If you drive through many neighbourhoods, you are likely to see yards, parks, and golf courses sporting the so called ‘perfect lawn.’ It’s a large expanse of lush weed-free green grass that is the pride and even obsession of many homeowners. Although this form of landscaping may be aesthetically pleasing to many people, it’s often created with the extensive use of pesticides. The attempt to produce weed-free lawns and pest-free gardens is causing significant environmental contamination.
Chemicals used to eliminate weeds, insects, and other pests for the “beautification” of private lawns and gardens are called cosmetic pesticides, and their use is extensive. The amount of pesticides used in urban areas is sometimes higher than in agricultural areas. Many households use pesticides, and many use them multiple times a year amounting to millions of kilograms in urban areas.
Despite what we see in pesticide ads, the ‘healthy lawn’ is nothing more than a water-thirsty monoculture that is actually not healthy at all. Nature-Action Quebec – an environmental organization that opposes urban pesticide use – stated that, “Enormous amounts of pesticides are used on lawns in an attempt to maintain this kind of monoculture, which creates conditions that attract pests. In addition, consumers are massively influenced by pesticide sellers who have large budgets to convince people that they need to have perfect lawns.”
According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada president Monte Hummel, “As little as one percent of pesticides actually hit their mark. The rest wafts into the environment threatening unintended targets, from wildlife to children.” Air borne pesticide particles and droplets can be carried by the wind, which results in the contamination of soil or surface waters a great distance away from the source.
Chemicals applied to lawns and gardens can sink into the soil contaminating groundwater, or runoff into surface waters either directly or by way of urban storm sewers. In 1998, Environment Canada studied surface water bodies in Toronto and Guelph, Ontario. After heavy rains, not only were pesticides found in the water bodies, but their levels exceeded water quality standards.
Effects on Environmental and Human Health
Pesticides are produced for the sole purpose of killing living organisms, so it should come as no surprise that they are harmful to the environment. In wildlife, pesticide contamination affects reproduction, growth, neurological development, and behaviour, and causes problems with immune and endocrine systems.
A WWF report on pesticides states that, “repeated exposure to low doses of certain pesticides can result in reduced fish egg production and hatching, nest and brood abandonment, lower resistance to disease, decreased body weight, hormonal changes, and reduced avoidance of predators. The overall consequences of sub-lethal doses of pesticides can reduce adult survival, and lower population abundance in a wide-range of wildlife species.”
Since pesticides are stored in fat cells, bioaccumulation and biomagnification does occur in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. This means that concentrations can become very high in species at the top of the food chain. Fish kills have occurred in many areas of Canada, sometimes involving thousands of fish as well as other aquatic species. When plant cover is reduced as a result of pesticide contamination, the entire ecosystem is altered, which leads to a reduction in biodiversity and increased risk of predation.
The Canadian Water Resources Association (CWRA) reports that pesticides have been detected in drinking water. A Canadian Federal Government sampling program has also found pesticide residuals in wells in many areas of the country. In humans, pesticides are believed to be carcinogens, tumor promoters, and neurotoxins. They also cause changes to the liver, kidneys, lungs, skin, adrenal glands, and thymus. Health effects can also be transmitted to subsequent generations.
Pesticide Reduction Strategies
The Canadian Federal Government’s Standing Committee on Environmental and Sustainable Development, produced a report in May 2000 that examined the use of pesticides and their effects in Canada. They concluded that, “urban pesticide use is as important an issue as agricultural utilization. Consequently, urban areas must form an integral part of a proper pesticide management system in Canada.”
The Supreme Court of Canada decided in June 2001, that municipalities should be allowed to restrict the use of pesticides in their own jurisdictions. This decision opened the doors for all municipalities in Canada to take the actions necessary to reduce pesticide contamination. Many communities have decided to restrict or ban the use of all cosmetic pesticides. Others are considering doing so in the near future.
It’s possible to produce healthy lawns and gardens without the use of pesticides. There are many solutions available that are ecologically friendly. Some of them can even help to reduce yard work. Another solution is to abandon the notion that lawns must be completely weed free in order to be beautiful. Perhaps we should learn to value biodiversity in our own yards just as we value it in the natural areas around us.
Rick de Vries is the Director of Development for the Fresh Outlook Foundation. He has a background in research and environmental sciences, and has many years of experience writing and editing for environmentally related media.