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.