may not be considered
safe at all tomorrow.

Consumers are conditioned to want perfect weed-free lawns and insect-free

The premise is simple: Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides never become
part of the soil.

Organics vs. Chemicals

The choices you make today will determine who wins the race between
chemicals and organics

By Paul Tukey

Excited as could be to take advantage of a sale on weed 'n feed at the local
mass merchant, I charged out of my pickup truck one summer morning in the
early '90s. The lower price meant I'd make even more money when I spread the
product on the lawns of my willing landscape customers.

As I approached the lawn and garden aisle that day, however, a mother and
infant stopped me in my tracks. The child, in a diaper and pink T-shirt, was
sitting on the floor of the store, making sand castles from the contents of
a broken bag of pesticides.

"Your daughter really shouldn't be playing with that stuff," I said
politely, but without hesitation.

The woman was indignant. Taking stock of my dirty blue jeans, soiled hands
and sweaty shirt, she hastily gathered up her child, as if to protect her
from me.

"They wouldn't sell it if wasn't safe!" she said. "I'm going to get the

Moments later, a proper-looking cadet in a monogrammed Oxford shirt
appeared. In his most stern voice, he told me to finish my shopping and keep
my opinions to myself.

"I assure you this product is perfectly safe," he said. I told him he could
keep his cheap weed 'n feed, and I never returned to the store again. Within
a few weeks, I discontinued applications of pesticides in customers'
gardens. And within a year, that store closed, having been put out of
business by the arrival of an even bigger mass merchant just down the

Fast forward a decade and the American dream, for many of us, still includes
some version of a nice lawn and garden. What's better than green grass,
luxuriant shade trees and food and flowers interspersed around your yard? If
you're reading this magazine, the answer is most likely: "Not much."

How we obtain that dream, however, remains the ultimate question in a lawn
and garden industry that is now worth $22 billion to $40 billion a year,
depending on which categories are counted. While we can all agree that
gardening and creating beautiful gardens is a splendid, serene activity,
some of us may never stop to think of the hidden effects of our actions.
Fifty years of advertisements have convinced Americans of "better gardening
through chemistry," and some folks are simply unwilling to change.

"People are still pouring Miracle-Gro on plants by the gallon," said Ann
Blein-berger, a soil scientist and marketing associate for the Maryland
Environmental Service. "They're killing the soil, killing the Chesapeake
Bay, but they think they're only feeding their plants."

For me, the image of that infant playing with poison left an indelible
impression. Countless others are beginning to ask similar questions about
the products and services they use around their home, pets and children.
Many toxic products are being removed from store shelves; many safer
products stand as ready replacements. In this country, a growing number of
communities are adopting ordinances that prohibit the use of chemical or
synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In Canada, the entire province of
Quebec has strict guidelines that restrict certain lawn and garden

"The U.S. lawn and garden market is currently undergoing epic changes as a
tidal wave of shakeout sweeps across the industry," the MarketResearch
company of New York said in a recent study. "It is 'survival of the fittest'
time for lawn and garden manufacturers, distributors, dealers, retailers and
service providers." For many folks, the way they gar-dened yesterday won't
be the way they garden tomorrow.

"Hybrid mowers, water-conserving sprinklers and organic fertilizers are all
potential gold mines for industry players," said Don Montuori, an editor for
Market- Research. "Consumers who want to tend to their yard in an
ecologically sound manner will pay big money for the right tools."

Montuori and others believe the gardening industry is missing out on what
the food industry already knows: Natural products that are effective, yet
also safe for the earth, will ultimately yield higher profits for the
companies involved. To be sure, more and more lawn and garden companies are
jumping on the bandwagons of "natural" and "organic." In Pelham, Ga., Dr.
T's Nature Products promise to repel pests. In Presque Isle, Maine, Dr. C's
organic line offers safer solutions, too. In Millheim, Pa., Dr. Subler's
Living Soil advocates better gardening through specially formulated
earthworm castings. With all of these well-meaning doctors promoting better
gardening through natural science, however, it's still confusing for
gardeners to relearn the ABCs of growing plants < even if they want to.

