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Toxic Neighbors


Q: My next-door neighbor is planning to lay sod and, without warning, sprayed his entire back yard and decimated everything. It seems to have only affected a small amount of grass at the very edge of our property, and the runoff should mostly go to the neighbor behind him; but do I need to be worried about my health or the impact on our normally chemical-free lawn? And I guess it's too late to do anything now, but what would be the organic procedure to get rid of weeds before laying sod? He works in landscaping so maybe I can educate him….
    ---Roberta in Berwyn, PA
A. Unfortunately, there's an old joke that proves true much too often: "What qualifications do you need to be a landscaper?" "A truck."

"Landscapers" are often the worst offenders when it comes to misuse and over-use of chemicals. They're typically paid by the visit and they work a short season, so their incentive is to spray every chemical they can possibly find a reason to use. Your neighbor is probably just doing to himself what he does to his clients—spraying poisons where none are needed. Killing the old lawn won't help sod establish; sod needs to be settled into bare, rich, well-tilled soil. Lay sod on top of dead grass—especially grass that was just killed with a chemical designed to kill grass—and the sod will soon look as bad as the old lawn after it was nuked.

Use the fact that small areas of your grass were affected as a wedge to open a conversation about what happened. Tell him of your health concerns (most herbicides are hormonal disruptors) and simply ask him to be more considerate of those around him. Specifically request that he warn you of any future sprayings so that you can keep your pets inside and your windows closed. And then be ready to soak the adjacent areas heavily with water after the assault is over; a fast flush is the best way to get that stuff out of your soil.

Are there any protective laws you could turn to? Probably not in your case.

Every state and municipality has different rules about the need for notification when pesticide applications are made by professionals. At last count, twenty states required professionals to use those little flags and warning signs after treatments. Unfortunately, only some sections of Connecticut and New York require this of homeowners who do the dirty deed (although Wisconsin requires stores to give the signage to homeowners who purchase the products).

Thirteen states keep a registry where people can sign up and theoretically be notified in advance when an adjacent property is sprayed; but again, only when the work is done by a professional. And some of those states—including your Pennsylvania—require a physician to put in writing that you react adversely to poisons before you can get on the list, a rule that I find especially demeaning and inconsiderate. Since he was acting as an individual, the law probably doesn't apply. But I would still try and get on the list. I hope you have (or know) a sympathetic doctor...

Q. Last fall I noticed the landscaper our homeowner's association hired applying the herbicide 2-4-D with a broadcast spreader, getting it all over everything, including the pavement. I did a little research and found a new law in NYC requiring 48 hours' notice be given to everyone before a pesticide application is made. After I brought this up, the landscaper said, "Oh yeah; it would be good to keep pets and kids off the treated area for 48 hrs." I'm on the board of directors for the association and am pushing to get the landscaper to use something else, like corn gluten for our Springtime weed and feed. I know that chemicals like 2,4-D are illegal to use in Canada, so I guess the companies up there have to use something else. Any ideas? Thanks,
    ---Simone; an ex Philadelphian who moved to Brooklyn
A. You're lucky—New York State is one of the most protective of innocents who wish to remain unsprayed. State law allows any individual county to enact the 48 hour notification law of which you speak. AND it also allows local governments to pass laws that require posting by individual homeowners. So if your Brooklyn is one such enlightened area, you should have a big bargaining chip with the landscaper. "Why shouldn't we report you?" sounds like a nice gentle opening line to me. (But then my father was a homicide detective…)

All of Canada isn't free of herbicides, but several large provinces have banned those and other lawn chemicals used for cosmetic purposes. Hopefully the landscapers there are learning some new tricks, but a lot of their energy is going into fighting the regulations, with turfgrass lobbying groups spending big bucks to try and reverse the laws—or at least keep them from expanding.

As we've explained every week we've been on the air for the past 13 years, there are no lawn or landscape problems that require toxic chemical solutions. And, yes, there are many excellent options to dangerous chemicals available. In addition to the pre-emergent corn gluten meal you already mention, there are many post-emergent treatments: herbicidal soaps, flame weeders, and a new broad leaf herbicide whose active ingredient is iron are just a few of the alternative herbicides that kill weeds without toxins. And just practicing proper lawn care—cutting at the right height, watering deeply but infrequently, and feeding at the correct time of year for your grass type—will avoid most turf problems.

But selling and applying toxins is a big business. And the people in that business aren't going to just roll over. Reducing the use of these poisons will take individuals talking constructively about lawn chemicals with their neighbors. It will require people in homeowner's associations to take a stand. Yes, legislation can help, but education is essential. Because as we have seen so often in history, "the only thing required for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing."

To find out what—if any—regulations apply in your area, contact the National Pesticide Information Center (1-800-858-7378). This national clearinghouse will refer you to the regulatory agency in your area. (Here's a quick look at the state by state regulations from the excellent group "Beyond Pesticides". And the group "safe lawns dot org" (www.safelawns.org) is also an excellent information resource for folks trying to avoid lawn care chemicals.

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