Are Lawn Pesticides Endangering Our Children?
30 Mar, 2012
When they started feeling woozy barely an hour into their batting practice, Alan Gorkin and his son Tristan, then 12 years old, didn’t think too much of it. But as they packed up to leave the grassy field across the street from Tristan’s school in Wilton, Conn., they spotted a little yellow sign warning that more than spring was in the air: The field had been sprayed with pesticides the day before.
“Parents should have a choice over whether their kids are exposed to pesticides or not,” says Gorkin, who manages an organic farm in the area.
Back home, his and Tristan’s symptoms subsided a couple of hours later. That was a year ago, a few months after the Connecticut state legislature’s ban of pesticides on elementary and middle school grounds took effect. Unfortunately for the Gorkins, they had unwittingly chosen to play on the wrong side of Danbury Road—at a city baseball field a mere 200 yards east of the school’s pesticide-free property.
At the time, Alan Gorkin didn’t know he actually had a choice. He hadn’t heard about the now-endangered legislation. Today, he wonders, “Why would anyone want to get rid of it?”
The battle lines have been drawn. While child-health advocates work to corral support for a repeatedly thwarted federal bill that would extend a similar rule across the country, a lobbying blitz by lawncare industry members, with the support of some local officials who argue that a blanket ban goes too far, now threatens to undo the Connecticut law.
Using both organic strategies and synthetic chemicals is a “responsible approach utilizing the best of all worlds,” says Gregory Foran, parks superintendent for the town of Glastonbury, Conn. Scientists caution, however, that many key elements of pesticides’ effects on human health and development remain largely unknown.
Throughout the United States, most athletic fields are likely treated with at least one of the 20,000-odd pesticides registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Robyn Gilden, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Environmental Health Education Center, who conducted her doctoral research on the issue.
While pesticides are by nature designed to be poisonous, different chemicals seek different living targets. Humans, especially children, are particularly vulnerable to some commonly used products, including organophosphates, which belong to the same chemical family as sarin, a nerve gas classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.
The most common herbicide Gilden found was Monsanto’s controversial flagship weed-killer, Roundup, which is powerful enough to irritate the skin and respiratory system and provoke the kind of acute illness the Gorkins experienced. More seriously, chronic exposure to Roundup, among other pesticides, is associated with higher rates of birth defects, hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder, as well as errors in DNA transcription, which can lead to a host of other dysfunctions, disease or even death.
Children are the most vulnerable to such agents, primarily because developing human organ systems are more sensitive than fully formed ones, says John Wargo, an environmental health professor at Yale University. In part, Wargo says, that’s also because they’re taking in more food, water and air per unit of body weight than their parents, although it doesn’t help that kids are most likely the ones “rolling or wrestling on the grass.”
The dangers from pesticides aren’t limited to the field, either. They can leach into waterways and groundwater supplies or simply be tracked inside homes and schools.