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Lawn care chemicals: how toxic are they?

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The benefits of using lawn care chemicals are easy to see, but the effects they may have on your family’s health and the environment are less obvious.

By Greg Seaman Posted Jan 28, 2009

A lush, thick lawn is an ideal natural playground, as well as a practical ground cover for yards. Growing the ‘perfect’ lawn is something of a suburban quest, a neighborly challenge for some. For the rest of us it’s an obligation assigned the LPE (least possible effort) to maintain a semblance of green lawn. Either way, it’s all too easy to reach for a packaged solution – lawn care chemicals which are quite effective at killing weeds and helping establish a beautiful lawn..

Some 100 million pounds of pesticides are used by homeowners in homes and gardens each year, and concern is growing about the potential hazards associated with their use. Studies show that these hazardous lawn chemicals are drifting into our homes where they contaminate indoor air and surfaces, exposing children at levels ten times higher than preapplication levels.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a study of 9,282 people nationwide, found pesticides in 100% of the people who had both blood and urine tested. The average person carried 13 of 23 pesticides tested.

What are lawn care chemicals?

They include more than just fertilizers. Chemicals that kill weeds, insects and a variety of diseases are sold separately and in combination with fertilizers such as ‘weed and feed’. These formulations may include organophosphates, carbamates, phenoxy and benzoic acid herbicides like 2,4 D, MCPP, and MCPA, pyrethroids and organchlorines.

Do lawn care chemicals pose a health threat to my family?

Yes. Pesticides used in controlling weeds, insects, etc., are toxic. These chemicals have been created to kill pests and most are broad-spectrum biocides. This means they are poisonous to a wide variety of living organisms, including garden plants, wildlife, pets, your neighbors, your family and you. Inert ingredients, which may comprise 50 to 99% of a pesticide formula may actually be more toxic than the active ingredients.

Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 15 with neurotoxicity, and 11 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Of those same pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, 23 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 24 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 11 are toxic to bees, and 16 are toxic to birds.

How are we exposed to lawn care chemicals?

Poisons are absorbed through the skin, by the mouth, or by breathing sprays, dusts, or vapors. You or your children can be poisoned if you apply or are present during application of the chemical. Also if you touch contaminated grass, shoes, clothing, lawn furniture, etc., or put contaminated objects (toys, golf tees, blades of grass etc.) or fingers in the mouth.

Children and pets are at higher risk for health effects from exposure to pesticides than adults because their internal organs are still developing and maturing. Children are often more exposed to pesticides than are adults because they play or crawl on grass or floors where pesticide powders and granules normally settle. A recent government report states, until new guidelines for conducting exposure studies are developed, the EPA will not know how much exposure is associated with lawn care pesticides and associated health risks, especially for children.

Why doesn’t my doctor diagnose pesticide poisoning?

Pesticide manufacturers are not required to release health information to the medical profession. Doctors are not knowledgeable about pesticide poisonings and often misdiagnose these symptoms as allergies, flu, or some other illness. Doctors often state that the symptoms are psychosomatic. They are also afraid of a large chemical company taking them to court over a pesticide poisoning diagnosis – taking a toll on their time and finances.

Are lawn chemicals safe when dry?

No. Many chemicals remain active from a month to over a year. During this time, they can release toxic vapors. Breathing these vapors, even from neighbors lawns or while playing on or mowing contaminated grass, can cause illness.

What are the symptoms of lawn care pesticide poisoning?

They are deceptively simple and similar to those of other illnesses. Pesticides attack the central nervous system and other vital body centers. Some symptoms include: sore nose, tongue, or throat, burning skin or ears, rash, excessive sweating or salivation, chest tightness, asthma-like attacks, coughing, muscle pain, seizures, headaches, eye pain, blurred or dim vision, numbness or tingling in hands or feet, nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, tissue swelling, anxiety, suicidal depression, irritability, angry outbursts, disturbed sleep, learning disabilities, fatigue, dizziness, unexplained fever, irregular heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, stroke, death.

Even without apparent symptoms, exposure may still be harmful. Long term problems may include: lower male fertility, miscarriage, birth defects, chemical sensitivity, immune suppression, cataracts, liver and kidney dysfunction, heart disturbances, and cancer.

Is the government allowing unsafe chemicals on the market?

Yes. The EPA makes no claims to protect us from harmful pesticides. In fact, it is a violation of federal law to label any pesticides as “safe”, “harmless”, or “non-toxic to humans or pets”. The US Congress states, 90% of pesticides in current use lack health and safety tests required for registration, yet they continue to be sold and used. Of the most widely used products on lawns, most are lacking health and safety data required for registration.

Can lawn care chemicals contaminate my drinking water?

Yes. Pesticides and fertilizers can and do leach into private and public wells and water supplies. Unfortunately, there currently is no program to monitor our drinking water for this type of contamination. Many of the most widely use lawn care chemicals have been detected in ground water (e.g., 2,4-D, Sevin, Diazinon, and RoundUp).

Are there alternatives to toxic lawn care chemicals?

