Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Decreasing Your Family's Exposure to Pesticides, (Herbicides, Fungicides and Insecticides)

My Herbicide/Pesticide/Insecticide/Fungicide-free Yard

What pesticides are: Pesticides are chemicals meant to kill certain pests, including weeds (herbicides), fungus (fungicides) and insects (insecticides).

2,4-D, the herbicide found in most “weed and feed” programs, disrupts hormone processes in plants in order to kill them, and it just happens to be one of the active ingredients in Agent Orange.  It kills selectively and doesn't destroy grasses, making it a popular choice with fertilizer companies.  Farmers also use it on grains, rice and corn because their make-up is similar to that of grasses, so weeds that could kill these foods die and the corn, grains and rice thrive.

Where pesticides can be found: In many of our yards, playgrounds, parks, schoolyards, golf courses, soccer fields, trees and produce.  According to Slow Death By Rubber Duck, American lawns "consume 90 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides each year."  

Almost every lawn treatment program is the aforementioned weed-and-feed program, where they feed your grass with fertilizers and then use herbicides and sometimes insecticides to kill weeds and insects.  The terms "organic" or "natural" aren't regulated so any company can make those claims and sometimes they can be deceptive and still include poisons even if some of the product or treatment plan is organic.  As far as I know, there is no poison-free herbicide that can be selective in killing broad-leaf weeds and not your grass.  Remember, just because a fertilizer company shows people lying barefoot in the grass or dogs happily rolling in weed-free yards, doesn't necessarily mean it is actually "green."

Although the idea of having a green, weed-free lawn to be proud of is a dated one, many of us grew up thinking this was the ideal and just blindly went on to fertilize with poisons when we became home-owners because it was the norm.  Sadly, we allowed this outdated, inherited belief that everyone should have an emerald green, weed-free, water-guzzling, resource-wasting lawn to prevail.  I have seen people obsessively spray their lawns with herbicides even after their lawn is chemically treated by professionals, determined to get every one of those weeds.  One of my friends' HOA rules even dictates the maximum weed height allowed.  We often forget that weeds grow so well because they're native plants, meant to thrive in our natural conditions.

The health effects of pesticides:
According to Slow Death By Rubber Duck, some of the long-term effects of exposure to 2,4-D include non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, neurological impairment, asthma, immune system suppression, reproductive problems and birth defects.

The book also discusses the work of Dr. Theo Colburn, who studied the effects of pesticides on infant brains.  It notes that even small and brief doses of pesticides can damage infant brains.

See more health effects here from the Pesticide Action Network.

How to decrease your exposure to pesticides:

1.) Xeriscape.  Plant native plants that don't need to be watered because they are meant to thrive in natural conditions in your area.

2.) Use a truly natural, poison-free lawn program.  In Michigan, we use A-1 Organics.  They don't use any poisons and don't weed-and-feed.  All they do is feed your lawn with natural, non-synthetic chemical fertilizers and they fight weed growth by over-seeding your grass.

3.) If it were up to me, we wouldn't do a thing about the weeds.  But we live in a subdivision with rules so to get the weeds out, we do it the old-fashioned way: by hand.  A dandelion weeding tool and a tool like this one by Fiskars, which allows you to stand and pull weeds with deep root systems out, are extremely useful for weeding your lawn.  When we can't weed, we hire neighborhood kids to do it.  
You can look online for natural weed killing methods but just be aware that natural methods like vinegar and boiling water will not discriminate what they kill.  So if they land on an insect or your grass, chances are they will kill them in addition to the weeds you were aiming for.

Like Kermit said, it's not (always) easy being green.  Depending on the size of your lawn, fighting weeds can be tough.  But if you find a truly natural company in your state, like we have in Michigan, they will usually help you figure out other tips to fight weeds naturally.  You can also finds helpful organic lawn care tips on watering and mowing such as these online.

4.) Eat organic when possible.  If it isn't possible to buy the majority of your produce organic, try to purchase the EWG's Dirty Dozen and previous years' Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables in organic form rather than their conventionally sprayed counterparts.

If you have a chemically treated lawn, remember that just because you mark off a patch of garden above ground to grow your vegetables in, doesn't mean that it is truly segregated underground, where the herbicides and other pesticides that are sprayed can seep into the roots of your vegetable garden (or onto the plant itself, if the fertilizer applicator accidentally sprays some in that direction.  When I take my dog on a walk after our neighbors have had their lawns treated, the concrete sidewalks in our neighborhood are peppered with tiny little balls of fertilizer and pesticide, so it isn't too far-fetched to think some can get on your plants above ground too, whether it is applied in solid or liquid form).  It is for this reason that I try to avoid eating fruits and vegetables grown in home gardens in summer.

5.) Urge your schools and Parks and Rec to eliminate poisons from their parks and playgrounds.  There is no need for us or our children to be breathing in pesticide fumes for the majority of the year thanks to overly-zealous neighbors or city officials who are uninformed.  Let them know the effects of these chemicals and let's break the cycle of these inherited beliefs.  Check out Beyond Pesticide's website for more info on how to inform your neighbors, local paper, school administration and officials about this issue here.

Canada has several municipalities and a couple provinces (including Ontario) with a ban in place on the cosmetic application of pesticides on private property.  This is amazing.  And if Canada could do it several years ago, one can hope we can do it in America within our lifetime.  So speak up, speak out, and let your actions speak for you as well.  Stop using lawn chemicals and tell your neighbors why you don't.  Hopefully one day poison-free yards and parks and playgrounds will be the norm and we won't be greeted by that ubiquitous chemical smell on morning walks in spring, summer and fall.

Further reading:

1.) Slow Death By Rubber Duck
2.) The NRDC on 2,4-D
3.) Beyond Pesticides, a group dedicated to educating Americans on pesticide health-risks and making a change
4.) The Pesticide Action Network
5.) More info on the Cosmetic Pesticide Ban in certain areas of Canada

Previous Posts in My Series on Decreasing Your Exposure to Toxins:
1.) PFOAs
2.) BPA
3.) Triclosan
4.) PBDEs

5.) Phthalates


  1. What do you do if someone invites you over to dinner and serves food from their garden?

    1. In that case I would eat it. My thinking is to avoid these toxins as much as possible. You can't always avoid it but you do what you can.