The quest for the "perfect lawn" has gotten out of hand, according to Steven Saul, an environmental activist who has repeatedly protested the use of pesticide sprays and turf chemicals on school playing fields in Radnor Township, Pennsylvania.
Saul's ire was ignited in part because some chemicals - including "2-4-D," an ingredient in Agent Orange - had been applied to school fields when classes were still in session.
"Many people get ill from lawn chemicals and are not aware that it is a lawn chemical that caused it," says Saul, a counselor and medical writer. Headaches, fatigue, nausea, and dizziness have all been attributed to the chemicals, as well as birth defects, sterility, and cancer.
According to Saul, 80% of lawn chemicals have never been tested. And while pesticides and herbicides are considered hazardous wastes, with regulations governing their disposal, there are no regulations protecting those who walk and play in the vicinity of such toxic materials.
Chemical lawn-care products also pose environmental hazards. Many herbicides are harmful to "good bugs" - bees, lady bugs, and butterflies - that help preserve the balance of nature. Waterfowl and other bird populations are often affected. Runoff from lawn and garden chemicals also pollutes streams and watersheds, damages the food chain, and degrades the quality of drinking water.
In a recent study of tap water in 26 cities in the United States, the Environmental Working Group found that herbicides were present in the drinking water of millions of people. Over the six-week study period, researchers estimated that 45,000 infants had consumed herbicide-contaminated formula; for 18,000 babies, concentrations of atrazine or cynazine in formula exceeded federal standards.
"It is no longer necessary to put our children at risk for a bunch of weeds," says Saul, citing a number of nontoxic alternatives to chemical treatments:
Newly developed grass seeds can produce a lawn that needs less watering and deters some insect pests. Many garden stores stock natural fertilizers, nutrients, and microorganisms that can be added to strengthen soils.
Even simple measures can help to build a stronger lawn without chemicals. Mowing the grass no lower than about two inches promotes photosynthesis. Sharpening mower blades prevents grass from being torn rather than cut; torn and weakened grass is more vulnerable to pests and disease. Finally, it is best to leave grass clippings on a lawn because they add organic matter to the soil.
Many gardeners are also using natural methods to control disease and insect infestation, according to agronomist Mark Tamn, author of Old Tyme Gardening, a primer on natural pest control. …