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Thirty-Seven Reasons Not to use Chemical Herbicides

Q. We are plagued with the pesky weed nutsedge in our flowerbeds. We have tried Roundup, Weed-B-Gon and every other herbicide we could find, including SEDGEHAMMER, (which does not work, even at double strength). We would be grateful if you had a solution for this awful weed. --

    ---[name withheld] in Brigantine, N.J., "not far from the beach"
A. I'm choosing not to use your name on the air or at the Gardens Alive website—not that I expect the authorities to prosecute you for the Federal offenses you just acknowledged, but because your neighbors may be among the listeners now screaming at you through the radio. Unfortunately, just as many are saying, "huh? What did they do?" This Question of the Week is for them, you, and the thousands who have sent me similar emails over the years.

I mostly avoid discussing the medical and environmental dangers of the poisons sold for landscape use, preferring to offer in-depth explanations of the non-toxic alternatives. You'll find 200 or so of those alternatives listed alphabetically in the Questions of the Week archived at this website. Had you checked those articles, you would have found a detailed explanation of how to deal with nutsedge in lawns.

That article was limited to lawns because nutsedge isn't typically a tough problem in flowerbeds, where a combination of mechanical removal, some flame weeding and proper mulching should eliminate it completely with relative ease. So would a season of solarizing the soil, at no cost to you other than the price of the plastic. The details on soil solarization are in this previous Question of the Week; as are a good half-dozen or so articles on other chemical-free weed control techniques. Just look them up alphabetically by scrolling through "W" (for weeds) on the list.

Instead, you spent a fortune to poison yourself and your environment, without, as you acknowledge, any effect on the weed. Surprisingly, you're not alone in chemical-failure land. The vast majority of the emails I get from people who admit using chemical herbicides talk about the failure of those sprays to control weeds. In fact, it often seems that the biggest reason people turn to me is not to protect their health or the environment, but because the lousy chemicals didn't work!

And yes, you really did break Federal law during your failure, just as millions of other homeowners do every season. It was a serious violation to use that "Sedgehammer" (or any other pesticide) at higher than recommended strength. In addition, the Weed-B-Gon label clearly states that it is not to be used on food gardens or flowerbeds. The label also warns that Weed-B-Gon is toxic to aquatic creatures (and you used it near the ocean!); and that the ingredients are a danger to water supplies (I hope you didn't spray it near anyone's well or other source of drinking water), and toxic to humans (I hope you used a respirator and skin protection when you sprayed it).

This information doesn't come from some anti-pesticide group, environmental organization or other source you could discount as hippy-dippy; its 100% from the actual product label. That's why every state Extension Bulletin pleads that you read the label before using any pesticide. ('Pesticide' is a catch-all term that includes insecticides and herbicides.) Unfortunately, precious few people read those labels. If more people did, I expect these products would remain on their store shelves.

Then there's your use of Roundup in your environmentally sensitive aquatic environment. Research conducted by Dr. Rick Relyea of the University of Pittsburgh (and frequently cited on our show) found that Roundup kills huge numbers of amphibians. You may not think much of frogs, toads and salamanders, but without their incredible pest insect-eating appetites, we would be overrun with roaches, fleas and crop pests.

A recent study from France found that store-bought Round-Up products caused human cell death. Previous European studies found it to be a potent hormonal disruptor, causing infertility in the wives of farmers who worked with "Roundup Ready" crops, which are genetically engineered to survive massive doses of the potent weed-killer. (Despite what the PR campaigns would have you believe, genetically engineered crops often use more pesticides, not less.)

And although we're focusing on herbicides, many insecticides also work by disrupting the hormonal balance of living things; a very troubling mechanism considering the surge in hormonally influenced human cancers. (Of course, some insecticides are just good old-fashioned nerve toxins; poisons to every living thing they encounter.)

And a large-scale epidemiology study conducted by Professor Anthony Seaton of the University of Aberdeen some years back revealed that use of garden pesticides increases your chance of developing Parkinson's later in life.

I could go on citing this kind of research for hours, but I'm done for now: To those of you who have already made the right choice, who utilize the weed-suppressing power of mulch, who appreciate the fast and satisfying work of a sharp hoe, the smothering power of herbicidal soap and the joy of watching a flame-weeded dandelion puffball burst into Munchkin fireworks, I thank you.

To the rest of you: All I can do is continue to offer you non-toxic alternatives in whatever venues are available to me and hope that you'll choose to do the right thing. A lot of people are looking for non-essentials to cut back on these days. There's nothing less essential than toxic and ineffective chemical herbicides, so use thrift as your excuse. Or your health. Or the health of your children. Or your neighbors. Or Rachel Carson's warning about the potential of these toxins to silence the music of nature. Whatever your reason, "just say no".

And don't make me have to pull over and have this talk with you again!

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