by Carey Murphy
“In nature, nothing exists alone” – Rachel Carson
Sixty years ago, Rachel Carson opened her landmark book Silent Spring by imagining what a world without singing birds and chirping insects would be like. Then she warned us we were heading there. This classic exposé on chemical pesticides inspired a new environmental movement that helped to launch the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The book languished on my shelf, unopened for 20 years, likely because I knew it wouldn’t be easy reading. I also assumed it would be a record of what was.
I was surprised that much of the book reads like a journal entry of what still is.
“What the public is asked to accept as ‘safe’ today may turn out tomorrow to be extremely dangerous.” – RC
Carson laid bare just how interconnected life on earth is. In clear yet evocative prose, she describes how efforts to manage unwanted insects and plants with synthetic chemicals lead to unexpected environmental devastation and damage in our human bodies. Ironically, the expensive and deadly programs to combat fire ants, spruce budworms, and weeds in the middle of the 20th century proved ineffective. Today we still generously apply toxic chemicals without registering the consequences. The DDT, dieldrin and other pesticides Carson warns about, which have since been banned, have been replaced by others just as harmful. For instance, neonicotinoids linger inside plants and soil for years continuously poisoning bees and other insects; while pyrethroids frequently used in mosquito sprays are known to severely damage aquatic environments. (Both of these substitutes are suspected of affecting human health as well.) The most widely used herbicide of all, glyphosate, just now faces its day of reckoning, though it’s been on the market since 1974. Another ubiquitous herbicide Carson cautioned about, 2,4 D, is still commonly used by contractors and as part of DIY “weed and feed” combos sold at local hardware stores. (“Pesticides” is an overarching term that includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, etc.)
Carson is pragmatic and she doesn’t argue for the complete stoppage of pesticides. Sometimes targeted treatment is our best course of action to manage insurgent invasive weeds or to protect crops or prevent transmission of disease, but we often use them indiscriminately. And sometimes we are trapped, as in the “pesticide treadmill”of industrial agriculture; we pour more and more chemicals directly on our food crops in an effort to one-up the ever-evolving superweeds.
“Man is more dependent upon these wild pollinators than he usually realizes.” – RC
Our overuse of pesticides is implicated as the main driver of insect decline, which is now exacerbated by a changing climate, habitat loss and invasive species. Over the last 50 years, global insect numbers have dropped by an estimated 75 percent with some species faring worse than others. For instance, butterflies and moths have decreased by over 50 percent across the globe. Most of us know the plight of our monarch butterfly; its numbers have plummeted over 80 % since the 1990s.
Because insects are necessary for the food chain, for pollination of natural plants and agricultural crops—well, for life as we know it—it behooves us to start paying attention to their dwindling presence. My best friend in high school had a joke back in the early ’90s that involved bugs landing on her windshield: “I bet he’ll never have the guts to do that again!” It’s probably not something one thinks about much these days, but the windshield phenomenon, as it’s called, is real. I haven’t been able to recycle that joke in a long time, as we are no longer scraping bugs off of our cars.
“Instead of treating the basic condition [of the soil], suburbanites- advised by nurserymen who in turn have been advised by the chemical manufacturers – continue to apply truly astonishing amounts of crabgrass killers to their lawns each year.” – RC
Winter is a time of great hibernation for insects and seeds like crabgrass. But all too soon, the chemicals will again reign supreme, or at least try to. I will get the knocks on my door from the Aptive salesmen who try to peer pressure me into killing all the beneficial spiders around my foundation; they will spout off the neighbors who have already enlisted. The Trugreen guys will wave their magic hoses over the lawns and common areas throughout the neighborhood to kill crabgrass and other “weeds” and the Mosquito-spraying trucks will cruise the streets. The little yellow caution signs will crop up throughout my neighborhood. I will again document dead bees and make sure my windows are closed to the inevitable drift.
We spend over $10 billion annually on pesticides in the U.S., yet if we factor in the costs to our health and the environment, the tab is actually much higher. Before the advent of manufactured chemicals, cancer wasn’t common. But as Carson discusses in Silent Spring, after the introduction of chemical pesticides in the 1940s, 1 in 4 people were diagnosed with cancer. It had also become the number one disease killing children – which was basically unheard of until then. In the 21st century, our odds are now 50% of developing cancer in our lifetimes. All of us have traces of pesticides in our body mingling among other damaging chemicals like PCBs and PFAS, often times lying in wait in our livers. Pesticides cross the placenta and are common in breast milk affecting the most vulnerable: our developing infants and children. Pesticides show up in our drinking water and in our Cheerios. Not surprisingly, pesticides are associated with asthma, autism and learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. The risk to our pets is also high.
“Responsible public health officials have pointed out that the biological effects of chemicals are cumulative over long periods of time, and that the hazard to the individual may depend on the sum of the exposures received throughout his lifetime. For these very reasons the danger is easily ignored. It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster.” – RC
But rarely does this information make it to our inboxes or even mainstream news. And, if it does, we often ignore it like other warnings that seem too far off into the future, such as climate change. So when lawn care companies tell us that pesticides are “non-toxic” and advertisements suggest they are healthy for the earth, we believe them. We look for the simple fix to be compliant with our HOAs and to keep up with our neighbors. Well-meaning folks have told me herbicides are safer than pesticides and that companies wouldn’t dare use anything that would harm the people applying them. Though let’s not forget those occupational hazards that exposed people to asbestos, radium, and now Roundup. In reality, everything with a “cide” in its name is designed to kill.
