Chemical Pesticides: A Vicious Cycle
Everyone wants a green healthy-looking lawn, but at what price? Many people that want the perfect lawn turn to pesticides and herbicides to keep their grass and plants looking fresh. While chemical pesticides can keep a lawn looking healthy, appearances are deceiving. The same chemicals that kill unwanted insects and weeds also kill beneficial organisms in the yard. Since beneficial organisms take longer to recover from poisoning than pest species, using chemical pesticides creates a vicious cycle, where the more the pesticide is used the more likely it is that pests will return in the future, requiring further use of chemical pesticides.
Problems with pesticides and herbicides aren't confined to the lawns where they are applied; they can runoff into lakes and leach into groundwater. More troubling, certain varieties of pesticides have been linked to serious health problems in humans and animals.
Pesticides in the news
In September, the U.S. EPA acknowledged a petition from SAVE THE FROGS! to ban the widely used herbicide atrazine, and announced that it is seeking comments from the public. SAVE THE FROGS! began the petition in response to the unprecedented decline in amphibian population. Atrazine is shown to affect the immune, hormone, and reproductive systems of fish and amphibians, sometimes leading to hermaphroditism, and causing male frogs to become female to the extent that they are able to lay viable eggs.
Since atrazine doesn't effectively cling to soil particles, it can run off into surface water and leach into ground water, making it one of the most common contaminants in rivers, streams and wells. Even at concentrations below the EPA standard, it has been linked to birth defects, endocrine disruption and cancer in humans.
Prior to the recent call to ban atrazine, in 2008 the Natural Resources Defense Council made a similar petition to the EPA to ban 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), the most common active ingredient in home and garden pesticides, and (alarmingly) half of the recipe for Agent Orange. It is widely used because it is cheaper than many of the newer and somewhat safer pesticides available. About half of all surface water samples in the U.S. and the groundwater of at least five states and Canada test positive for traces of the pesticide.
2,4-D is an endocrine disruptor and poses potential health risks from thyroid problems, prostate cancer and reproductive abnormalities in humans. In animal studies, it is linked to neurotoxic effects, including brain cell death and delays in brain development. The chemical has already been outlawed in Denmark, Norway and Sweden for several years.
Following the lead of the Scandinavian countries, Canada has made great progress in chemical pesticide and herbicide regulation over the past few years. Quebec was the first Canadian province to take action by banning 20 active ingredients (including 2,4-D) found in 210 lawn-care products in 2006. Ontario (Canada’s most populous province) went a step further and banned the use and sale of 250 pesticide products on Earth Day in 2009. Ontario's government takes the position that using these chemicals for purely cosmetic lawn care presents an unnecessary risk to families and pets based on information from medical experts, including the Canadian Cancer Society. British Columbia is closer than ever to a province-wide ban, as another municipality is seeking to ban chemical pesticides in response to pressure from consumers. A council member from the most recent municipality considering the ban pointed out that as the demand from consumers for natural alternatives increases, businesses are more likely to switch away from using chemical pesticides even without a legal ban.
This point bears repeating: the spending choices we make collectively as consumers drive the decisions that businesses make. Each time we choose to buy either an organic or a chemical pesticide we are casting a vote for which product we support.
The best way to control pests is to prevent them from showing up in the first place. Maintaining a healthy ecosystem in your back yard is the key to effective pest prevention. The EPA recommends starting out by selecting plants that are native to your region and grow well in the amount of sun, soil type and water available in your yard. The next step is using mulch (leaves, aged wood chips, compost or grass clippings) to stabilize soil temperature, provide nutrients for plants and prevent weeds. The EPA also recommends watering deeply, but infrequently, to let the soil partially dry between waterings and not cutting the grass too short, since taller grass chokes out many varieties of weeds.
Alternatives to chemical pesticides
When prevention fails or pests have already taken hold, it is not necessary to turn to chemical pesticides when there are so many organic garden pest control methods available. Sustainable Baby Steps has many suggestions for organic pest control, including the following from their website:
- Beneficial Insects: Beneficial insects are a must in organic garden pest control. Lady bugs, praying mantis, some spiders, lacewings, certain types of nematodes and even wasps will take care of many insect problems. Certain flowers will attract these insects: herbs like dill, fennel and cilantro; flowers like cosmos or geraniums or even dandelions are said to attract ladybugs. Or you can get a local community going by purchasing them from a local plant nursery.
- Other Beneficial Creatures: Many amphibians or reptiles, such as lizards or frogs, will happily gobble up your insect problem. Backyard birds will often do the same. It's important to create a safe, healthy habitat for such animals to live. Keep your cats indoors, set up a birdhouse or maintain a small water source (something that can be easily cleaned in case of mosquitoes). You may even consider creating an entire habitat and purchasing frogs naturally found in your area that can set up house in your yard.
- Hand-picking: This may be time-consuming but in most healthy gardens it is an efficient, inexpensive way of taking care of small insect populations, such as tomato horn worms or aphids. Check the undersides of leaves, and squish bugs you find or remove the leaf entirely. Practicing this organic garden pest control technique for a few minutes each day should prevent most infestations from becoming serious problems.
- Sticky Traps: Traps (similar to fly paper) attract insects with color or odor, trapping them on the highly sticky surface. These are great during the first insect hit of the season for removing a large number of bugs. The traps can then be thrown away.
- Soapy or Oily Water: Spraying soapy water or an oil and water mixture suffocates insects, such as aphids. It is safe to use around beneficial insects, but needs reapplying after rain. The sun can also cause burn spots on sprayed leaves, so spray primarily on the undersides.
- Diatomaceous Earth: DE is the fossilized remains of diatoms and acts both as a repellent and a bug assassin. It can be sprinkled on or around the plant or mixed in water and sprayed onto the leaves. To the bug, it supposedly looks shiny and sparkly to scare them off. If any daring bugs go near it, it sucks the moisture out of them. DE can harm beneficial insects so it should only be used when absolutely necessary! It can be drying to the skin of humans and should not be inhaled. Be sure to purchase food grade DE, not the stuff they sell at pool supply stores.
Breaking the vicious cycle
Even if you have already established a pattern of using chemical pesticides, it is not too late to switch to more natural alternatives. According to Sustainable Baby Steps, "restoring health to an unhealthy environment takes time, work and lots of compost." Keep in mind that initially there may be more insect problems since the balance in species takes time to recover. Be patient, remember that your lawn does not have to look like a golf course, and congratulate yourself for making the effort to do your part in improving the environment.
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