By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Like everyone else, I’ve been examining my use of oil and petrochemicals in the wake of the BP hemorrhage in the gulf.

We all know that getting a higher mileage car, a hybrid or even an electric vehicle, would slash our personal oil dependency.

But if you’re like me, not ready to trade in the functioning vehicle in the driveway, you’ll need to look elsewhere to squeeze some oil out of your consumption. Fortunately, and unfortunately, American consumer goods are infused with petrochemicals and oil byproducts. Plastics, pesticides and a vast array of products are made with oil. Not to mention that many of the foods we buy have high oil costs when they’re transported from thousands of miles away. So pick your starting point, reduce and recycle plastics; buy local food; go organic.

Today, let’s consider just one category: Petrochemicals in lawn care pesticides.

Organic and green, our lawn ain't perfect, but it's not toxic

A lot of those synthetic lawn applications, the weed-and-feeds, fertilizers and pest control products touted by big retailers are made with oil, specifically with petroleum hydrocarbons that make the compounds used in pesticides.

Americans use an estimated 70 million pounds of these chemicals every season. So it’s safe to say that reducing their use is one way to cut oil consumption.

Putting aside the issue of oil consumption (which makes us complicit in risky ventures like deep sea oil drilling), these products contain some nasty chemicals that are more than sufficiently dangerous in their own right.  The pesticides that so many families blithely dump on their front yards are increasingly linked to negative health effects, such as leukemia, breast cancer, childhood brain cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, diabetes, fertility issues, ADHD and other neurological effects, depending on the chemical and degree of exposure.

But even more to the point, there’s no need to weigh these health risks against the benefits. (Hmmm, healthy kid or healthy lawn?) A sturdy turf lawn is achievable without chemicals. And that’s one dirty little truth that’s taking root. There are a growing number of organic lawn care firms and products in North America. Some states (New York and New Jersey) are taking action to reduce pesticide applications. In Canada, many cities, including Toronto, have banned the use of pesticides for “cosmetic reasons”.

The salient truth is that pesticides can have terrible consequences, even Beyond Petroleum, and even if they’re not immediately obvious. Studies of drinking water and composting facilities show that many of these chemicals persist, turning back up at our kitchen table.

Let’s compare that to the dangers of an organic lawn. It might have a few weeds from time to time. It could, horrors, produce some dandelions in spring.

We got slammed with a citation from our homeowner’s association this spring over a crop of dandelions that I blame on some seedy compost we spread the previous fall. It did look bad. Except, of course, to the bees. We are still learning how to best maintain an organic lawn, in our spare time.

Despite the dandelion crop, our efforts are paying off. Right now the lawn is a beautiful green, which I attribute to the soil building we’ve done over the past few years. It’s true what they say, organic lawns require more patience. We had to burn dandelions with a lighter (I guess we used a petrochemical for that!) after the citation, which was tedious. We have treated for fire ants with grits, which requires a lot of grits, while you grit your teeth and wait. We have consulted an irrigation specialist on how best to water, and not over water.

We’re motivated to keep after it because we like knowing we’re not adding to the chemical burden in the world, and in some small way, our petrochemical use is reduced.

I’m sure it’s this education curve that keeps a lot of people from switching over. You have to learn new methods, and you can’t just grab a total fix in a bag. What people don’t realize is that these quick-fix lawn solutions aren’t helping them in the long run. Talk to any successful organic gardener and they’ll tell you that it gets easier over time, because the soil is enriched in an organic program. Chemical treatments, by contrast, kill microorganisms and other soil life, rendering them sterile over time.

If that doesn’t sound like a great long term plan, and you’d like to make the switch, there are many places to get sound advice. Check out these:

  • The Ecology Center in Berkeley, Calif., a dean of the environmental movement, has put out a short, reliable guide for keeping a chemical-free lawn. Their “Tips for a Healthy Beautiful Lawn” emphasizes mowing correctly (cutting only the top third of the blade in summer), aerating and fertilizing with grass clippings as natural ways to help a lawn thrive.
  • Beyond Pesticides, an advocacy group whose mission is well captured in their name, offers a plethora of advice for organic living. See their tip sheet Five Reasons To Not Use Weed and Feed, which includes a description of the dangers of 2,4 dioxane, a toxic chemical used in weed-and-feeds that’s guaranteed to get you thinking about what your children and pets are exposed to on their own turf.

Need more convincing?

See the film A Chemical Reaction, which explains how and why many Canadians are now protected from the health consequences of lawn pesticides. Or read this insightful blog on pesticides by Dr. Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.

If you care about birds, you may want to read more about how today’s pesticides continue to kill, even without DDT, the legendarily lethal pesticide that’s banned in the U.S. but still used around the world to control malaria.

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