By Shira Wohlberg
This past March, the World Health Organization added glyphosate, now the most widely used pesticide in history, to the list of probable human carcinogens. It is the latest pesticide, since the WWII birth of the chemical industry, to be recognized as a multi-headed hazard. Also in the news is the ubiquitous class of neonicotinoids which are killing bees, butterflies, ladybugs and other beneficial and beloved insects. Imidacloprid, one such, is now under EPA review ahead of the 15 year cycle owing to the presidential Pollinator Health Task Force.
Cosmetic pesticides are not bi-products of industrial processes like the General Electric PCBs, the PFOAs identified in Hoosic Falls water or the methane leakage from natural gas production. They are synthetic carcinogens (including insecticides and fungicides) administered by homeowners for aesthetic purposes. “Pesticides are the only toxic substances released intentionally into our environment to kill living things,” Shaina Kasper, community organizer for VT and NH at the Toxics Action Center, explained to me. Round Up, Weed and Feed, and All-In-One Rose & Flower Care are among the many culprits.
A large percentage of common pesticides are classified as carcinogens by the USEPA. As endocrine disruptors, they have been linked to acute illness and chronic neurological degeneration, birth defects, reproductive impairment, genital abnormality, asthma, and cancers such as breast cancer. Despite regulation, detections routinely occur. Significant pesticide residue has been found in a high percentage of streams and wells tested, baby food, beer, and in the wax, honey and wild forage of honeybees.
As with secondhand smoke, the effects of pesticide use extend beyond the direct user with cumulative impacts on children, developing fetuses, pets, pollinators and water. Says Andy Kawczak, President of Hoosic River Watershed Association, “Unfortunately, HooRWA has not taken water samples for pesticide testing because the cost is rather high… It is likely, if pesticide runoff was actually captured and measured, elevated levels would be seen in the Williamstown area near the two golf courses and college athletic fields.”
In Williamstown, lawn treatments seem to be favored primarily by the “chemical generation” now in their 70s and 80s. They are often second home and business owners who hire management companies to tend their properties. However, it has also been shown that homeowners themselves often inadvertently spread higher concentrations of pesticides than directed and do so when rain or wind may be due.
As with DDT and chlordane before them, each chemical product was deemed safe until the very moment it was barred from use, says Audrey Thier, former pesticide project director for Environmental Advocates of New York and a Williamstown resident. She explains that new pesticides surge onto the market to replace those that were forcibly removed until the scientific data again closes in. Even when studies are conducted, they do not reliably track the toxicity of break down metabolites, chemical interactions, or unlisted inert ingredients. We continue to operate under the “innocent until proven guilty” paradigm rather than with common and precautionary sense.
Due to intense citizen action, Home Depot, LOWES and Ace Hardware have recently agreed to phase out the sale of neonicotinoid systemically-treated “live goods” by 2019. In the meanwhile, please check your home products using the list on the websites Center for Food Safety (http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/pesticide) or Beyond Pesticide (http://www.beyondpesticides.org). Dispose of the named products as hazardous waste.
The great news is that our history with synthetic pesticides is short! There are a plethora of things we can do / not do to increase habitat health for everyone.
Leslie Reed-Evans, Executive Director for the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation and WIlliamstown resident, advises, “Don’t try to be perfect! Learn to love the weeds!” Encourage a biodiverse habitat of deep rooted perennials that cultivate a natural balance of insect and microbial life. Hold off mowing until clover, violets and creeping charlie can bloom for several days so that pollinators may feed. Decrease lawn size by expanding and re-wilding borders with native, nectary shrubs and wildflower corridors. Put large plots back into meadow. Leave leaf litter and other debris under shrubs and around edges to re-enrich the soil and to provide habitat for firefly larvae, overwintering bees and other insects. To discourage “weeds” from walkways, spray hot water (such as fresh from the pasta pot) or diluted white vinegar. Always spot treat rather than swath treat. Study up on integrated pest management and permaculture.
All of these strategies require less effort and money than do standard landscaping practices—but they also require a change in mindset. Adam Romero, visiting scholar and lecturer at Williams for the course, History of the Chemical Revolution in US Agriculture, agrees. “We need to rethink what it means to have a healthy lawn and what a healthy lawn should look like.”
Last summer, a monarch spun its chrysalis on a chard leaf in my front yard. I watched it daily as it darkened and then took flight. Then I ate the chard.
Weed and Feed
General Resources and Integrated Pesticide Management