My former hometown, the leftie enclave of Takoma Park, Maryland, has made big news, y’all! Since passing the Safe Grow Zone Act last summer it became the first town in the U.S. to outlaw lawn pesticides on not just public but also private land. Some jurisdictions – in Connecticut, New York, and Greenbelt, MD – restrict use of pesticides on public land, but unlike most of Canada, Americans have resisted restrictions on private land – until now.
Some exemptions apply, though. The local water-protection group wouldn’t get on board unless herbicides could continue to be used to kill invasive plants. Homeowners who were otherwise supportive rallied to keep their Roundup, too. So the law includes exemptions for poison ivy, invasives, and disease-carrying or venemous insects.
But the law made me wonder: Why just lawn and not the whole garden? So I tracked down the two activists behind the law and they told me that lawn is their main concern because of known waterway damage from pesticides broadcast on lawns, and it’s a start. The education campaign included in the law will teach residents about the dangers of products they may still be using on their sickly ornamentals, which could lead to reduction in their use of hazardous products there, too, not just on the lawn.
Damage to the Chesapeake Bay caused by lawn products has been well documented, and not just from pesticides. Algae plumes caused by fertilizer run-off are a huge problem, but Maryland’s new fertilizer law addresses that. That’s why the Takoma Park law dealt only with pesticides.
The law goes in effect in March of 2014 for commercial applicators and a year later for homeowners. The mandated education campaign has already started, though, with a talk by Paul Tukey about organic lawn care.
But how do you enforce a ban on what residents can use on their own lawn? By requiring that any products broadcast on lawns be posted with the name of the product. So if someone is spreading something and there’s no posting, they can be cited, and the product named on the downloadable form had better be legal.
The Banned Products
The law provides for a registry of banned products to be compiled by Beyond Pesticides, and that hasn’t been completed yet, but I’m told it’ll include Weed and Feed products (you know how sorry we all are to hurt the profits of Scotts Miracle-Gro!) and chemicals like 2-4-D, Orthomax, Dicamba, and grub-killers.
Readers may remember that the anti-pesticide movement in Canada was started by an unconventional-looking dermatologist named June Irwin in the small town of Hudson, Ontario. Patient complaints associated with lawn-care products motivated her push for a stop to their use and she succeeded – ultimately across the continent.
Here in the States the stubborn anti-pesticide ring-leaders look like the girls next door, but they proved to be just as persistent. Julie Taddeo, professor of history, mother of an 8-year-old, and Catherine Cummings, an artist and mother of two kids, 8 and 4, are neighbors and leaflet-wielding comrades. They tell me they’d never done anything like this before, so why this, and now? As Catherine told one reporter, “Our immediate neighbors use lawn pesticides. We quickly realized our kids were at risk from their use. … Children, pets, our creek—all of us—are exposed to drift and runoff.”
And according to Julie, “Honestly, it’s just something that has always bothered me, since I was a teen and my suburban neighborhood in upstate NY witnessing the appearance of the yellow signs indicating that pesticides had been applied. My parents thought it was odd that people would put chemicals on their lawns to kill dandelions (I joke all the time about this, but it’s true– I’m Italian American and we picked the greens for salads and fritattas, and my grandfather made dandelion wine. Now I pay $6 a bunch at Whole Foods for what other people are dousing with poisons).
“Many years later, now that I am a parent, I felt it was time to do more than just complain about this. It’s a real environmental hazard that threatens all of us and is completely unnecessary. I can sort of control what we eat and do in our house, but I can’t control what drifts onto my lawn or what my child runs through and plays in (even in our yard because we are bordered by two homes who use conventional lawn care companies). Once we got deeply involved in the issue and read more and more studies about possible links to childhood cancers, Parkinson’s in adults, ADHD, etc, we knew we had to do something.”
Their town councilman encouraged them to build support by getting signatures on a petition, leafleting, and asking for a presentation before the Council. Eighteen months later, the bill was passed unanimously.
Julie and Catherine told me the opposition came mainly from a small group of neighbors who didn’t defend the products themselves but objected to the proposed law on libertarian grounds. In response, it was pointed out that the town has a tradition of passing laws affecting private property – forbidding the planting of bamboo and restricting noise, for example. Naturally, City Council members heard from lobby groups – an affiliate of the pro-chemical group CropLife and a lobbyist from the Maryland Turfgrass Council.
Try this at Home
Julie and Catherine’s advice for anyone who’d like such a law in their town? The “most important words” are: run-off, drift-in (from spraying, and pesticides can drift up to two miles) and track-in (from shoes and paws). Chemical drift, which goes right through screens, is a problem for asthmatics in particular, a condition affecting Catherine’s son. Both run-off and drift prove that products used on private property DO affect other people. Call it “chemical trespass,” and analogize it to secondhand smoke. Nearby gardeners who grow food are potential allies.
For help in mounting your own campaign against pesticides, scroll down on this link for information from Beyond Pesticides, starting with whether your state allows towns to pass more restrictive laws than those at the state level (only nine states do).
And know what you’ll be facing if you try. Julie reports that “This issue was very time consuming and at times emotionally draining, especially when some residents opposed us and tried to make it personal– calling us “emotional” and “irrational” (even though we had lots of scientists, doctors, and people who work(ed) for the EPA in our corner. One local journalist liked to write about us for his on-line newspaper, calling us the “green nannies”– trivializing the issue, but we just ignored all of that, and I think not responding to the attacks worked in our benefit. We just focused on the issue and the law, and that’s why the majority stayed with us and we had key support from people like [state and council delegates,] the Green Party, CASA de Maryland, and 450 residents.”