It's tough not to get sucked in by the annual marketing blitz. When we turn
on the television this spring, we'll inevitably see happy-looking homeowners
walking across expanses of weed-free green grass obtained by chemical means.
Miracle-Gro and Bug-Be-Gone will be top sellers at Home Depot and Lowes, and
most folks won't have any idea they're doing anything wrong.

The single biggest problem we face in the gardening industry is the
marketing muscle of Scotts and related synthetic fertilizers and pesticides,
according to Charles L. Batcheler, a longtime buyer for Merrifield Garden
Center in Virginia.

"We sell all sorts of natural, safer products for the garden," he said.
"They won't hurt your pets and children. They're better for the environment
by far. But as long as Scotts spends millions and millions of dollars on
television advertising, we're not going to be able to convince everyone that
there's a better way of gardening than Scotts' four-step plan."

Four decades after Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring to warn us about the
dangers of chemicals on lawns and gardens, the party line at Scotts and
other manufacturers, of course, is that all of their products are absolutely
safe when used as directed. Even if we take them at their word for a moment,
that simple safety assumption is inherently flawed. We all know that most of
us don't read directions. And most of us couldn't follow the directions if
we read them. I've yet to find a single garden club member, in nine years of
asking, who knows how to accurately spread 20 pounds of weed 'n feed per
1,000 square feet of lawn. Sure, the dial on the Scotts spreader will say to
set the dial to No. 6, but the dial doesn't take into account how fast
you're walking, the type of soil in your yard, or if it will rain the next
day < thereby washing all of your weed 'n feed into the nearest storm drain.

History tells us that "safe when used as directed" today may not be
considered safe at all tomorrow. In recent years, products like Dursban and
Diazinon have been taken off the market when the government finally admitted
they were unsafe. Last December, New York state Attorney General Eliot
Spitzer announced that Dow AgroSciences LLC, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical
Co., would pay a $2 million penalty for illegally advertising safety claims
about its pesticides in New York between 1995 and 2003. It is the largest
enforcement penalty ever obtained in a pesticide case.

"Pesticides are toxic sub-stances that should be used with great caution,"
Spitzer said. "By misleading consumers about the potential dangers
associated with the use of their products, Dow's ads may have endangered
human health and the environment by encouraging people to use their products
without proper care."

As recently as last March, Dow's Internet site included the statement
"Consumer exposure from labeled use of (Dursban) products provides wide
margins of safety for both adults and children." Years earlier, studies by
independent scientists proved that this was not true.

"Scientists have clearly shown that chlorpyrifos, the active ingredient in
Dursban, is toxic to the human brain and nervous system and is especially
dangerous to the developing brain of infants," said Dr. Philip Landrigan,
chairman of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount
Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "I applaud the actions of Attorney
General Spitzer to stop these misleading and potentially dangerous safety

We'd like to think the government is our watchdog, that the Environmental
Protection Agency has cleaned up all of the offending chemicals. Truth is,
though, the government has neither the means nor the mettle to even scratch
the surface. Take, for example, the herbicide 2,4-D, the main ingredient in
countless weed-killing products. The EPA estimates that Americans use nine
million pounds of it every year, and yet long-term exposure to 2,4-D has
been linked to damage to the liver and kidneys and the digestive, muscular
and nervous systems. It also may be linked to the dramatic increase in the
occurrence of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Inadvertently inhaling glyphosate, likewise, has been shown to cause
respiratory problems, nose and throat irritation, lung congestion and
increased breathing rates. You'll know glyphosate better as Roundup, the
second most commonly used home and garden herbicide, with 25 million
applications made annually in U.S. gardens and lawns.

