What we Can Learn from Canada and Connecticut
This is the text of an article I originally published in People, Places & Plants magazine in 2006. The message, contained within the movie, A Chemical Reaction, is still timely today.
At the time scarcely anyone in the United States noticed. In May of 1991 the small town of Hudson, Quebec, located just west of Montreal, adopted a law restricting the use of lawn pesticides on all property, privately held or municipally owned, within town limits. The news barely made a ripple a year later when two lawn care companies, Chemlawn and Spraytech, were hit with a fine of three hundred Canadian dollars for spraying pesticides in the town.
What happened next, however, set a chain of prescient events in motion.
Chemlawn and Spraytech, angry about losing their share of the few hundred potential customers in Hudson, took the town to local court . . . and lost. The companies appealed to Quebec Superior Court . . . and lost again. Still not willing to let the matter rest, the companies appealed all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. In a process that took two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, the little town that could won the case for good on June 28, 2001. Chemlawn and Spraytech even had to pay Hudson’s court costs.
“Permitting the town to regulate pesticide use is consistent with international law’s ‘precautionary principle,’ which states it is better to be overly cautious than to create a potential risk to the environment,” wrote Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube in defending the Hudson decision.
In the end, the costs to Chemlawn and Spraytech were far greater; spurred by Hudson’s initiative, other cities and towns took up the fight. As a result, it is now against the law to apply lawn pesticides around homes or public spaces anywhere in the entire province of Quebec. A ferocious three-year lobbying effort by the chemical industry was turned aside and the law — at the time the most stringent pesticide ban anywhere in North America — became final on April 3 of this 2006.
“This bold action sets a standard for excellence that other governments ignore at their peril,” said Warren Bell, a physician and board member with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment based in Toronto.
The U.S. Takes Note
Long before Hudson, Quebec, ultimately won its court case and radically changed Canadian law, other towns south of the border did begin to notice. From Marblehead, Mass., to Hebron, Conn., and throughout New York, local lawmakers started taking matters into their own hands. If folks in some municipalities get their way, caring for United States lawns and gardens organically could one day be the only legal option.
“Hudson really provided the model,” said Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health Inc., a coalition of activists, lawyers and physicians based in New Haven, Conn. “Any town that cares about the health of its residents and the quality of its drinking water needs to take a hard look at this.”
Formed several years ago in and around Yale University, EHHI decided to launch its own investigation into the law care controversy. Backed by the credibility of several Ph.D.s on its board of directors, the organization has since conducted numerous studies that link lawn chemicals to contamination of water, and to serious health risks to children, adults and animals. Few people, other than lobbyists paid by the chemical industry, have questioned the validity of their findings.
“I think it’s hard to take on a Yale professor, or a pediatrician or a well-known oncologist,” said Alderman. “We have the past commissioner of health for Connecticut on our board. Do you really think someone is going to come in and tell these people they don’t know what they’re talking about? Facts are facts and these lawn chemicals are lethal.”
One person who took note was Connecticut State Senator Edward Meyer, a Democrat from Guilford. A longtime New York lawmaker, Meyer is now co-chairman of the Connecticut Senate’s Select Committee on Children.
“I think the case has been made that pesticides have toxic effects, especially on children,” said Meyer, who introduced bill S.B. 916 that bans pesticide use — including all weed killers, insecticides and fungicides — at approximately 1,600 day care centers and hundreds of elementary schools around the state. That bill became law on July 13, 2005, to give Connecticut standing as the state with the most strict pesticide code in the nation.
Meyer was supported by Dr. Jerome Silbert, a physician and certified pathologist, who is also director of the Watershed Partnership, Inc. a nonprofit environmental group headquartered in Guilford.
“We protected young children in day cares and elementary schools; why not protect all of Connecticut’s children at school?” he asked the Senate committee debating the bill. “If you pass this, you will save children’s lives. You may never know who these children are, but you can take pride in the fact that, by your actions, you have prevented great suffering of these children and their families.”
As reasonable as Silbert sounded, however, he couldn’t overcome a much louder plea taking place behind the scenes. State lawmakers were being hounded by lobbyists for the chemical industry. Their arguments against the pesticide ban focused on one point the lawmakers wouldn’t ignore: the quality of sports fields would supposedly decline if groundskeepers were forced to tend the fields organically. Meyer’s second bill didn’t pass.
“The chemical industry really got the ear of the people who put sports first,” said Alderman. “At the high school level, that’s a lot of people.”
Chemlawn, meanwhile, remains this nation’s largest lawn care provider to homes and schools. Despite have been sued countless times about its safety claims, the company steadfastly denies any wrongdoing.
“The pest products, when applied to the lawn, contain less than 0.5 percent active ingredient and are considered practically non-toxic at these dilutions,” according to the company’s official web site. “The products we approve for company use contain the same ingredients found in lawn care products that tens of millions of homeowners buy annually at lawn and garden outlets.”
