YASU+JUNKO FOR READER'S DIGEST
On a beautiful April day, I decided to meet outside with my students at the University of Delaware, where I teach journalism. We sat on the central lawn between two buildings that just happened to bear the names of two gargantuan chemical companies: DuPont and Gore. In the middle of a conversation about agricultural pesticides, a groundskeeper, dressed from feet to neck in a white chemical suit, drove by us on a mower. He wasn’t cutting the grass, though; he was spraying it. And not from one nozzle, but from half a dozen. Up and back he went, describing parallel lines as neat as those in any Iowa farmer’s cornfield. Not a blade escaped the spray. This became a perfect teaching moment.
“Who’s going to ask him what he’s spraying?” I asked my students. One young woman marched over to the groundskeeper. He turned off his engine, they spoke, and she returned.
“He said he’s spraying 2,4-D,” she said. “He said we didn’t need to worry, because he sprayed where we’re sitting at five this morning.”
Which would mean about seven hours earlier. My students chuckled uneasily. He was wearing a full-body chem suit, and they were sitting on the grass in shorts and bare feet?
They’d never heard of 2,4-D, or 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid. But they had heard of Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant used in Vietnam, and 2,4-D, one of the most extensively used herbicides in the world, is a constituent of Agent Orange (it did not cause the bulk of the devastating effects associated with Agent Orange). It was developed during World War II, mostly as a weapon to destroy an enemy’s rice crops. Despite its history, 2,4-D has long been seen as safe for consumer use.
In the 1940s, botanist E. J. Kraus of the University of Chicago fed five and a half grams of pure 2,4-D to a cow every day for three months. The cow was fine, according to Kraus, as was her calf. Kraus said he himself had eaten half a gram of the stuff every day for three weeks and felt great. This was apparently good enough for the rest of the country; within five years, American companies were annually producing 14 million pounds of the stuff. By 1964, the number had jumped to 53 million pounds.
Today, annual sales of 2,4-D have surpassed $300 million worldwide, and it’s found in “weed and feed” products, like Scotts Green Sweep, Ortho Weed B Gon, Salvo, Weedone, and Spectracide. At first, its impact on humans seems mild—skin and eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, stiffness in the arms and legs—and many lawn-care companies have dismissed health concerns. Plus, the businesses add that the amount of chemicals in sprays is very diluted.
[pullquote] With 80 million home lawns and over 16,000 golf courses, you get close to 50 million acres of cultivated turf in America. [/pullquote]
But the effects are more worrisome when considered over time. Because 2,4-D is designed to mimic a plant’s natural growth hormone, it causes such rapid cell growth that the stems of treated plants tend to become grotesquely twisted and their roots swollen; the leaves turn yellow and die; and the plants starve to death (2,4-D does not have this effect on grass).
Unsurprisingly, 2,4-D also appears to affect human hormones. The National Institute of Health Sciences lists it as a suspected endocrine disrupter, and several studies point to its possible contribution to reproductive-health problems and genetic mutations. Although the EPA says there isn’t enough evidence to classify 2,4-D as a carcinogen, a growing body of research has begun to link it to a variety of cancers.
A 1986 National Cancer Institute (NCI) study found that farmers exposed to 2,4-D for 20 or more days a year had a sixfold higher risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Another NCI study showed that dogs were twice as likely to contract lymphoma if their owners used 2,4-D on their lawns.
Like flame retardants, this compound also tends to accumulate inside people’s homes even days after the lawn has been sprayed. One study found 2,4-D in the indoor dust of 63 percent of sampled homes; another showed that levels of the chemical in indoor air and on indoor surfaces increased after lawn applications. After 2,4-D was sprayed, exposure levels for children were ten times higher than before the lawns were treated—an indication of how easily the chemical is tracked inside on the little feet of dogs, cats, and kids.
Thanks to pressure from campus activists, my university replaced 2,4-D with “softer” herbicides and began putting signs on lawns that had just been sprayed. Of course, 2,4-D is one of scores of pesticides in use. According to David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University, 110,000 people suffer adverse health effects from pesticides every year, and 10,000 cases of cancer in humans may be attributable to pesticide exposure.
The Greening of America
In 1900, 60 percent of Americans lived in rural areas. Today, 83 percent live in cities or suburbs. With that change has come an astonishing shift in the landscape. Over the past half century, Americans have become obsessed with grass. When you add up the country’s 80 million home lawns and over 16,000 golf courses, you get close to 50 million acres of cultivated turf in the United States, an expanse roughly the size of Nebraska. This space is growing by 600 square miles a year.
By 1999, more than two thirds of America’s home lawns had been treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides—14 million by professional lawn-care companies. A year later, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that Americans were spraying 67 million pounds of synthetic chemicals on their grass every year, and annual sales of lawn-care pesticides had grown to $700 million.
The landscaping trucks rolling through our suburban neighborhoods seem to represent something more than a communal desire for lush grass. Could it be relief from anxiety? (Why else call a company Lawn Doctor?) For one thing, hiring lawn-care specialists is a public declaration that you have the money not to take care of your yard yourself.
Diligent lawn maintenance and chemical use are also associated with approval and social status, Ohio State researchers reported in 2012: “The main factor influencing a homeowner’s decision to use lawn chemicals is whether neighbors or other people in the neighborhood use them. Homeowners crave acceptance from their neighbors and generally want their lawns to fit in with their surrounding community, so they adopt their neighbors’ practices.”
We also create manicured lawns to play the most chemically dependent of pastimes: golf. By 2004, there were just under 15,000 golf courses in the United States—a patchwork of chemically treated turf the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Even grass seed comes coated with chemicals. A close look at a bag of Scotts grass seed reveals it has been treated with Apron XL fungicide, whose active ingredient is Metalaxyl-M, or methyl N-(methoxyacetyl)-N-(2,6-xylyl)-D-alaninate. The bag requests that the product be stored away from foodstuffs, kept out of the reach of children, and not be applied near water, storm drains, or drainage ditches. (A Scotts spokesperson says that its products are designed to be safe when used as directed.)
As the use of chemicals has become widespread, lawn companies have found an unexpected source of profits. Herbicides like 2,4-D preserve grass but kill weeds like clover. Clover, however, pulls nitrogen out of the air and fixes it in the soil. Without clover, soil becomes nitrogen poor and fails to support plant life. So chemical companies now replace the depleted nitrogen, which homeowners used to get for free from clover, with synthetic nitrogen, for which they have to pay.
In America’s watersheds, nitrogen runoff is considered among the worst problems for water quality. Since synthetic fertilizers are water soluble, a good amount runs off your lawn after a rain, where it mixes with runoff from other homes and ends up feeding the plants in bodies of water. Doused with chemicals, algae grow and grow, creating “algae blooms” that—as they decay and die—suck most of the oxygen out of rivers, lakes, and bays and lead to massive “dead zones,” in which neither fish nor plants can live.
In 2007, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation published a report card on the bay’s health that showed just how much trouble chemicals can pose. The bay received an F for nitrogen pollution, a D-minus for phosphorous, an F for water quality, an F for dissolved oxygen, and a D for toxics. On a scale of 100 (with 100 being the best), the bay’s health was rated at 28.
In California, scientists are discovering that algae blooms off the coast not only remove oxygen; they also release a toxin, domoic acid. It enters the food chain when fish eat algae, then moves into the sea lions that consume the fish. If a sea lion is pregnant, her fetus can be contaminated, and years later, that mammal may develop epilepsy.