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Sunday, 12 August 2007
The Hidden Risks in That Lush Lawn



New York Newsday

The Hidden Risks in That Lush Lawn Experts, Officials Say Pesticides, Fertilizers Used in LI Yards May Pose Significant Health Hazards to Homeowners and the Environment.

The shimmering green of the finely groomed Long Island lawn may trigger an owner's pride and neighborhood envy, but it also could pose a serious health risk.

Many of the 30 most commonly used backyard pesticides, which have been beautifying lawns and killing pests since the 1950s, have been linked to cancer, birth defects and other problems such as asthma and diabetes, according to Beyond Pesticides, an environmental advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

The risk of pesticide exposure is particularly high on Long Island. Nassau and Suffolk counties used more than 10 million pounds of commercial pesticides in 2004, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Each year since 1997, when the state began keeping records, Nassau and Suffolk have each ranked in the top five of the state's 62 counties in commercial pesticide use each year.

Lawn fertilizers are also a concern on Long Island, some scientists believe, because they contain nitrates that can seep underground to the aquifers that provide drinking water here.

Nitrates have been found in Long Island water, though it's not always clear if they came from septic systems, abandoned farmland or from residents fertilizing their grass. Among other health problems, nitrates can cause "blue baby syndrome," which hurts the blood's ability to carry oxygen and can cause serious respiratory problems.

The improper use of pesticides jumps during the summer months when, experts say, some lawn care companies rely on inexperienced teenagers with minimal training and little protection.

Karen Joy Miller, founder of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, said pesticides are particularly dangerous for small children who are low to the ground, often barefoot and likely to put things in their mouths.

Miller, a breast cancer survivor, said she suspects her sickness was caused in part by exposure to pesticides.

She said parents should not allow their children to play in yards that have been sprayed with pesticides, and they should make sure their kids' hands and feet are washed when they come back inside after playing.

Lori O'Connell, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, said it's safe for children to play outside as long as lawn companies comply with local regulations. She suggested that children wait several days before playing in areas that have been treated with pesticides.

Pesticide exposure, experts have found, can carry significant health risks for adults.

A University of Iowa study in the mid-1990s found that golf course superintendents across the country died from cancer - particularly in the lung and brain - far more often than the general population.

Beyond the potential health risks, homeowners who use pesticides may find that although organic treatments can be more expensive, chemicals cost more in the long run. The money adds up as more chemicals are needed to maintain lawns, said Andrew Monitt, research director at Neighborhood Network in Farmingdale.

"You don't want you and your family to be exposed to toxic chemicals that are used to kill living things," said Monitt, who advocates for the use of organic pesticides. "They don't just kill pests, they kill the beneficial things for your garden or lawn like earthworms, spiders, birds and bees."

In Suffolk and Nassau, a neighbor notification law, implemented in 2001, requires landscapers to warn neighbors 48 hours before pesticides are applied to a lawn.

The law has persuaded some companies to switch to organic pesticides, according to Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with New York Public Interest Research Group.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 12 August 2007 )
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