Can Chemical Combat Cause Collateral Carnage?

It may not be Iraq or Afghanistan, but it is a war of sorts. We’ve come to view such plants as clover, dandelions, and plantain as territorial terrorists.  They invade our lawns with flowers and broad leaves, forcing us to look at them. These plants, being willful, cause lawns to look less “perfect,” less like the monotonous macabre monoculture of garish green that has become so inexplicably popular. They interfere with the naive notion that we are in charge.

Weeding can help but can be a daunting task. Therefore we resort to weapons of biomass destruction… particularly those of the chemical variety. The problem is that chemicals when unleashed, are indiscriminate and there is plenty of collateral damage, of which we tend to be ignorant, as well as potential victims.

Examples are numerous: there is evidence that leukemia and non Hodgkins lymphoma are associated with 2-4-D, a common herbicide applied to urban lawns. Like atrazine (which is banned in the European Union) it appears to be more toxic to us than previously thought. It shows up in bodily fluids. It impacts the immune system, is an endocrine disrupter, and is implicated in reproductive difficulties, including birth defects, and gender imbalance, particularly when in concert with other chemicals. Coincident with our increasing dependence on urban and agricultural chemicals, there is an increasing amount of autism diagnosed in children.  While it may not be the cause, it should at least raise a red flag.

Maybe this is why lawn care chemicals have been prohibited in parts of Canada. A Canadian study put out by “A Coalition for a Healthy Ottawa,” put it well:  “Pesticides are the only chemicals deliberately made toxic, and spread in the environment for that effect. All life shares common biochemical pathways and structures, so pesticides are, in some way, toxic to all species.”  This would include us.

The material safety data sheet (MSDS) for 2-4-D sounds pretty ominous. For example, it can trigger neurologic reactions that can lead to death. It is harmful to aquatic invertebrates and can impact aquatic ecosystems.

For reasons that are self evident, chemical companies have made a huge effort to prevent a Canadian or European type ban from happening here. But in the interests of public and environmental health, caution is called for, and many say, long overdue.

Agricultural researcher, author, and farmer, Wes Jackson, made a profound observation.  He said that we should base our decisions not on our knowledge, but on our ignorance because we are a billion times more ignorant than knowledgeable. We know that 2-4-D, for example, kills non-grass plants in our yards. We don’t know what else it might be capable of. We don’t know how much exposure might significantly damage the nervous systems of children, adults, pets, or wildlife. We don’t know what other chemicals it could combine with or break down to, or whether it could become even more toxic.

When our kids were young, we used to take them to a wide variety of parks, zoos, museums, and playgrounds. I was always on the lookout for dandelions and clover, because they are indicators.  If I didn’t see this type of foliage in the lawn, we would leave. I couldn’t imagine our daughter or son being needlessly exposed to toxic herbicides. I was en route to work many years ago on my bicycle and passed a house where two men, dressed in huge boots, rubber gloves, and respirators, were applying lawn chemicals. That very afternoon, on my way home, I saw two toddlers rolling around that very same lawn in swimming suits. These chemicals, besides being taken in through the lungs, are also absorbed by the skin.

Last year I noticed a smell in the house that was hard to describe. It was repulsive: strong, acrid, and almost metallic, and was all over the place. A quick trip through the house and the mystery was solved. A young fellow was passing nearby on his rounds as he applied chemical treatment to a neighbor’s lawn… in the wind. His purpose was to kill the non-grass plants, dandelions, clover, etc. But his product was going everywhere, not just on the intended target. Fortunately my kids are grown and gone or I might have reacted with greater concern. I asked him to learn what he was applying, pay attention to MSDS information, and to keep his chemicals from infiltrating other houses and yards (don’t apply in a wind).

Why are so many people so willing to subject children, pets, and wildlife to this very real hazard? For one thing, we don’t see our yard toxins as toxic. It could be that we perceive a bit of ourselves in the weeds. We are, after all, willful, invasive, and persistent.  We dominate our surroundings and just can’t be ignored. I seem to remember from high school psychology that projection is a way of dealing with our own perceived negative traits by projecting them on others.

As to our own yard, there is strength in diversity. We have some turf grass and have several large mulch beds with plantings beneath trees. I was out mowing once and a person passing by thought the yard looked great, so he asked what I treat my lawn with. I said that I didn’t mean to sound like a “smart aleck,” but a good answer is simply respect. Nothing else. It’s herbicide and fertilizer free. My wife has numerous flowers and ornamental grasses in beds, and I just do the mowing. There are dozens of species of broadleaf plants scattered throughout the lawn among the grasses.  All of them are “mower susceptible.”

We have a truce. No weapons of biomass destruction. With a wide array of plants our yard is home to countless species. We are just one of many.

“One is tempted to say that the most human plants, after all, are the weeds.” John Burroughs

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Dale Goodner

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