"Given the marketing of glyphosate herbicides as benign, it is striking that
laboratory studies have found adverse effects in all standard categories of
laboratory toxicology testing," wrote Caroline Cox in the Journal of
Pesticide Reform in 2000. "These (adverse effects) include medium-term
toxicity (salivary gland lesions), long-term toxicity (inflamed stomach
linings), genetic damage (in human blood cells), effects on reproduction
(reduced sperm counts in rats and increased frequency of abnormal sperm in
rabbits), and carcinogenicity (increased frequency of liver tumors in male
rats and thyroid cancer in female rats).
"In studies of people (mostly farmers) exposed to glyphosate herbicides,
exposure is associated with an increased risk of miscarriages, premature
birth and the cancer known as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma." Like most government
agencies, the EPA is vastly underfunded for the job it is asked to perform.
A congressional study in the 1990s that led to the passage of the Pesticides
Act of 1999 found that more than 90 percent of pesticides currently in use
had never been tested for their effect on humans. One by one, the offenders
will be weeded out and pulled from shelves, but at what long-term cost in
the meantime?

Even before I encountered the mother and infant in the department store
that didn't know it was selling poison in its lawn-care aisle, I had
silently begun to question whether or not to continue applying pesticides on
customers' properties. After I had earned my pesticide applicator's license
from the state of Maine and started applying pesticides on a regular basis,
I felt my breathing decline. Already prone to allergies, I would often
wheeze all night long after a day on the job, and I would occasionally
suffer nosebleeds.

My doctor soon suggested I cease the applications. When I began reading, I
found I was not alone in my concern. "When I was 12 years old, I had a
small, gray-haired kitten named Moey < as in Ennie, Meanie, Miney and Moey,"
wrote Francine Stephens of the Children's Health Environmental Coalition.
"After my family moved to Great Neck, N.Y., we often let Moey play outside
on our new, big, sprawling lawn. One morning, I let Moey out early, ate my
breakfast, then ran outside to find her.

"I found Moey curled up in a little ball, dead on the lawn. He had eaten
grass from the just-treated lawn and died within minutes from pesticide
poisoning. I can't forget that lawn, white as snow from the lawn treatment
in the middle of spring. From then on, my parents did their best to make our
lawn look beautiful without using dangerous chemicals. With nine children
running around, I think they feared the worst."

In Pittsburgh, Pa., Sharon Malhorta became so ill from her neighbor's
pesticide applications that she would have to leave her home each spring.
The registered nurse suffered blurred vision, speech difficulties and
paralysis in her hands and feet before her husband, a physician, discovered
the source of the problem. After being told repeatedly that the lawn
chemicals were "practically nontoxic," he traced the problem to Diazinon and

A much-publicized case in Union, Maine, revealed the story of a family
devastated by herbicide poisoning. Twelve- year-old Codey Brown was outside
her home with her father, Bruce, when a helicopter passed overhead, dropping
herbicide on a nearby blueberry patch. The Browns, too, were told the
weedkiller was safe. "Codey's life now includes many doctors' visits and a
constant vigilance of avoidance," her mother, Debbie, told the Bangor Daily
News. "At a time when she should be blossoming socially, her experiences
have been ripped away. Codey has been plagued with excruciating and
debilitating headaches. Her physical pain has been so intense and repeated
that after one particularly bad spell, she looked at me and told me she
knows why they are called 'suicide headaches.' She has visible tremoring and
has had to be carried on many occasions to the bathroom, as her legs will
not support her."

The chemical companies, and even some of the retailers that sell these
products, will call these accounts anecdotal sensationalism. They'll point
out that no standardized accepted test exists to detect pesticide poisoning.
They'll tell us that if pesticides and synthetically based products like
Roundup and Miracle-Gro are so bad, then everyone would be sick. They have
no answer, however, when confronted with the fact that landscape
professionals who are frequently exposed to lawn-care chemicals are up to
seven times more likely to be stricken with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and other
cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.


