Guest Blog by Tom Kelly: New Hampshire Needs to Proceed Toward Pesticide Ban
NOTE: Tom Kelly of New Hampshire was co-founder of one of the largest chemical lawn care companies in New England. Recently he launched an all-organic lawn care supply company, Fire Belly Organics, in response to his belief that lawn chemicals were harming people, pets and the planet. On Oct. 5, 2010 he spoke out in favor of legislation that would ban applications of weed and insect killers for cosmetic purposes around schools and other places children routinely congregate. We asked him to reflect on his experience.
BY TOM KELLY
BEFORE I TELL YOU ABOUT MY DAY YESTERDAY, I need to share a story from this past week. I had a conversation with an employee of a company outside of New Hampshire that supplies lawn care pesticides to licensed applicators. A municipal employee of a certain town had come in and stated that he had found a small area of a soccer field in the beginning stages of grub damage. He was afraid that after it was determined that the field had grubs he would lose his job; he felt that he had to take a drastic action to control the insects.
Even though he had only found the turf damaging insects in a small area of the field he wanted to proceed in treating all three of the fields in his complex with trichlorfon, a curative and contact subsurface insect control classified as an organophosphate. He placed an order for enough product to treat 200,000 square feet of turf — even though he found grubs in an area that totaled less than 200 square feet. The supplier explained that not only was it a poor financial decision to purchase that much unnecessary product, but that he would have to notify the school system — who would then have to notify all of the parents of the children attending the school that the application would be performed.
The supplier also warned the applicator of the environmental impact of performing such a widespread treatment of a product that is well known to be dangerous. Applying this product to such a large open area would likely not only have an environmental polluting effect, but it could very well cause bird kills.
The response of the applicator was that his job was on the line and he wasn’t going to notify anybody of the treatment. He just needed to ensure that grubs were not going to destroy his fields and this was the only way he knew how to make that happen. The fact of the matter is that at some point this weekend at least one child will slide enthusiastically into the turf on one of those fields. Another child will be knocked down face first into the cushion of the grass and countless others will find their soccer and football uniforms, hands and bodies covered with grass stains and trichlorfon. Without a doubt scores of children will legitimately ingest large doses of an organophosphate and not one of their parents will have a clue that it is happening.
SCHEDULED IN NEW HAMPSHIRE YESTERDAY was a discussion of whether or not the above scenario should ever be allowed to happen, or if any pesticides used to kill anything on lawns are worth the inherent risk to children. Or at least that was supposed to be the discussion.
Government in the form of a democracy is by its very nature and design a slow and frustrating process. A “government of the people, by the people and for the people” guarantees that every opinion that wishes to be stated must be heard. The legislative process clearly takes this into consideration when defining what the “laws of the land” shall be. When all opinions are heard in the interest of creating said legislation one can deduce that the law of averages will most often prevail. Between extremism and conservatism lies the middle ground of an acceptable understanding of right and wrong.
This frustrating legislative grind was clearly vivid in Concord, N.H., yesterday as members of the New Hampshire House Environment and Agriculture Committee continued their discussion of HB 1456. This particular bill was introduced earlier this year to create a study concerning the use of pesticides and their alternatives where children congregate. Although the wording of the bill was a bit vague, it was understood that the pesticides called into question were those used for aesthetic purposes when it comes to the care of turf. For several hours yesterday afternoon members of the committee, much to the chagrin of most in the room, discussed everything but those particular products. In the midst of that aforementioned governing process, the true spirit of the bill, at least yesterday, was buried in illogical discussion concerning bed bugs, malaria and DDT.
