Yes on Restricting Cosmetic Pesticide Use

The following is a guest post from Julie Taddeo of Safe Grow Montgomery

It is mid-March, and already yellow warning signs are appearing on lawns all over the county. Millions of pounds of pesticides will be used in the state of Maryland as they are every year to help achieve a “perfect” look that puts our health (and that of our environment) at risk. Common sense tells us we should be concerned with this amount of chemicals being spread around where we live, where our kids play, and where our pets tread.

The fact that these substances are harmful to human health is not disputed; studies have linked lawn pesticides to a host of serious diseases like human and animal cancers, ADHD, Parkinson’s, and endocrine disruption, among other disorders. The EPA states that pesticides (including herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides) “can cause harm to humans, animals, or the environment because they are designed to kill or otherwise adversely affect living organisms.”

The only question is what their effects are in the small quantities likely to be absorbed by humans. It is very difficult to ascertain the harm (or safety) of small quantities of chemicals over long periods of time and large populations. But the harm is no less real: even a small risk per individual means a near certainty when multiplied by the population of the county.

In situations like this, when science by itself cannot at this time give a definitive answer, the sensible thing to do is to weigh the risks against the benefits or use precaution.  Bill 52-14, proposed by Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal, does exactly this by restricting lawn pesticides used solely for ornamental, or “cosmetic” purposes.

Other, more beneficial uses of pesticides (e.g., agriculture, control of invasive species, indoor pest control, tree care) are left untouched. As Councilmember Leventhal stated on talk radio, it’s a “gentle bill,” a rational way for our county to diminish the potential health risks at a small cost.

There is precedent for this bill.  Ontario, Canada banned cosmetic lawn pesticides (with exemptions similar to those in Bill 52-14) in 2008; Ogunquit, Maine banned lawn pesticides in 2014; Connecticut and New York enacted Child Safe Playing Fields acts in 2005 and 2010 respectively; Washington, D.C. passed the Pesticide Education and Control Amendment Act in 2012, and Takoma Park followed a year later with its own Safe Grow Act.

More towns and counties in the United States are not able to restrict lawn pesticides because they have been pre-empted from doing so by their states. Maryland is now just 1 of 7 states whose right is intact to pass stricter laws at the local level regarding pesticides. It is a right constantly under threat from the pesticide industry and its lobbying groups in Annapolis.

Should we leave to individual home owners the decision to use or not use cosmetic lawn pesticides? No, because lawn pesticides do not stay where they are put. Pesticides drift and also run off into our drinking water sources, so your neighbor’s choice becomes your choice. Parents have no control over pesticide use on playing fields and schools where our children play, and our parks are routinely treated with pesticides.

For those who reside in HOAs (1/3 of county residents) or in apartments, the right to choose how your lawn and common green spaces are managed doesn’t even belong to you. Should we leave it up to the EPA to be the sole regulator of harmful substances? The EPA is under budgetary and political pressures and its review system is fundamentally flawed, hampered by the very industry from which it should be protecting us.

There is nothing unusual about placing limits on individual rights for the greater good of the public’s health and our environment; our county has rules about recycling, litter, noise, trees, and in-door smoking, for example. And we have proof these laws work: the CDC recently reported that Americans’ exposure to second-hand smoke has declined by half since smoking bans have been instituted.

Montgomery County was a leader on this issue and it should be a leader in protecting its residents from second-hand pesticide exposure, too.