Even though it's still spring, we are already dreaming about summer lawn games, BBQs, and playing catch with the kids outside. And for many Americans, a nice blanket of green grass in the backyard is just the perfect setting for all these summer memories. If your lawn is looking a little worse-for-wear after some cold winter months, then you may want to pay attention because spring is the time to start getting your lawn ready! Spring is the perfect time to reseed, add compost, fertilizer, water, and get all your equipment in order. But how about pesticides and herbicides? Should you be adding them to prevent weeds from ruining your lawn? Are they the only solution if you want the perfect backyard for summer fun? Let's take a deep dive into what pesticides are used in lawn care and how to get the lushest, greenest grass for all your summer backyard picnics without using harmful chemicals.
What are pesticides and why are they harmful?
Glad you asked! Let's dig into what's hiding underneath the lush green lawn. Did you know that an astonishing nearly 80 million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns annually!
Pesticides are toxic substances that are designed to kill any living organism perceived as a pest, which intrinsically make them harmful. (2) These pesticides can be found in grub control, weed killers (herbicides), fungus treatment (fungicides), and insect spray (insecticides). The most common pesticides found in lawn care are two herbicides, glyphosate and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D for short). It's no surprise most gardening sheds will have products containing pesticides, as most people rely on these chemicals to treat their lawn and keep the weeds away.
Most weed killers contain 2,4-D and are oftentimes a part of "weed and feed" products. (2) "Weed and feed" products are a combination of herbicides and fertilizer (oftentimes synthetic fertilizer), that are designed to kill weeds and provide nutrients for the grass, all at once. These are one of the most toxic substances, as they are loaded with pesticides to accomplish both these tasks at the same time. Most synthetic fertilizers rely on pesticides to provide nutrients to the grass. (17) Studies have found 2, 4-D to be a carcinogen (cancer-causing), linking it to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, childhood brain tumors and soft tissue sarcomas. (15, 5) It's also been linked to Parkinson's disease, immunosuppressive effects, hormone disruption, and thyroid problems (hypothyroidism). (6) And it's also been found to affect reproductive functions, and cause neurotoxicity (nervous system damage).
Glyphosate, the most widely applied pesticide in the world, has also been found to be a carcinogen and is found in many lawn care products. These products are commonly known as RoundUp. (3, 4)
Yikes! That's a lot of RoundUp (a picture personally taken while at Home Depot).
As with 2,4-D, scientific studies have shown glyphosate to also be linked to immune and nervous system disorders, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. Glyphosate has been shown to increase the risk of asthma, infertility, and birth defects. (15)
How do these pesticides harm our health?
Pesticides can harm adults, children, and pets, through the skin, inhalation and ingestion. The most common type of exposure is through the skin. For example, a person can be exposed to a splash or mist when applying product to the lawn. A person can also be exposed by inhaling airborne droplets. Pesticides can even get into our waterways by seeping into the soil and can be brought into the home through clothes. Children are particularly vulnerable due to their size (they take in more pesticides relative to their bodyweight), rapid development, and hand to mouth behaviors. Pregnant people are also a vulnerable population to pesticide exposure. (2, 7, 12) Pets are exposed the most as they spend more time outdoors and some pets tend to eat grass, directly ingesting the pesticides. For example, cats regularly lick their paws, which means they could easily ingest pesticides that way. (2)
So how can I maintain a nice looking yard, while avoiding pesticides?
There are safer ways to get a "perfect" lush lawn. Plus, did you know applying pesticides on your lawn just creates an unhealthy chemical-using cycle? (9) It's simply a band aid solution, as it's a fast approach but doesn't target the root of the problem, which is the lack of healthy and rich soil. Applying pesticides tricks your grass into thinking it needs to rely on synthetic fertilizer to look and feel fresh, instead of actually drawing nutrients from the soil. However, here are some safer alternatives that will grow the greenest and healthiest lawn on the block while keeping you, your family, your pets, and friends safe.
Try some DIY lawn care tips:
Follow a yearly schedule to prevent your grass from needing toxic chemicals. It's recommended to start your lawn care in March. But no matter the time of the year, it's not too late to apply organic fertilizer. Check out these simple homemade and store bought organic fertilizers. Or better yet, use grass clippings as fertilizer (recycling and non-toxic? That's our kind of thing!). Add corn gluten meal to prevent weeds from sprouting. Corn gluten dries out the emerging plant's initial root, preventing a new weed from growing. Keep in mind, this will also prevent grass from growing, so only apply where there are emerging weed seedlings. Then, after fertilization (through the months of April - October), be sure to dethatch (remove the dead layer of old grass) and overseed (spread grass seed over existing lawn to fill bare spots) in September. Weekly tasks throughout the year include watering only when the lawn starts to show signs of dryness, and mowing. Be sure to set the mower 3-4 inches high to get rid of any weeds and then don't forget to leave your clippings around for fertilizer (extra nitrogen)! Here are some organic tips for common lawn problems:
- Have brown spots? This is likely due to too much nitrogen (usually from pet urine). Water the grass right after a pet urinates to dilute the nitrogen.
- You see brown tips on your grass? This is probably due to dull mower blades, be sure to sharpen your blades each Spring!
- Are their patches of dirt, where grass didn't grow? Be sure to add compost and grass seed, then water the area!
- If you have yellow grass, this most likely means your grass is low in nitrogen or may be over-watered. Dethatch or aerate lawn before applying fertilizer.
- If you start seeing dandelions or crabgrass (or other weeds for that matter), cut off the heads of the weeds to prevent the seeds from spreading and then spread corn gluten meal in the Springtime to prevent weeds from popping up.
That sounds too time consuming, what are my other options?
If you don't have the extra time for DIY care, but maybe have the extra money to invest in lawn services, try integrated pest management (IPM). IPM is an organic based lawn care management that provides for better and safer methods to control insects, weeds and diseases. Find more information here.
FYI - If you plan on looking into non-IPM lawn services, there's a chance they may claim their services (which may include the application of harmful pesticides) are safe to use. While this may seem like a good thing, it can actually be a red flag, as the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibits manufacturers from making safety claims, even if the product is used as directed. Just because a chemical is used as directed, does not mean it is safe to use. If you're ever unfamiliar with a product used or recommended by lawn services, you can look up the toxicity of the product at www.pesticide.org.
I'll stick to products from my local home improvement store.
Or if you still prefer to stop by your local home improvement store for nutrients to use on your lawn, that's fine too. But please just be sure to read the label before purchasing. Avoid ingredients such as 2, 4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), and glyphosate. This does not mean all other pesticides are safe to use, in fact, most (if not all) pesticides are harmful. As mentioned before, you can check the toxicity of a product here.
Please take note: many pesticides and other chemicals used in lawn care persist in lawns and soil long after the posted 24-72 hours. If treatment is absolutely necessary, make sure to wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and stay off the lawn for a few days after application. (19)
Although the use of harmful pesticides is widely used and this information can be overwhelming, we hope these safer alternatives will serve as a start to avoid these harmful chemicals. Suspending the production and use of these chemicals by manufacturers is a bigger problem that may take a while to resolve. However, the good news is, we can do our part by doing the following: taking the time to take lawn care into our own hands (DIY gardening and lawn care), placing it in the hands of a trustworthy IPM service, or by reading the label and avoiding toxic chemicals when purchasing products.
If you're interested in other pesticide related topics, such as pests in your home or why going organic is beneficial to your neighbors and planet as a whole, check out these other Because Health articles:
Struggling With Pests at Home? Here's What To Do
Going Organic: Why it's Worth it for Your Neighbors, Animals, and the Planet As a Whole.