A Broad Misperception
Failure to enact a law protecting all schoolchildren from pesticides through high school age, ironically, is based on a broad-based fallacy. Organic lawns and sports fields, when done properly, do not decline. In many cases and in many seasons, in fact, they function better than lawns treated with synthetic chemicals and pesticides.
“People think that just because you go organic with your lawn or sports field, you’re going to have weeds everywhere,” said Todd Harrington, founder of Harrington’s Organicare of Windsor, Conn. “That’s just not true. It’s not true at all. But the chemical industry will spend a lot of money, far more than the organic side can spend, to perpetuate the myth that chemicals are necessary to grow grass.”
At lawn after lawn and field after field tended by his company, Harrington proves his point. The grass is green and weeds are minimal. Initial costs of his organic system are higher, but in the long run — in three to five years — the price evens out or is even less than the conventional chemical system. Now a consultant to numerous school systems throughout Connecticut, as well as a frequent lecturer on the subject of organic lawns, he spends at least as much time educating others as he does servicing his customer base of more than 1,000 homeowners.
“I started this back in the late ’80s when everyone thought it was a joke,” he said. “I’ve been waiting a long, long time for the organic wave to really hit. It’s here, or almost here, and I’m ready.”
Having invested tens of thousands of dollars in equipment that has improved the science of composting and creating a liquid extract known as compost tea, Harrington and his partners have even begun to spread the word nationwide.
“You feed the soil and the soil feeds the grass,” he said. “If you get the soil healthy, you’ll have healthy grass. On the one hand, it’s that simple and people who will embrace that idea can have a decent organic lawn quite easily by adding compost and overseeding and doing some other basic things like watering and mowing properly. On the other hand, we have developed many proprietary processes with our compost teas. With a soil test in hand, I can brew a tea that exactly meets the needs of a customer’s soil. When that customer happens to be a town with sports fields, my job starts to get really exciting.
“I have young kids that I wouldn’t want playing on sports fields drenched in chemicals. Why would any parent?”
The Fight Goes On
Harrington’s question resonates with the Nancy Aldermans and Ed Meyers of the world, who both vowed to try again in 2007. Meyer resubmitted a bill in the Connecticut Senate to ban lawn pesticides at all schools through grade 12 and Alderman said she won’t stop fighting until organic lawn care is the only game in town. They continue to look to Canada for inspiration.
“We began to phase in our pesticide ban three years ago and, you know what, our lawns and gardens are still beautiful,” said Michael Gaudet, president of the Quebec Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. “At my home, we do not use any chemical cleaners or any chemicals on our lawns. Our house is still clean and our lawn is still green.”
He is proud of the work for which his province is now gaining fame and frequently travels to the U.S. as a consultant or champion of the cause.
“I understand that most people think that if these lawn products were really dangerous, governments would ban them,” he said. “I used to think that way, too. Then my own family was terribly poisoned by pesticides applied at my neighbor’s home. The pesticide drift made us terribly sick . . . So I got involved in the fight, because the government isn’t going to do it for us.”
Alderman, for now anyway, is soberingly realistic about the short-term outcome. The chemical lobbyists are enormously well funded and powerful, and also have a little known loophole in the law on their side. Threatened by local California ordinances that were beginning to ban lawn chemicals back in 1991, the chemical industry moved swiftly — state by state — with a preemptive strike. In 41 states, individual local towns are currently powerless to prohibit homeowners from using lawn chemicals on their own properties.
“Towns can regulate their own town property, their library and probably their parks, but they can’t tell residents to stop using pesticides,” said Alderman. “Most people won’t stop unless laws tell them to stop.”
And though she’ll eagerly support Meyer’s bill in the Senate, she’s not sure her state’s lawmakers are ready to give up on the notion of perfect sports fields at the high schools. She often lectures in public with Harrington, but knows not everyone is ready to listen.
“In retrospect, it was probably a lot easier to start with the law protecting young children, because people can agree that lawn chemicals are probably not a good thing for young children,”said Alderman. “But banning chemicals on football fields with 17-year-olds on it? We might be ready for something like that in Connecticut; I’d like to think we are. But I honestly don’t think there’s a prayer in heaven that you can get a national bill for something like that.”
Meanwhile, she’ll continue to offer encouragement, and often condolences, to the occasional callers who find their way to her phone listing or the EHHI web site.
“I had a sad one the other day,” she said. “A woman’s dog had died and her own neighbor had to ask her if she had used pesticides on her lawn. She was so far in the dark about the dangers of lawn chemicals that she didn’t even know to tell her veterinarian that she had used these products. People just don’t make the connection that these products are making them and their pets really, really sick in many cases. It’s sad, isn’t it?”
Editor’s Note: In the three years since the bill passed in Connecticut, the anti-pesticide bill has still not passed at the high school level. In Canada, however, six provinces have either passed or are on the verge of passing anti-lawn pesticide legislation.