Some folks have heard enough already. Don't even try, for example, to apply
a backyard pesticide on the island of Nantucket, where the water supply is
imperiled by decades of lawn-care abuse. You won't find many allies if you
apply chemicals in Marblehead, Mass., either. On May 3 of last year, that
town's Board of Health adopted an Organic Pest Management Policy for turf
and landscaping on all town-owned property. Use of toxic chemical pesticides
on town land is prohibited and "organic" protocols are now mandated. The
program is getting close attention from other communities across

"As a concerned parent pushing a baby carriage around, I saw the warning
signs on lawns and realized the sickening smell (of lawn chemicals) and
started asking myself questions," said landscape contractor Pat Beckett,
co-chairwoman of the Marblehead Pesticide Awareness Committee. "There's no
place for pesticides on America's playing fields (and lawns). We ask people
to seriously consider the cost of using chemical products and the impact it
has on their health, with children and pregnant women in particular, and on
the health of the environment. We teach people there are alternatives and
they need to take a proactive, preventive approach."

Chip Osborne, of Osborne Florist & Greenhouse in Marblehead, said he has
been leaning toward safer gardening practices since his two dogs died in the
mid-'80s. "They slept under the greenhouse benches, and that same soil where
they slept is where runoff from the fungicides and chemicals fell," he said.
"I put two and two together and realized that I basically had killed my own
dogs by using these products."

The coastal folks are not alone, either. In Hebron, Conn., the Grassroots
Coalition, an affiliate of the nonprofit Ecological Health Organization
Inc., announced plans on Jan. 8 to place a petition on the state ballot in
November that would ban lawn pesticides. The coalition, a group composed of
more than 100 individuals and organizations, claims to have acquired more
than 1,350 signatures toward its goal of 5,000.

The coalition was inspired by a similar petition in Quebec, which started a
movement that resulted in the first provincewide legislation to ban
lawn-care pesticides in Canada. The ban was challenged by the pesticide
industry but upheld in 2001 by the Canadian Supreme Court, which ruled that
cities and towns can ban pesticides without scientific proof that they are
harmful. At least 50 municipalities in Canada now have bylaws that restrict
or ban the use of pesticides on public and private property.

Todd Harrington, a landscape contractor from Bloomfield, Conn., didn't need
any evidence. He read studies that detailed the toxicity of lawn and garden
chemicals and knew intuitively that the research was true.

"I didn't want to be associated with chemicals because I knew the effects on
human health," said Harrington, one of the primary forces behind the first
published standards for organic land care. Another Connecticut landscaper
wit-nessed similarities between his clients' lawns and humans with drug

"I observed an increased dependency of the landscape on the synthetic
pesticide and synthetic fertilizer applications I was making," said Michael
Nadeau, owner of Plantscapes Inc. in Fairfield. "The aesthetic quality of
some landscapes declined unless I increased treatments. This suggested
addiction to me. I gradually became aware of how disconnected my land-care
practices had become from my connection to nature, which is the main reason
I got involved in land care in the first place."

Harrington, Nadeau and hundreds of other landscapers are now organically
certified land-care professionals who believe it is possible to achieve a
beautiful landscape with natural products. Harrington said 750 of his 1,000
clients have gone completely organic, and just about everyone he encounters
is becoming more aware of the dangers of synthetic materials that
essentially give plants a quick fix, but don't help in the long run.

The premise is simple, really: Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides never
become part of the soil. At best, the plants take up what they need. At
worst, the rest of the material breaks down into various byproducts that can
contaminate soils, sand, lakes and streams. Some of that material may be
benign, but much of it is not. The word "inert," found on many
chemical-product labels, does not necessarily mean "inactive." In the case
of Miracle-Gro, the formulation itself < 15 percent nitrogen, 30 percent
phosphorus and 15 percent potassium < is problematic. Many plants and soils
can't absorb 30 percent phosphorus, and the excess can contribute to the
pollution of water supplies. Naturally occurring organic materials, on the
other hand, become part of the soil; many of the natural lawn and garden
materials on the market are derived from plants and animals. When you feed
plants with compost, the process nourishes the plant while simultaneously
building the soil structure. Not all organic pesticides are nontoxic, mind
you < always read labels, no matter what < but they're rarely as dangerous
as the synthetic alternatives.

"It's the difference between dropping a neutron bomb or sending one soldier
in," said Jill Durall, owner of Pampered Perennial Borders in Glastonbury,
Conn. "Sometimes, most times, you don't need a neutron bomb to take care of
the problem. When you use a non-organic product, you change the ecosystem."

