Backyard Chemical Warfare

Across the nation, whether in the front or back or all around your house, lawns have become more economic and ego-statements than ecosystems.

by Jeanette Namura

"Our greatest mistake was to assume that our chemical poisons could be selective, that we could kill off other forms of life and not be affected ourselves. We have been duped by our smug but ill-advised confidence, by our belief that we, as a 'superior' life form, could be immune to the natural laws that govern the way poisons interact with, and terminate the life-sustaining process of, creatures similar in chemical and biological structure to ourselves."

Lewis Regenstein, How to Survive in America the Poisoned


ow many tons of pesticides will unnecessarily be poured onto our nation's soil this summer, do you suppose? Unnecessarily, because in spite of the enormous amount of land which has been treated with pesticides, we're not eradicating the bugs we've targeted (supposing that all the bugs need to be exterminated in the first place). As a result, just half a century after the discovery of DDT's insect-killing powers and despite the development of scores of potent poisons, the bugs are doing better than ever.

What has been documented to the dismay of any individual who is downwind and downstream from any toxic application, is the association between pesticides and cancer rates. A further cause for concern is that children face a much greater risk than adults from pesticides.

If you believe that the largest amounts of toxins are just poured onto farm land, then the following should change your mind: According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, residential lawns and gardens receive heavier doses of pesticides than most other land areas in the United States, as much as ten pounds per acre of lawn versus two pounds per acre of soybeans.

Why do Americans believe that we must use so many chemical applications to have a socially respectable lawn? Perhaps we have been more influenced by advertising and a superficial emphasis upon appearances than we think? If we have been conditioned to include the poisoning of our land as part of our property and household habits, then we must begin to think realistically, to acknowledge the effects of toxins, and to change our toxic rituals.


Not just the bugs...


Raising Pennsylvania

"Lawns cover some fifty thousand square miles of the surface of the United States an area roughly equal to Pennsylvania, and larger than that occupied by any agricultural crop. ... Each year, to maintain this American quilt, we spend thirty billion dollars, an investment whose complexity is in inverse proportion to the monoculture it sustains. The lawn industry is only tangentially about grass. At base it is a stunningly elaborate enabler of petrochemical addiction....

"Consider the network of petrochemical inputs we use to keep the national sward green: the gasoline-fueled tractors and bulldozers that first scrape the topsoil off the home site; the genetically engineered seeds and sods; the fertilizers; the pesticides that keep it free of insect life; the herbicides that keep it free of 'bad' plants, like dandelions and clover; the mercury-based fungicides that kill the microbes and the earthworms and keep the dirt under the grass from becoming soil; the mower, the blower, the edger, and the trucks that haul the crews and the clippings to the landfill; the power plants that pump the water through the deserts to the sprinklers.

"In the West, an estimated sixty per cent of municipal water ends up on the lawn; in the East about thirty per cent. In 1990, we poured an estimated seventy million pounds of pesticides (not including fertilizers) on our lawns. Most end up in the water supply...."

Excerpted from "The Grassman" by Wade Graham, in the Aug. 19, 1996 New Yorker.



A further dimension to the lawn problem is the effect of lawn chemicals on birds and small mammals. Many animal lovers unwittingly pay landscaping companies to poison their front lawns while they're busy putting bird seed in their backyard feeders. Yet tens of thousands of beneficial insects, birds and small animals are killed every year by the lawn chemicals we apply to our yards. Migrating wildfowl and resident song birds are poisoned on golf courses, on front lawns, in orchards, even on wildlife refuges by legal applications of common chemicals (such as 2,4-D, a commonly used herbicide which is suspect in causing cancers and increasing the incidence of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.) The birds and animals are being poisoned simply by feeding on sites where we grow our food and where we let our children play.

Chemical companies deflect responsibility by claiming that there are no harmful effects to these chemicals if they are "properly applied." In his book, The Pesticide Conspiracy, Robert van den Bosch strongly disagrees with this excuse as he lists pages of chemical disasters involving disease and death, all of which occurred after applications of toxins which were "properly applied." And this dodges the problems that much of the time the chemicals are in fact not properly applied.

Whether chemicals sink into farmland or land designated as "lawn," they eventually percolate into groundwater. Because groundwater is the source of drinking water for nearly half of the nation, this gives us ample reason to reflect on what unintended side effects chemicals used on lawns might eventually cause.

Pesticides are not the only chemical problem associated with lawns. Chemical fertilizers are another issue. In 1990, roughly three million tons which amounts to 15 percent of all American fertilizer use went into lawn care. The average large American front lawn requires more fertilizer than is needed to feed a Third World family. Because church lawns tend to be substantially larger than home lawns, this can equate to an amount of fertilizer that might feed several families for an entire year. To provide perspective on this quantity of fertilizer, India, with a population more than twice that of the United States, used about the same amount of fertilizer on all of its food crops as Americans use on their lawns.

What has been presented here is a brief overview of problems associated with an imprudent use of chemicals on lawns. The more thoroughly readers investigate this problem, the more convinced they will be to stop this chemical insult to creation's integrity. If there is any moral substance to our claims to care for creation, it has to manifest in our behavior. Religious or any belief without behavior soon becomes empty and breeds cynicism. We must be called to steward the earth, to care for it with love and to avoid any action which can cause harm to our neighbors, either the two-legged or the four-legged varieties.

We've all made a lot of mistakes in our lives, and in some ways we may be like the old farmer who said, "We get old too soon and smart too late." But we owe it to our neighbors and to future generations to correct the more visible errors of the past. One correction we can all do something about is to eliminate the need for unnecessary chemicals in our lawns, especially when there are alternatives such as avoiding pesticides on lawns, developing organic lawns with new grass products such as the Green Cross lawn combination, or even putting open spaces to other uses beside lawn.

If we continue to use all manner of pesticides and herbicides on our lawns, we fail to take responsibility for being a thoughtful steward of that part of creation which is actually within our control. To me, this becomes a refusal to appreciate the blessings God has given us in this magnificent creation which we call earth.

This article is republished from Green Cross magazine, with permission. Green Cross is published by the Christian Society of the Green Cross. Annual memberships are $25 per year; $12 for students or low income; 10 E. Lancaster Ave., Wynnewood PA 19096