Lawn Chemicals Feed Health, Environmental Problems

Be aware of all these flags this spring. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Be aware of all these flags this spring. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

’Tis the season when the smell of synthetic fertilizer fills the air.

The amount of toxic chemicals dumped on lawns and public grounds annually to jolt grass to life and kill pests is staggering. Witness the many yellow and white flags now stuck in residential lawns throughout southern New England.

There’s a good reason these warning flags are planted. Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides: 17 are probable or possible carcinogens; 11 are linked to birth defects; 19 to reproductive impacts; 24 to liver or kidney damage; 14 possess neurotoxicity; and 18 cause disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Another 16 are toxic to birds; 24 are toxic to aquatic life; and 11 are deadly to bees, according to Beyond Pesticides.

Counting farmers and exterminators, about a billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States to eliminate weeds and insects, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

This heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilizers has turned neighborhood soil into de facto dumping grounds for lawn-care chemicals that threaten public health and the environment.

Scotts fertilizers — the company that sponsors the Johnson & Wales University athletic fields that rim the edge of Narragansett Bay in Providence — and the concoctions driven around in tank trucks generally contain a lot of nitrogen- and phosphorus-laden chemicals. These granules and sprays are often petroleum-based products designed to feed grass until the next application, generally within a few weeks. While these chemicals hang around “feeding your lawn,” they are breaking down and working their way into the environment.

Poisons from these artificial fertilizers can seep into groundwater, or turn to dust and ride the wind. They cling to people and pets who walk, run and lie on treated grass. They get kicked up during youth sporting events.

These chemicals can be inhaled like pollen, causing nausea, coughing, headaches and shortness of breath. For asthmatic kids, they can trigger coughing fits and asthma attacks.

If directly ingested, synthetic chemicals such as ammonium phosphate, potassium chloride and urea can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Studies have shown that these chemicals can linger in body tissue for years.

As stormwater carrying nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runs off into streams and rivers and eventually into larger waterbodies such as Narragansett Bay, Long Island Sound and Buzzards Bay, they impact ecosystems, contaminate drinking-water supplies and cause algae blooms that suck oxygen from water.

Also in those sacks of Scotts fertilizers and in commercial sprayers are pesticides, herbicides and fungicides designed to kill bugs and weeds. “Weed and feed” products like those with 2,4-D are bad for people and pets. A growing body of scientific evidence continues to confirm the widespread health effects of such products, and 2,4-D, the pesticide in most of these products, is a neurotoxicant that contains half the ingredients in Agent Orange, according to Beyond Pesticides.

In fact, pesticides are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency because most are carcinogens or suspected carcinogens. They are also especially bad for children and pregnant women, according to studies.

In Rhode Island, synthetic lawn chemicals are used routinely by about 40 percent of the state’s school districts, according to a 2008 report. State law requires schools using pesticides to inform officials, teachers and parents when pesticides are applied.

The 16-page report noted that pesticide exposure has been linked to a number of chronic health problems, including cancer, birth defects, endocrine disruption, asthma, neurological disorders and immune system deficiencies.

ecoRI News staff Tim Faulkner contributed to this report.