Many medium- and small-sized businesses are now taking the gamble that
consumers are tired of sending in the chemical lawn-care troops. After a
successful career in the telecommunications industry, Ron Stakland made a
substantial investment in the Seattle-based Soil Soup company. If you
haven't seen his product yet, the betting is you soon will. It's where
Starbucks meets gardening, and Stakland, from Fairfield, Iowa, hopes we'll
all fill our buckets with compost tea the same way we fill our mugs with

"Being from the Midwest, I did the whole chemical agriculture thing and was
never really comfortable with it," he said. "I began to try to understand
how nature supported this great biomass quite well before the first settlers

The Soil Soup idea is brilliant in its simplicity. My grandmother, like so
many gardeners who grew up before the chemical era spawned by World War II,
used to stuff her old nylon stockings with compost and soak the stockings
for a day or two in a five-gallon bucket. She'd then sprinkle the finished
"tea" all over her plants for nourishment, and to keep away aphids,
whiteflies and a full-assortment of other critters. Recognizing that the
modern gardener doesn't want to stuff compost into stockings, the Soil Soup
system makes it clean and easy to purchase fresh compost tea at the local
garden center. The dispensers look for all the world like well-polished
industrial coffee makers.

"It's really taking off out West, where people already understand the
importance of gardening organically < far more than they do on the East
Coast," Stakland said. "I'm gambling big that in the very near future a
major groundswell will sweep through the lawn and garden industry. There's a
lot of moms out there who really care about this sort of thing these days."
The biggest question from most gardeners is obvious: Do the organic products
really work? Given the choice, many consumers would likely pick natural
products instead of chemical products if the results and costs are equal.
And that's where the issue gets truly complicated for some gardeners.
They've been conditioned to want perfect weed-free lawns and insect-free
gardens. They've been taught, for at least the past 50 years, to obtain
those results through chemistry.

"It's become a pride thing for the male in United States culture to have the
perfect weed-free lawn," said Tim Sellew, one of the principals of the
Benick Brands line of mulches and soils. "In England, gardening organically
is not difficult because they don't have the huge lawns. You can keep the
insects under control when you grow flowers and vegetables, but there's a
price you have to pay with weeds when you try to grow a large lawn

Part of that issue, of course, is the definition of "weed." Clover was once
a part of all lawn-seed mixes, until Scotts began to develop broad-leaved
herbicides that killed the clover. When the company couldn't develop a
selective herbicide that didn't kill the clover, it began an advertising
campaign that counted clover among the villainous plants. Never mind that
clover was the primary method of how a lawn fed itself by attaching, or
"fixing," nitrogen from the atmosphere. The absence of clover made it
necessary for the homeowner to buy more fertilizer. How convenient.

For land-care pros who have gone organic, their biggest challenge is
education. "People need to understand that it's OK to have blemishes and
imperfections (in lawns) because they're doing their part to reduce
chemicals in the environment and in neighborhoods," said Harrington. "Most
lawns won't transition right away from chemicals to organics; we try to
explain that the process may take three or four years, but in the end
they'll be much happier with the results." Sellew said the industry recently
began improving the science of natural products. Plenty of naturally based
Roundup- type products exist that will kill all plants. Soon, he said,
someone will develop an organic herbicide that is selective, meaning it will
kill common weeds, but not grass.

"The coating technologies of synthetically based lawn and garden products
are phenomenally sophisticated," said Sellew, from Glastonbury, Conn. "I
predict that within 10 years we'll be able to apply that same technology to
organics, and we'll have an organically based selective weedkiller."

Even before that day comes, the champions of organic gardening are
beginning to claim small victories. At Merrifield's in Virginia, Charles
Batcheler reports a full 50 percent of that garden center's lawn and garden
sales are now for organic products.

"Ten years ago, it was nothing," he said.

At the Maryland Environmental Service, Ann Bleinberger reports a dramatic
drop in the number of waste-water violations from companies doing business
along Chesa-peake Bay. "We still have large numbers of homeowners along the
bay who insist on spreading the lawn chemicals," she said. "But we are
making progress."