It is important to note that New Hampshire places a strong emphasis on personal liberties and the belief that less government is a good government. Let’s not forget that state law does not require operators of motorcycles to wear helmets, or consumers of beverages to recycle their bottles. New Hampshire takes pride in freedom of choice and a firm conviction that it is not the job of the government to tell you what you can and can’t do in the operation of your own personal life. Because of these old fashioned virtues an all out ban of the use of pesticides for aesthetic purposes on all New Hampshire lawns will not become a reality any time soon. However, HB 1456 is doing something incredibly important by generating a truly valid conversation about risks associated with the use of pesticides in the presence of children — especially in places where their parents may not be aware that those pesticides are actually present.
The unfortunate thing here is that during this discussion the frame of reference is often blurred. In place of discussing the potential dangers of our need to control a dandelion we were either consciously or unconsciously steered off course to talk about saving children in Africa from malaria. In place of discussing the dangers associated with the misuse and overuse of insecticides, we spent too long talking about the seemingly unstoppable spread of bed bugs. This bill isn’t about those issues!
Deep within the crux of this particular debate we must remain focused on the fact that we are putting the health of our children and the environment in danger in the mere interest of keeping a weed out of our playgrounds. Very simply stated, the pesticides we’re talking about are synthetic chemical compounds that have been designed to destroy something. Their creation, existence and purpose is to kill by a particular mode of action and in many cases this mode of action is to attack and destroy the cellular structure of a living thing. It doesn’t take a scientist to understand that if a chemical compound is destroying the central nervous system of a bug, it well could be having an impact on the central nervous system of a child.
Again, let’s remember that we are talking about killing things to make grass look nice. This argument isn’t about killing things in the interest of suppressing an outbreak of a disease, nor is it about attempting to control an infestation of an insect that causes a serious societal health concern. This is about killing a dandelion in a playground. One of the most frustrating parts of the discussion yesterday afternoon was when Representative Leigh Webb (D, Franklin) said very clearly that he considers the use of pesticides to be an “acceptable risk.” He then stated on the record that the risk was no different to him than stepping out of his front door in the morning. Are we honestly willing to accept the risk of inducing grave health concerns with our children simply to ensure that our grass is free of weeds? Again, we are not talking about the spread of bed bugs in our cities and we are not talking about the transmission of a deadly outbreak of malaria because of mosquito populations in Uganda. We’re talking about grass. In New Hampshire. I must remain optimistic that Representative Webb did not understand the true meaning of his remarks. The risk associated with killing a weed is acceptable when applied to potential health concerns of unknowing children and their parents? The death of a weed is worth the risk?
THE LAWN CARE INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE HAS TAKEN A BEATING in recent years and it can legitimately be traced back to an illogical obsession of some business owners who want to protect their right to use dangerous pesticides two or three times a year. These irrational arguments are not representative of the overall industry and it is my opinion that the work of just a few lawn care business owners is actually casting the entire industry in a terrible light. Lawn care service companies are NOT pesticide companies and somebody needs to step up and explain this to the public. The use of pesticides should play a very small role in creating a healthy lawn. With increased education and research concerning organic methods, people will see that synthetic pesticides are not needed at all. Most professionals I know in the industry will welcome that day when they no longer have to put themselves or their families at risk just to do their jobs. I know I have. But in the meantime, the chemical extremists who believe they are saving the industry are, in the process, actually destroying the industry through the negative image they perpetuate.
This inexcusable promotion of profit and power over the health and safety of children is reprehensible. Although I believe that the vast — and I mean vast — majority of lawn care services are run by good people who are not being represented properly in this debate, I want to state very clearly that as a veteran of the chemical lawn care industry for close to two decades I am calling on the Environment and Agriculture Committee to proceed with some sort of legislation that protects our children from our own reckless behavior. The guy who ordered 10 times more trichlorfon than he should have for a soccer field is not alone; he’s just the tip of the iceberg. It is therefore the absolute responsibility of our government here in New Hampshire to keep the spirit of House Bill 1456 alive and continue to work on legislation that will protect our children from the dangers associated with pesticide exposure. Keep the process simple; keep the process logical even if it seems to fly in the face of the typical legislative grind.