Organic lawn care is, for the most part, common sense. Once you get beyond the advertising that has given most Americans the idea that pay and spray is the only way to have a lawn to be proud of, the pieces start to fall in place. You realize that the plants want to grow and that our job is mostly to give them the conditions to do so and then get out of the way.
This involves two basic principles: take care of the soil and the micro-organisms that live in it, and chose appropriate plants (grass or otherwise) to grow in it. The people who want to sell you stuff make it sound a lot more complicated, but it isn’t.
Human and Animal Health
It is important to understand how pesticides move around in the environment in order to understand how we can be exposed to them even if we are not using them ourselves. Like second hand smoke our exposure is not always voluntary. A Good summary of this issue can be found on the University of Minnesota web site for a course called Public Health 5103. Read the PubH 5103 Course Materials
The Example of Atrazine
Atrazine is one of the most frequently detected pesticides in drinking water in the USA, and while there is some controversy over its harmfulness (mostly because of insufficient evidence to eliminate doubt as to conclusions) it is often found in the presence of other contaminants as well, as synergetic effects are not even considered. We have a good report on Atrazine in Drinking Water from Physicians for Social Responsibility.
One of the biggest questions any parent who uses lawn chemicals needs to ask themselves is: is it worth endangering your family just have a picture perfect lawn? Kids are more sensitive to developmental disruption, and spend more time in close contact with the lawn, so the question is real. A University of Northern Iowa web page summarizes the risks and says NO.
Chemicals In The Schools
Home is not the only place kids are exposed to pesticides. A 2005 USA Today article detailed pesticide poisoning among school kids nationwide.
Even Worse For The Unborn
It’s even worse for fetuses, according to a report from Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) that looked at research up through mid-2006. You can download the report from us, or visit the PSR site for a whole range of relevant studies.
What Kinds of Health Problems?
Different chemicals have different modes of action (as noted in the transport article above) so the laundry list of problems is substantial. Probably the most alarming is the historical rise in childhood cancer rates and gender disruption statistically coincident with the rise in pesticide usage. [Read More]
How To Minimize Exposure
Physicians for Social Responsibility has produced a brochure detailing strategies for reducing childhood exposure to pesticides, and we have put a copy of it here on the site for you to download. Click here to view ‘Pesticides and Kids’. Their site has a lot of important resource.Visit Physicians for Social Responsibililty.
It’s Not Just The Kids, Either
At the same time that cancers among kids are rising, so are cancers in domestic animals, and there a number of studies that link this to use of lawn chemicals. Rachel’s Weekly, one of the oldest environmental newsletters on the Internet, provided an excellent summary of this all the way back in 1991 in Issue #250.
One of the core principles of organic is that the health of the soil microbial community is the key to the health of the plants growing in that soil and the health of the organisms (that would be us!) that depend on them. Here is the background information on soil health for those of you who want to really delve into it. The relations between soil health and the ability to resist erosion run-off is one key to environmental advantages of organic turf management.
One of the major conceptual views of how organic systems work is called the Soil Food Web. For a detailed introduction to the concept, see this entry in the online collaborative Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soil_food_web.
There is an extensive scientific literature studying the quality of water that has run off or percolated through the soil of urban and suburban landscapes including lawns and golf courses. This “non-point source pollution” has become a significant problem in many watersheds, and is clearly affected by lawn care practices. What does not end up directly in our lakes and streams seeps down into the groundwater from which drinking and irrigation supplies are drawn.
Any water soluble material applied to turf will either run off (in excessive rain) or percolate down through the soil into groundwater. Many lawn chemicals persist for long periods in soil and water, and synthetic fertilizers use much more soluble forms of nitrogen (and phosphorus) than organic fertilizers, and thus there is an increased risk of groundwater pollution – a very serious issue in communities that draw their drinking water from those sources.
The group Beyond Pesticides produced a great summary of this issue in 2006. We have provided a copy here on the site. Click here to view ‘Pesticides and Water Quality’. Their own website also has a lot of good material.
A United States Geological Survey circular published in 2000 detailed the contamination of groundwater in coastal New York and New Jersey. Read USGS Circular 1201.
A 2004 study of nitrate concentrations in Long Island, NY groundwater raised concerns about the safety of the water there. Read the SUNY Groundwater Study.
The USGA Green Section Record published a study in 1995 that looked at Nitrogen and Phosphorus runoff from golf fairways. We have put a copy here on the site. Click here to view ‘N-P Fate on Golf Courses’.
As with soil and water, the chemicals and fertilizers applied to turf don’t seem to stay put, but migrate into the commons. The differences between conventional and organic turf and grounds maintenance in terms of air quality have not been as well studied, but what research we have found is gathered here.
Spraying The World
Many homeowners have the mistaken impression that the chemicals and fertilizers they apply to their yards stay put…and that if they don’t use them they won’t be exposed. But that is patently not true. They do move about. About a week after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine, measurable radioactivity traced to that explosion was detected in the rain over western New England, having traveled all the way around the world before being squeezed out in a rainstorm. The same happens with persistent chemicals that become airborne. See this article in the Albion Monitor for more.
Disclaimer – Accuracy of any documents from third parties are their responsibility. We do our best to offer only information we trust to be both scientifically accurate and politically balanced, but there are times when the best source in one of those two aspects may be deficient in the other.