The Dark Side of Lawns

You can have a thick and healthy sea of green without polluting water, harming wildlife, and endangering the health of your family and pets.

Beth Huxta November 26, 2010

Americans spend so much money and time on their lawns, you'd think we either eat or sell grass. More land in the United States is planted in turf—32 million acres—than in corn. The typical American lawn sucks up 10,000 gallons of supplemental water (non-rainwater) annually.

What's worse, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 80 million U.S. households dump nearly 90 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides on lawns in a year. In fact, lawn care is as much of a danger to our health and the environment as conventional agriculture is.

Does that mean you—and every other organic gardener—must give up having a nice swath of grass where you, the kids, and the dog can frolic carefree? No, not if you follow the 6-step Organic Lawn Plan. You (and your neighbors) will be surprised to see you can have a thick, lush lawn without toxic treatments.

Fools for Fertilizer
The conventional lawn-care industry has sold most homeowners on the need to apply synthetic fertilizer three or four times a season. What's wrong with that?

Nutrient waste. Synthetic fertilizers are chemically processed into concentrated, water-soluble nutrients that are available to plants immediately. But when there is more than the grass can take up, the excess washes out of the grass's root zone and into the watershed. The problem is compounded by the tendency of many homeowners to apply more fertilizer than even the manufacturers recommend.

This nutrient leaching is no small environmental problem. Every summer in the Gulf of Mexico, an area roughly the size of Connecticut is choked with vast algae and phytoplankton blooms, due in part to tons of synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi River. As the algae dies and decomposes, it uses up the available oxygen, making the area uninhabitable for sea life. The polluted runoff water that contributes to this "dead zone" comes from each of the 31 states between the Rocky and Appalachian mountain ranges that eventually drain into the gulf. This scenario is so widespread that several states, Canadian provinces, and municipalities have imposed bans on fertilizers containing phosphorus.

Weed and feed. The situation gets worse with the widely popular "weed and feed" products that combine a synthetic lawn fertilizer and herbicide in the same bag. "No lawn is 100 percent weeds, but people are spreading these chemicals over the entire lawn," says Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and spokesperson for SafeLawns.org. So if your lawn is 2 percent weeds, 98 percent of the herbicide product applied to the lawn serves no purpose, and it may wash into rivers and streams, leach into groundwater, or volatize into the air we breathe. One of the most common herbicides in weed and feed products, a chemical called 2,4-D, has been linked to human health problems, including an increased risk for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Mystery ingredients. The EPA requires fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers to list only "active" ingredients on a product's label. The manufacturers are not legally required to disclose the inert ingredients, which can include harmful quantities of heavy metals. Inert ingredients in a lawn chemical will not kill your weeds, but there is no guarantee that they will be nontoxic to you or your pets.
 

Problems from Pesticides

Contaminated water. Herbicides and pesticides from lawns also get into our water supply. A study of 12 urban streams in the Seattle metro area found 2,4-D in every stream and 23 different types of pesticides, including five that were present in concentrations high enough to kill aquatic life. The researchers found a correlation between the pesticides polluting the sampled streams and the sales of lawn and garden chemicals from local retailers. And the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Program found that 90 percent of the stream and fish samples surveyed contained at least one pesticide.

Threatened wildlife. Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 16 pose serious hazards to birds, 24 are toxic to fish and aquatic organisms, and 11 have adverse effects on bees.

Harmful to Health
Lawn chemicals don't just turn up in the environment. A study of indoor air pollutants found 2,4-D in 63 percent of homes. A different study demonstrated that levels of 2,4-D in indoor air and on indoor surfaces increased after it was applied on lawns.

Not child's play. Lawn chemicals get tracked indoors, often onto surfaces where kids play. The National Academy of Sciences reports that 50 percent of contact with pesticides occurs within the first five years of life. Such repeated contact has been linked to numerous diseases in children; for instance, researchers reporting in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that exposure to garden pesticides can increase the risk of childhood leukemia almost sevenfold.

Women's health. Contact with low levels of pesticides increases miscarriage rates, and a study recently published in the American Journal of Epidemiology documented a link between residential pesticide use and breast cancer risk in women. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that frequent exposure to pesticides increased the incidence of Parkinson's disease by 70 percent.

Pets smart. Like small children, pets can't read the "Keep Off—Pesticide Application" signs on your lawn or your neighbor's. A study revealed that exposure to lawns treated with herbicides four or more times a year doubled a dog's risk of canine lymphoma, while the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that, when exposed to chemically treated lawns, some breeds of dogs were four to seven times more likely to suffer from bladder cancer.
 

Go Green Guide
You can help improve the environment and reduce human exposure to lawn chemicals by raising awareness in your community about the dangers of conventional lawn care and the benefits of organic turf.

Educate your neighbors. Post a "Pesticide-Free Lawn" sign in your yard (find them online at beyond pesticides.org) and talk with your neighbors about the problems with lawn chemicals. Share the simple organic lawn maintenance plan in this article.

Create a demand. Request that your local nursery carry organic fertilizers and lawn products.

Be a positive example. The best way to draw attention to the benefits of an organic lawn is to grow healthy, beautiful grass organically.

Be politically active. Write to local officials to let them know you're concerned about lawn-chemical use in your community and urge them to consider repealing preemption laws, which restrict municipalities from passing local pesticide ordinances that are stricter than state policy.

Facts and Tips

  • American homeowners use up to 10 times more pesticides per acre of lawn than farmers use on an acre of crops.
  • Reduce H2O flow: Help droughtproof grass by watering it thoroughly but infrequently, so that it develops deep roots.
  • Deep roots: A square foot of lawn contains 850 grass plants and 392,000 miles of roots.
  • Home, safe home: Mowing grass high is as effective at controlling weeds as herbicides, which endanger children's health.


Newbie hint
Control weeds before they germinate, and fertilize your grass with the natural, organic weed and feed: corn-gluten meal. Apply 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet, advises Chip Osborne of livinglawn.org. Put it down in early spring, when forsythia is in bloom, but avoid using corn-gluten meal after overseeding, since it kills grass seeds as well as weed seeds.

Master's Tip
Apply phosphorus to your lawn only after testing. Even organic sources of phosphorus can seriously affect water quality, and most lawn soils don't need it. Phosphorus-free fertilizers have a middle number of "0".

 

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