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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Public Citizen’s “Keep off the Grass”

In the old days, lawns with weeds were treated with a little elbow grease. Now they are more likely to be treated with hazardous chemicals called insecticides and herbicides. You don’t often see a ten year old or teenager out there working the lawns. Instead you see the lawn care company’s truck and the applicator spraying. Americans spend about $1.5 billion a year to hire out what they used to do for themselves more safely and get some exercise at that.

Five years ago, Patricia and Michael Gergel called in ChemLawn Services Corp. to destroy weeds and add nutrients to their lawn in a Philadelphia suburb. The next morning Patricia Gergel woke up with hives on her arms and legs leading to a condition she continues to suffer from — due to exposure to Garlon, Dachtal and 2, 4-D chemicals used by ChemLawn. We know this because in July 1988 a federal jury awarded her $67,000 stemming from her claim that ChemLawn misrepresented the chemical treatment as safe.

Recently Public Citizen completed a study — Keep Off the Grass — reviewing the health risks to families, especially children, from exposure or inhalation of 40 chemicals that make up over 95% of the materials used by commercial lawn care firms. The study found:

— 12 are suspected to cause human cancers. Of those, 11 have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals and 9 are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “probable” or “possible” human carcinogens. One of the 12 — 2, 4-D — has been linked to an increase in human cancer’s by the National Cancer Institute.

— 21 have been shown to cause other long-term health effects, in lab animals or humans including birth defects, gene mutations, dermatitis, or liver, kidney or nervous system damage;

— 20 have been shown to cause short-term damage to the central nervous systems of humans, resulting in flu-like symptoms;

— 36 have been shown to cause eye, skin or throat irritation in humans or animals;

What the federal government needs to do is clear and long overdue: ban the dangerous chemicals, require that consumers be informed on the potential health risks by the lawn care companies, do more testing regarding these chemicals and move toward benign alternatives.

While Washington fiddles, however, some state lawmakers have begun to move. Eight states have passed regulations requiring that warning signs be posted after lawns are chemically treated: eight states provide consumers with an opportunity to request advance notice before pesticides are applied to their lawns or adjacent neighbors’ property. Only three states require lawn care companies to provide all customers with a State Consumer information Sheet. Only one state requires written contracts for commercial lawn care services, and only two states require every pesticide applicator to be trained and tested.

Eight states have established mandatory systems for reporting and tracking pesticide poisonings and five states collect and maintain records of lawn care pesticide use. Action at the state level has been achieved because garden clubs, environmental groups and increasing publicity about injured persons have created a climate for some protective action.

Households can, of course, demand from their lawncare companies what their states do not yet require, such as warnings, labels and other information about nonchemical alternatives. Or they can get back to the old fashioned method of elbow grease. There are lots of teenagers goofing off who could help their parents do the job and lots of youngsters who would like to make a few dollars working their neighborhood’s lawns.

Readers interested in obtaining Public Citizen’s report can send $10 to P.0. Box 19404, Washington, DC 20036.