Lawn Rangers | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Lawn Rangers 

The Safer Pest Control Project wants to keep poison off the grass.

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The uphill battle against chemical lawn treatments is about to get a boost from an unexpected source: dog lovers.

It turns out that chemicals used to kill weeds might be a source for a rising rate of canine non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The evidence so far is limited to anecdotes supplied by dog owners and their vets, as well as to a few studies strongly disputed by chemical company scientists who say lawn chemicals harm neither man nor beast.

These reassurances are unconvincing to grieving dog owners. "I had a healthy dog and now he's dead," says Kim Monreal, a native southwest-sider who lives in Aurora. "No, I don't know for certain that the lawn chemicals killed him. But please, it's worth much more investigation."

If a full-scale investigation is ever launched it will probably stem from grassroots efforts by the Safer Pest Control Project, a group of environmentalists best known for doing what most skeptics predicted would prove impossible: convincing the Chicago Housing Authority to employ a low-toxic approach to killing cockroaches in the Henry Horner housing complex.

"Together with residents, we worked out a whole strategy," says Kelley Tucker, project associate for Safer Pest Control. "Residents went apartment to apartment caulking seals around faucets, making sure water dripping stopped. We never sprayed. At most we used tiny drips of pesticides in gel-bait form that could be dispatched with squeeze guns."

Their efforts not only killed the roaches ("One woman said this was the first Christmas dinner she had served that she didn't have to share with roaches," says Tucker) but proved that people were open-minded about alternatives to chemicals, even when the stakes were high.

It may be more difficult to persuade middle-class home owners to give up their lawn chemicals, if only because of the promise of weedless lawns without doing any work.

Consumers now spend over $1 billion a year on such products, according to a recent article in the Tribune. TruGreen-ChemLawn, one of the nation's fastest-growing weed-control companies, has over 200 branches in 48 states and annual revenues well beyond $100 million, according to company sources. "We are a very large company, with about 3,500 people throughout the country treating lawns," says Roger Yeary, ChemLawn's vice president for health, safety, and environmental stewardship. "This is a boom industry, and Chicago's one of our biggest markets."

According to Yeary, his company's products grow green, healthy grass. But Tucker vigorously disagrees, arguing that pesticides are counterproductive. "There are pesticides that kill fungi, insects, plants--even mollusks," Tucker says. "But people have to realize that to have healthy grass you need healthy soil, and healthy soil relies on a whole series of prey-predator relationships that these chemicals destroy. There are different worms, insects, fungi, and bacteria all at work supporting the health of the grass. Once you kill one part, you throw the process off."

In preparation for a summer campaign called "Yards for Nature," Tucker and her colleague Jill Viehweg are sending out lawn-care tips. "The most basic thing is, don't cut to the ground," says Tucker. "I know there's a lot of people who mow down to an inch, thinking, 'Now I won't have to mow for another month.' But cutting to the ground lays the grass bare to the sun. Another thing is, leave the grass clippings on the ground, so they will be an organic source of nitrogen and potassium."

Most important, she says, don't apply chemicals. "One of the most active ingredients in common pesticides is 2,4-D, which is one of the two major components of Agent Orange," says Tucker. "This is very strong stuff."

To prove her point, she cites two articles by Dr. Howard Hayes, an epidemiologist with the National Cancer Institute. In 1991 Hayes and colleagues published an article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute stating that "the risk of canine malignant lymphoma rose to a twofold excess with four or more yearly owner applications of 2,4-D."

The study was widely criticized by industry scientists. "The questionnaire upon which Hayes's conclusions were reached was flawed," says Yeary. "For one thing, people don't apply 2,4-D to their lawns four times a year. If people are very aggressive taking care of their lawns they would apply it once in the spring and once in the fall."

Hayes wrote a follow-up article in which he acknowledged that "all critiques correctly conclude that our [original] study does not prove that 2,4-D exposure in the home environment is a cause of malignant lymphoma in companion dogs." But he added that "rarely can a single epidemiological study prove causation....Until additional studies [are done], the higher risk we found in dogs whose owners personally apply 2,4-D...would, at the very least, argue for prudence in the pursuit of a perfect lawn."

Yeary says the "risk to pets from lawn-care products is negligible because the amount of residue is just 25 to 50 parts per million, which is very low. We took a look at veterinarian data based on cancer reports. During the period of time when lawn care became a major business there's no change in the incidence of lymphoma in proportion to other cancers."

But local veterinarians strongly disagree--particularly Dr. Frederick Drazner, an oncologist with a large practice in Des Plaines. The problem, he says, is that dogs are constantly rooting around in bushes and grass, exposing themselves to chemicals that humans might never directly absorb. "In the last 15 years I've treated close to 2,200 dogs with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma--probably more than anyone in the area," says Drazner. "I would say 35 to 40 percent of these dogs are in households where some type of herbicide has been used. So the correlation's pretty high."

For the moment, there's little political pressure on the chemical industry to limit pesticides, particularly in Illinois, where farmers are wary of any legislation that might limit crop spraying. The legislature has even passed a bill preventing municipalities from banning lawn chemicals.

The movement to reverse this bill will be pushed in part by testimony from dog lovers such as Monreal, who breaks into tears as she describes the agonizing ten-month breakdown of her dog Bear, a mixed black Lab and Irish wolfhound.

According to Monreal, Bear was a healthy six-year-old dog until last spring, when he began to move sluggishly and breathe heavily. "The vet did a test and we discovered Bear had cancer," says Monreal. "I was hysterical. I couldn't believe it. He had always been so healthy. I didn't know how he could have got it. I never imagined that lawns would be hazardous. I was so naive I didn't know pesticides were used in residential areas."

But as Bear embarked on a costly and debilitating regimen of chemotherapy, Monreal began to notice that many of her neighbors used chemicals on their lawns. "He was starting to do better. Then one morning I saw an employee from a chemical company spraying. The next morning Bear's lymph nodes were swollen," she says. "I don't know if there's any correlation, and a lot of people say, 'Oh, it's just a coincidence.' But he never fully recovered after that. He went back to the hospital. I got a call one night after I went to bed from the doctor who said Bear had just died. He had an acute aneurysm. They were letting him out of his cage and he just collapsed.

"I feel so bad. I cry everyday. I know a lot of people can't understand. People say, 'Oh, you'll get better,' but the feeling is strong. I come home after work and I expect him to greet me at the door. I sit down to eat and I expect him to beg. I still see the carpet pressed down where his body lay. I still expect to see him, but I won't ever see him again."

Though Monreal has no solid proof that lawn chemicals had anything to do with Bear's cancer, she says people should think twice before using them on their lawns. "I called the chemical company that our neighbors used and the lady on the phone said, 'Don't worry, the product's safe--it was approved by the EPA,'" says Monreal. "But just because the EPA approved it doesn't mean it's safe."

Monreal continues, "Then she told me how many people in our neighborhood used it. I couldn't believe so many people were using it. Grass is great, but does it have to look so perfectly green? My neighbor next door has two small children and she uses it. I told her, 'I have no self-interest in this, my dog is dead, but you have children.' She said, 'Oh, I know it's probably harming the environment, but I don't know how to get rid of the weeds.' I thought, for God sakes, pull out the weeds or pay someone else to pull them out, or just let them grow! I mean, her lawn looks nice, but so what? What's this obsession about green grass? I have a new name for our neighborhood--I call it Jonestown. Everyone wants to keep up with the Joneses. Everyone needs to have the greenest grass."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kelley Tucker photo by Bruce Powell.

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