53. The Case Against Suburban Lawncare

As a pediatrician, I’ve always had a deep interest in the relationship between the local environment and pediatric health. With spring approaching, my attention has turned to the issue of lawncare. Unfortunately, the pesticides keeping our suburban neighborhoods looking verdant and orderly are adversely influencing both the environment and the health of children.

Although pesticides eliminate some insects that are harmful to humans (disease-carrying mosquitos and ticks, for instance), they frequently poison beneficial insects, such as bees and other pollinators. Once applied, pesticides work their way up the food chain, contaminating fish and mammals we ultimately consume—and some that we simply enjoy observing. Since 1970, bird populations in North American have plummeted by nearly 3 billion, a staggering number, related in part to pesticide use.

What are the health effects of pesticides on humans? People who work directly with pesticides are at the highest risk for biological complications. Acute exposure can manifest as headache, nausea, vomiting, breathing difficulty, seizures, slurred speech, incontinence, coma, and death.

In the long term, chronic exposure to pesticides, even at low levels, influences every organ system, including the brain, heart, gut, bone marrow and reproductive organs. Like the forever chemicals in plastics, pesticides are endocrine disrupters that negatively affect fertility. Additional potential side effects include cancer throughout the body, immunologic diseases, and birth defects.

How do pesticides affect growing children compared to adults? Hard data in children is lacking, in part because researchers would never purposefully poison children with pesticides. Nonetheless, the few observational studies available have demonstrated that pesticides adversely influence brain development and neurological outcomes, potentially leading to higher rates of autism and attention problems. Compared to adults, children are more susceptible to the detrimental effects of pesticides because their brains are still developing. Children play outside, get dirty, and mouth their fingers, an unhealthy situation when pesticides are present, and these chemicals don’t stay outside. When pesticides are applied to lawns, the chemicals inevitably enter our homes on shoes or paws, contaminating clothing, toys and furniture.

On a global level, pesticides help to sustain the planet’s food supply. But are these chemicals necessary for local lawn maintenance? In my opinion, it’s time to reframe our thoughts about what constitutes suburban order and beauty. At my house, we’ve been encouraging the growth of clover for the past few years, an alternative to environmentally unfriendly turf grass. Clover doesn’t grow particularly quickly or high and requires less frequent mowing. Our lawn has numerous dandelions, and I’m retraining my brain to see them as natural and healthy. Years have passed since our last application of chemicals, and our lawn is mostly green—though our weed to grass ratio is significantly higher than the neighbors. Recently I purchased a sign that says, “Excuse our weeds, we are feeding the bees.” I’m hoping the neighbors will be understand.

If lawn treatment is essential for your home, consider a non-chemical program utilizing composted manure. If you must use synthetic chemicals, get the soil tested and use the minimum amount necessary to achieve adequate growth. Avoid applications of chemicals prior to significant rain storms, because rainwater washes the chemicals straight into the water supply. Avoid applying chemicals to the edges of lawns, particularly near concrete or sloped areas, where the agents can easily escape into surface water. Following the application of chemicals, minimize exposure to children and pets. Keep kids and dogs off the grass until the chemicals are washed away. Better yet, skip the chemicals altogether.