Kudos to Takoma Park for listening to its stubborn, fact-wielding residents and taking action. And a big high-five to Julie and Catherine, activists in the tradition of Rachel Carson, who lived nearby and changed millions of minds using the power of facts.
That is just awesome. That is all I have to say.
Good news. Would love to see something like this in my town, but most of my neighbors are holding to their chemically-induced perfect turf with steel claws. I’m the weirdo who wants bees & welcomes spiders (most, anyway) & would rather have a “diverse” lawn than carpet-like monoculture.
However … I can just imagine certain homeowners sneaking bags of turfbuilder & crabgrass killer out of their garages @ 2 a.m. and spreading it under cover of dark. Carefully sweeping up any granules that fall on hard surfaces, so as not to get caught. Touting green fertilizers & pesticides & pretending to weed their perfect lawns, while still secretly poisoning the ground their children play on.
I doubt the law will stop many people from using the stuff on residential property. It’ll just send them underground. Those who don’t want these chemicals stopped using them long ago.
Ohhhh. Such a great story. It’s a hopeful sign that there are still people willing to work hard (and endure public name-calling) to make their neighborhood a better place to live.
And the law does so much more than restrict the activities of people in the neighborhood. It shines a light on the growing body of research about the effects of these chemicals, which may cause others to notice and investigate.
During a recent trip to Canada, I felt good seeing the “freedom lawns” in public and private places, and thinking about the healthy soil thriving under them, as well as kids and pets and wild animals moving across them unharmed. I hope to see this life-affirming change spread across the USA as well.
How very exciting and even encouraging! Way to go!!!! And thank You, Susan Harris for all the great work you do helping North America rethink its imbecilic lawn behavior!!!
I would be ok with banning 2-4D dicamba triclopyr etc that are used for weed control in lawns but am opposed to legislated controls mandating only organic products. In fact our town is currently operating an an “organic ” policy that never had public meetings and has not been voted on by council. Clearly lawns have negative impacts on the bay if treated heavily with fertiliers or pesticides. Remember though it was overfertiliatioon with chicken manure by farmers on the eastern shore that was identified as a major part of the problem. Manure is an “organic ” product. I would prefer if Greenbelt feels the urge to regulate that they use the Pesticide Action Network’s pesticide database and ban chemicals listed there as bad actors. There are a number of “organic” products that I will not use because of their hazard to the applicator or the environment. Copper sprays for instance build in the soil and are toxic to plants at levels as low as 500 ppm. Horticultural vinegar is actually a strong acid, 20 % ascetic acid, has a Danger label and is very hazardous for the applicator. Copper sulphate and a number of others are highly toxic. Rotenone, is linked with Parkinson like symptoms by NIH. Organic is becoming big business and they love it when folks rush to make them the law. People need to become better informed about the issues before they start legislating here in Greenbelt.
I agree. The simplistic notion that ‘organic’ is always less harmful is a problem. Our goal should not be focused on the false dichotomy of ‘organic’ versus synthetic but simply using whatever products or practices that allow the best results with the least amount of environmental harm.
Good points, Bill! And I’m assuming/hoping that the list of banned products will be based on SCIENCE, not gut. There’s far too much gut involved in discussions of environmental issues, imho. And science tells us that “organic” isn’t the same as safe or nontoxic. My favorite example is tobacco, which the self-proclaimed guru Jerry Baker recommends spraying the juice of all over the garden to make it “clean and green.” All natural, he proclaims! True enough, and super-lethal.
Thank you for pointing this out.
The number of people who think organic means no spraying is involved is mind-boggling. People are also immediately afraid of any word that sounds too “chemical”. I once horrified a woman by telling her that we regularly apply dihydrogen oxide (H2O) on our fruit trees and vines.
The dihydrongen monoxide line always gets them. I once asked someone who said they didn’t use chemicals on their plants how they got around their plant’s dihydrogen monoxide requirement. They responded, “oh MY plants don’t need that.” Oh really?
Hooray for Julie and Catherine (and June Irwin)! This is a wonderful start.
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Small wonder this occured in Takoma Park, a supposed “leftie enclave” (largely inaccurate, as more than 3/4ths of Maryland is liberal), which is concerned with these types of things to maintain its glamour. Never mind the homelessness, addiction, and other signs of dispair that the good liberals in Tacoma Park ignore and actively push out into surrounding communities.
Would you please provide me with contact information for Julie Taddeo? I am doing our family tree and would like to find out if we are related. Thanks!
I forwarded your request, with your email address, to Julie.
Even with terrible news assaulting us from all sides each and every day, comes a victory. A victory against big money, as well as a long tradition of bad unhealthy habits. Love life, love our children, love nature, and these bad unhealthy habits seem more than unacceptable. But look! Bottom up activism can work when the stakes are so high and people are willing to reconsider what they had long thought as admirable, to see down the road a bit to where the use of pesticides is taking us. A step, a beginning, a new way of looking at our gardening goals. There is so much to protect here, and change will happen as these admirable activists have shown us. Smart determined individuals did it. And now nothing seems as impossible as it seemed before.