Yes. Natural landscape maintenance programs can achieve a healthy, pest-free landscape using the latest scientific developments in organic agriculture and horticulture. For example, corn gluten is a natural pre-emergent weed killer and fertilizer now available to home owners. Lawns can be enriched naturally by thin spreading of compost in the spring and fall. Also, natural lawn care practices will lead to a healthy vigorous lawn which resists pests and disease.


Organic Landscape
National Coalition for Pesticide-free lawns
Environment and Human Health

Posted in Healthy Home Tags , , , , ,
  • albertwigs

    Poisons are absorbed through the skin, by the mouth, or by breathing sprays, dusts, or vapours. You or your children can be poisoned if you apply or are present during application of the chemical.Initially lawn are not at all toxic but as soon as the chemical fertilizers increased to be proceed , the toxicity of the land increases which results into dampen land.I agree with one of the review that 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 19 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 13 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 26 with liver or kidney damage, 15 with neurotoxicity, and 11 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system.

    Organic Fertilizer

  • Anthony Vanwhy

    I had always thought most of these were fine after they were soaked up, but to have a half-life of up to a year is pretty crazy. It sounds like it's about as good an idea as spraying uranium on your lawn.

  • Pingback: Would you Expose your Family to Neurotoxins for a Greener Lawn? | Eartheasy Blog

  • Buffalogal1

    Our dog died from nasal lymphoma. She did not grow up in a polluted area or around smokers. Her oncologist was, nevertheless, fairly certain the cause of her cancer was environmental, more specifically, lawn pesticides. I have since met others who have lost their dogs to nasal cancers and they too point to lawn pesticides.

    • Greg Seaman

      Interesting. Thanks for passing on this information. Sorry about your dog.

  • Josh Thomas

    I have a lawn care business and I use products that have CAUTION labels only…the same label as your dish soap you use to clean the dishes you eat from. Safer than the WARNING labels on the products used to clean the toilet you sit on or the shower you clean up in or the counter tops you prep your food on. Your info is completely inaccurate. You have to separate the products used by the code words on the labels. You can’t simply say all pesticides are toxic. That is a complete false statement.

    • Greg Seaman

      You are right in that consumers should read the labels for each product and then make decision based accordingly. The hazards of lawn care chemicals have been stated by many credible authorities, and lawn care chemicals have been banned in some municipalities. No one is saying all pesticides are toxic.

      • Josh Thomas

        That’s just another government move to please the public…I’m also a pilot. After the Dash-8 crash in Buffalo a few years back the FAA made a new rule that airline pilots had to have 1500 before flying for the airlines because of that crash. The captain was a 5,000 hour pilot and the 1st officer was a 2,200 hour pilot. The government implements new rules to please the majority of the public with no justification behind these rules. Dawn dish soap has the same CAUTION label as the Speedzone Herbicide that I use on my lawns. Are they going to ban dish soap in the near future as well?

        • Greg Seaman

          Speed Zone ingredients include 2,4-D, dicamba and MCPP, all of which are hazardous to humans and animals, according to
          If Speed Zone comes into contact with skin, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends removing contaminated clothing, rinsing skin for 15 to 20 minutes and calling a poison control center or doctor for treatment advice. Inhaling the fumes can cause coughing, burning in the chest and dizziness.

          • Josh Thomas

            Dawn dish soap – CAUTION

            Keep out of reach of children. In case of eye contact rinse thoroughly with water. If swallowed drink a glass of water to dilute. Contact a physician immediately. To avoid irritating fumes do not mix with bleach.

            Yet environmentalist use the product to clean wild life and we use it to clean our dishes.

            The deal with pesticides is they should not be sold to the general public. There are safe ways to mix and apply these products and it should be left to people who are trained to use them. Happy home owners should not be able to go into the store and purchase these products without proper training.

  • Greg Seaman

    I don’t think anyone challenges your point that your inorganic fertiizer results in a rich lawn, richer than one can attain with all-natural methods.
    My lawn is not as beautiful as my neighbors (she uses the chemicals). But I’ll take the non-chemical lawn, thank you.
    I’m glad to hear that you and your family are healthy. I suggest, though, that you do some due diligence and read what safelawn and many other studies have reported. And learn why these lawn fertilizers are banned in a growing number of communities.
    It’s great that you have 300 customers and can feed your family. I think you would have a bigger business with more customers if you can learn and apply natural lawn care methods, and also provide a service of helping people reduce or replace their lawns with low-maintenance xeriscape landscapes. Now there is a business with a future. I woud hire you for sure!

  • Greg Seaman

    Thanks Josh for continuing the conversation in such a respectful way. I agree pretty much with your point that that the inorganic programs produce a more beautiful lawn at the lowest cost. Although I did put down a trial patch of EcoLawn two years ago and it’s looking beautiful. And cutting the grass higher, applying a thin layer of compost in spring and mulching are also showiwng results. But it is more time consuming and I can see why it would cost more for a professional service to do this.
    But we are also concerned with the hidden costs of chemical lawn treatments. Health impacts carry a burden that can go beyond the cost-savings, and there is considerable evidence that this is the case.
    I suggest that your organic progam also offer a lawn reduction service, where lawn size is reduced in favor of low maintenance drought resistant local plantings. Thanks Josh.

  • Greg Seaman

    Hi Tori,
    References are provided at the end of page 2 of this article. Also here:

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