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Avoiding Second-Hand Pesticides: How to Talk to Your Neighbors About Their Lawn Chemicals

This sign lets your neighborhood know where you stand on the applications of pesticides.

This sign lets your neighborhood know where you stand on the applications of pesticides.

Those other signs are ubiquitous these days. “Caution.” “Warning.” “Danger.” “Keep off the Grass.” Usually in yellow, but sometimes in green, gray, red or black, the flags are nearly as plentiful as lawns themselves.

They are actually legal documents designed to warn pedestrians and homeowners about the very real dangers posed by EPA-registered products known as pesticides — the weed and insect killers and fungicides that are engineered, mostly in laboratories, to keep our lawns lush and green according to the larger society’s aesthetic standards. Depending on where you live, the warning signs are suppose to remain in place until the product is “dry,” or 24, 48 or 72 hours after the application. It’s all determined by the arbitrary whims of local lawmakers.

This benign sign offers no warning, but rather a polite suggestion.

This benign sign offers no warning, but rather a polite suggestion.

Of the many questions we receive here at SafeLawns, perhaps the ones that bring the most inherent angst are those concerning how to talk to neighbors who stubbornly refuse to cease applications of these toxic products. These are the people we need to live next to, the folks whose living rooms our children visit and, often, the friends we entrust with having our backs in times of need.

And when these folks apply pesticides themselves, without hiring a licensed lawn care company, they don’t even need to post. They almost assuredly don’t watch the wind speed or pattern, or concern themselves about whether or not it will rain later that day. They just apply the stuff they just bought at Wal-Mart — unaware that the stuff is banned in Canada because it’s so dangerous.

How to hold that most awkward of conversations is a study in nuance. There is no one right way to proclaim to another human being that he or she is doing something that is, at the least, offensive and, at the worst, life threatening.

Here are a few ideas we have found that can help:

BE CALM — Begin by offering to share your knowledge about pesticides with neighbors in non-threatening, friendly terms. Angry approaches rarely work, but chatty banter can get people’s attention: “Say, Joan, did you hear about a report from Cornell University about those products we put on lawns?” Joan shrugs, but she’s not yet on the defensive. “Yeah, I just read a study by Dr. David Pimentel at Cornell University found that as little as one-tenth of one percent of the weed killers we apply ever reach their target weed. That means most of the product is winding up in the wrong destination, maybe inside your house, or on your skin or in your lungs. And it’s costing a lot of money, most of which is wasted.” Really? says Joan. Maybe she shrugs again, but at least you might have her thinking.

THE SCHOOLTEACHER APPROACH — Collect web sites and magazine articles that can be photocopied and disseminated among friends. Some of the best on-line sources are www.BeyondPesticides.org, www.panna.org, www.ehhi.org and (of course) www.safelawns.org.

This pesticide warning sign, outside a hospital, tells readers to keep off the grass for 72 hours — but you have to be on the grass to be close enough to read it.

This pesticide warning sign, outside a hospital, tells readers to keep off the grass for 72 hours — but you have to be on the grass to be close enough to read it.

THE POLITICAL CAMPAIGN — Right before an election, those “VOTE-FOR-ME” signs pop up everywhere. Our SafeLawns “Safe to Play” signs, above, are a non-confrontational way to let everyone in our new neighborhood know exactly where we stand on the issue of weed killers — while avoiding the awkward conversation that my wife doesn’t want me to have with people she might need to help her someday when I’m out of town. Everyone on our cul-de-sac either walks or drives by daily and the sign helps explain why ours is the only lawn in the area with dandelions and clover growing freely.

A NIGHT OUT — Organize a local seminar and recruit an expert to speak (I’m asked to present at dozens of these events each year). Invite local garden clubs, watershed alliances, civic organizations and church groups to attend. Offer to buy your neighbor dinner on the way.

THE GIFT — Give your neighbor a book about the dangers of pesticides. One of the best new releases on the market is Dr. Sandra Steingraber’s Raising Elijah, about the challenges of developing a healthy child in an era of environmental crisis. We have begun to give our book, Tag, Toss & Run: 40 Classic Lawn Games as gifts around our neighborhood; the book is 99 percent about games, but it includes a page about the SafeLawns campaign to reduce pesticides. When parents see their children out rolling around in the grass playing all the games, maybe they’ll think twice about coating that grass with poisons.

LEAD BY EXAMPLE — If you grow a beautiful lawn and landscape without using chemicals, your neighbor will willingly follow your example. When we moved into this home last year, the lawn out front was thin, bare and ugly. A year later, we still have a few of what most people would call weeds — and my 5-year-old daughter calls flowers — but we also have one of the most green lawns in the neighborhood thanks to an organic approach that has focused on the soil health.

FIND COMMON GROUND — If your neighbor has children, then you can focus your conversation on the risks associated with pesticides around children. If your neighbor has a dog or a cat, show them studies that associate the health risks of pets around pesticides. Pesticides also affect fishermen, hunters, bird watchers, or the water supply.

The bottom line is that — if you get to know your neighbor — you can usually find a way to bring the conversation back to pesticides. It may not be easy to get them to change, just like it wasn’t easy to get rid of second-hand smoke in restaurants and other public places. But second-hand pesticides are just as bad; we can stop that, too, if we try.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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