To Mike McGrath, who became editor of Organic Gardening magazine in 1991,
it's now quite hip to be an organic gardener. "In those days, organic
gardening was thought of as an exclusive club," said McGrath, now the editor
of the People, Places & Plants Mid-Atlantic edition. "You know, people
thought we all wore brown, we all had manure on our shoes, and we all made
compost. People also thought you had to know everything (about organic
gardening) or you would be blackballed from the club.

"Now, baby, the will of the people is taking over. The whole world has
opened up to the idea that you just can't go pouring Miracle-Gro everywhere.
I credit the chefs, really. They're the first ones who recognized that
organically produced food really tasted better, was better for you, and was
worth more money. The way to any good gardener's heart is through his

If you're now convinced that organic gardening is worth a try, you'll still
have to relearn your ABCs. In the fertilizer marketplace, you'll find MooDoo
from Vermont and Cockadoodle Doo from New Hampshire. Among organic pest
repellents, you'll find St. Gabriel Laboratories in Virginia, or the new
cottage industry known as Anti-Pest-O from Portland, Maine, that keeps bugs
at bay with a mixture of pepper juice, garlic and neem oil. You should try
to understand how mychorizal fungi helps stimulate root growth, and you'll
likely soon hear about how Messenger inoculates plants with protein to
protect them from diseases.

"It may not be immediately obvious to consumers why they need to do this,"
said Ron Stakland, from the Soil Soup company. "But they will (do it).
Within a very short period of time, the entire marketplace will change." You
need look no further than Scotts to know that Stakland is right. In a recent
public letter to shareholders, chief executive officer Jim Hagedorn promised
continued high profits in 2004, as well as the introduction of Scotts'
Organic Choice fertilizer.

"We expect Scotts to continue benefiting from our market-leading position in
the increasingly strong lawn and garden category," he wrote. "The
demographics of gardening remain outstanding and our relationships with our
retail partners have never been stronger. I believe the combination of these
factors will allow Scotts to continue driving the category to new heights
while enhancing shareholder value."

Funny thing, though: Hagedorn's letter never once mentioned the environment
or human health as impetus for the new product. As long as profit remains
the primary motivation of the nation's largest lawn and garden product
manufacturer, I, for one, will have a difficult time seeing Organic Choice
as anything but a marketing ploy. I'll take my chances with Dr. T., Dr. C.
and Dr. Subler instead. They're all real people with their own names on the

Earth-Friendly Alternatives
Here is a sampling of companies that offer organically certified products
for gardens. Most of these companies also sell products in some or all of
the other categories listed. Please note, however, that some of these
companies sell products that are not organically based. Look for the red
OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) seal of approval when searching
for organically certified products.
* Chesapeake Organics,
* Cockadoodle Doo,
* Dr. C's Garden Products,
* Dr. Subler's Living Soil,
* Earthjuice,
* Espoma,
* Ironite,
* Jonathan Green,
* MooDoo,
* North Country Organics,
* RainGrow,
* SunGro,
WeedKillers, Pest Control & Fungicides
* Anti-Pest-O,
* Bioganic,
* Bonide,
* Concern,
* Dr. T's Nature Products,
* Gardens Alive,
* Green Light,
* Organic Laboratories Inc.,
* St. Gabriel Laboratories,
* Safer,
Compost & Soils
* Benick Brands,
* Bumper Crop,
* Coast of Maine,
* Compsoil,
* Country Hen,
* Fafard,
* Gardener's Gold,
* Green Mountain Mulch,
* Green Valley,
* Intervale,
* Jolly Gardener,
* Leafgro,
* Neptune's Harvest,
* Rich Earth,
* Soil Soup,
* Winterwood Gardens,
Growth Enhancers & Soil Inoculants
* Heart & Soil,
* Messenger,
* Myke,
* Plant Health Care,
* Speedy-Gro,

Additional reporting by Emily J. Rollock; data provided by Beyond