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Monday, May 15, 2023

The Dandelion Battle Resumes

Poison Season Returns to Southern New England

By Frank Carini / ecoRI News columnist

The distinct smell of spring is in the air: synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The little white and yellow flags planted in lawns officially announce that poison season has begun.

The amount of toxic chemicals dumped on lawns and public grounds annually to turn lifeless space green and kill dandelions and white clover is staggering — some 80 million pounds year after year in the United States. 

When these monolithic landscapes are flooded with mass-marketed poisons and nutrients, they turn bad for human and pet health, pollute local waters, deter wildlife, and degrade the environment.

Those warning flags are required because of the 40 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 26 are linked to cancer or carcinogenicity, 12 are linked to birth defects, 21 to reproductive effects, 32 to liver or kidney damage, 24 to neurotoxicity, and 24 to disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system, according to Beyond Pesticides.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit notes that of the 40, 21 are detected in groundwater, 24 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, and 39 are toxic to fish, 33 to bees, 28 to birds, and 18 to mammals.

This manufactured reliance on pesticides and fertilizers has turned neighborhood soil into a dumping ground for lawn-care concoctions and helped chemical and fossil fuel companies pad their profits.

Tons of fertilizer overloaded with nitrogen and/or phosphorus are dumped every spring because some pitchman using a Scottish accent tells us to, “Feed your lawn. Feed it.” Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are mindlessly sprayed all over the place because we were indoctrinated to believe a lush carpet of useless green improves our social status.

These poisons make us and the environment sick. They turn to dust and ride the wind. They cling to people and pets who walk, play, and relax on treated grass. They get kicked up during youth sporting events. They can be inhaled like pollen, causing nausea, coughing, headaches, and shortness of breath. For asthmatic kids, they can trigger coughing fits and asthma attacks.

If directly ingested, chemicals such as ammonium phosphate, potassium chloride, and urea can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Studies have shown that these chemicals can linger in body tissue for years.

In Rhode Island, lawn chemicals are used routinely by about 40% of the state’s school districts, according to a 2008 report. State law requires schools using pesticides to inform officials, teachers, and parents when pesticides are applied. We all know how well Rhode Island environmental laws are followed and enforced.

Two of the most common pesticides, glyphosate used in Roundup and 2,4-D in Weed B Gon Max, have been linked to a slew of health issues such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), developmental disorders, and cancer.

Weed and feed products with 2,4-D — the Natural Resources Defense Council calls the weed killer the “most dangerous pesticide you’ve never heard of” — can be nasty.

The National Institute of Health has found 2,4-D, the pesticide in most of these killing products, caused an increased risk of lymphoma in dogs. A Purdue University study found a link between lawn chemicals and canine bladder cancer.

Developed by Dow Chemical in the 1940s, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid helped usher in the unnatural green movement that now carpets much of the country.

A growing body of scientific evidence continues to confirm the widespread health effects of 2,4-D — a neurotoxicant that contains half the ingredients in Agent Orange, according to Beyond Pesticides — and similar killing products.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared 2,4-D a possible human carcinogen. In fact, pesticides are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency because most are carcinogens or suspected carcinogens.

The cocktail of chemical pollution, including pesticides and fertilizers, that saturates the planet threatens the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends, according to a 2022 study.

Last month, Beyond Pesticides released a comprehensive report about pesticide use and noted the “shocking scientific findings” should “compel us to act.”

The 172-page report documents the last year of scientific, peer-reviewed articles, policy deficiencies, and action for change that intersect with the use of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers on:

Human health: Children’s exposure to synthetic pyrethroid insecticides, particularly during the course of mosquito control operations, is associated with increased occurrence of certain respiratory diseases; the popular herbicide glyphosate can infiltrate the brain through the blood, increasing neurological disease risk.

Biodiversity collapse: Honeybees exposed to a combination of multiple pesticides suffer a reduced lifespan and experience adverse changes to their gut microbiome, increasing susceptibility to pathogens and disease; spraying a flowering plant with synthetic fertilizers makes it less attractive to bumblebees.

Failed policies reviewed in the report include the continued use of neurotoxic organophosphate insecticides and congressional efforts to further weaken federal pesticide law and codify a prohibition of local authority to restrict pesticides more stringently than state and federal law.

Beyond Pesticides said documented science and policy failures support its call for an end to petrochemical pesticide and fertilizer use within a decade and compel the expeditious adoption of organic management to replace chemical-intensive practices.

Let the dandelions and white clover live, and if your lawn is hungry, feed it with compost.

Frank Carini can be reached at His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.