In an interview (because the book is a whopping $135, I haven’t read it), the editors of Herbicides: Chemistry, Efficacy, Toxicology, and Environmental Impacts (2021) raise some pointed concerns and questions, which should be considered by our decision-makers. This, keep in mind, is 60 years after Rachel Carson sounded alarms:
Another key message is that every herbicide carries risk. Contrary to a widespread assumption, herbicides not only kill weeds but have direct and indirect impacts on a wide variety of non-target organisms and the function of ecosystems. Safe use requires definition of an acceptable level. Weighing the risk-benefit ratio involves toxicological, economic, social, and environmental considerations… As an ecologist working on climate change aspects, I long ignored the issue of herbicides (and pesticides in general). I simply thought that there is not much to research because those substances are rigorously tested before they are released into our environment. Then, after diving into the huge body of literature I realized that many studies lack a holistic perspective, including interactions between species, between different substances applied in the fields, ethical and socioeconomic aspects. Since then I have tried to ask what is behind bold statements about the necessity and harmlessness of pesticides: Is there a possible conflict of interest? Have some aspects been forgotten or ignored? Are alternatives considered at all?
I, too, didn’t learn until recently that pesticide manufacturers conduct their own research to determine “safe” levels and that inert ingredients are “trade secrets” that aren’t required to be tested or included on labels. Yet, in at least one study, researchers concluded that 8 out of 9 formulations of Roundup were “up to one thousand times more toxic” than the main ingredient glyphosate. And this eye-opening Intercept article last summer revealed that many EPA scientists have gone on to work for the pesticide manufacturers. The author writes: “the enormous corporate influence has weakened and, in some cases, shut down the meaningful regulation of pesticides in the U.S. and left the country’s residents exposed to levels of dangerous chemicals not tolerated in many other nations.” Over 70 pesticides still in use in the U.S. today are banned by the EU and other nations.
Some cities and communities across the country are taking a stand where they can. Our next door neighbor, Montgomery County, Maryland, recently banned the use of pesticides for aesthetic purposes for private lawns, playgrounds and other places where children play citing serious health risks. Lawn care companies, as a result, now offer organic land care alternatives. Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring from her home in Montgomery County, would be proud of this evolution—even if decades late.
“…we have at last asserted our ‘right to know’, and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” – RC
Maybe 2022 will be the year we heed the message from Silent Spring and ditch the chemicals we do not need. We could recognize instead that healthy soils help prevent unwanted plants. Maybe we could allow—like in times past—the clover and violets to grow a bit here and there. These “weeds” would certainly provide a much-needed food source for pollinators and allow butterflies like the great spangled fritillary to produce another generation. We could stop dousing the sides of our highways with chemicals and let meadow plants regain their foothold. We could certainly skip the irrigation systems that spray for mosquitos on a timer. We could support our local farmers, especially those who practice sustainable agriculture. We could increase biodiversity, decrease greenhouse gas emissions (it takes a lot of energy to create synthetic pesticides and fertilizers), and minimize flooding. If we use regenerative practices on our turf lawns, we could even draw down 20 times more carbon in the soil than a typically managed one.
We could let nature get back to the business of balancing itself.
This past year while serving on the Grounds Committee in my neighborhood, I have often
raised concerns regarding the routine use of pesticides. On much of our common spaces and townhome properties, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers are applied throughout the year, and sometimes without proper notice to residents. Now available on our HOA network are the Safety Data Sheets of the herbicides used—all of which have a warning, including: “known carcinogen” or “suspected of causing cancer,” or “may cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure” or “very toxic to aquatic life”. I’m grateful that our Committee and Board agreed recently to allow townhome properties to opt-out of the chemical treatments and to explore options for organic turf management on our common HOA property, including the fields where children frequently play.
Solutions do exist!
To aid in the transition away from harmful lawn chemicals, Green Team Urbana has developed a presentation on the basics of providing a healthy yard for families, pets and wildlife. We discuss how to build healthy soils, care for grass organically, and create new opportunities for wildlife as a result of Maryland’s new low-impact landscaping law. It is possible to have a nice lawn without the use of pesticides.
Beyond Pesticides has been protecting health and the environment with science, policy and action for 40 years.
Non Toxic Communities includes links to advocacy training and how to start a pesticides awareness campaign.
The Environmental Working Group aims to empower consumers with breakthrough research to make informed choices and live a healthy life in a healthy environment.
Best practices for an organic lawn: Paul Tukey on Saving the Earth, One Lawn at a Time – courtesy of Interfaith Partners of the Chesapeake.
How to Avoid Greenwashing and Harmful Chemicals in Lawn Care includes tips on how to read a Safety Data Sheet and how to research lawncare companies.
Attack of the Superweeds by H. Clair Brown in The New York Times (8/18/21)
EPA Plans to Clean Up Troubled Chemical and Pesticide Programs by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept. A follow-up to her series: EPA Exposed. (10/14/21)
This article was originally published by Green Team Urbana, a volunteer environmental group in Frederick County, and reprinted here with their permission. You can find the original article here.