By Madronna Holden
“The earth wants peace. The birds who eat the corn do not want poison…The wind does not want to carry the stories of death.”
–Linda Hogan, Dwellings
In many home improvement stores this spring, the first thing you will come upon is a display indicating that humans are engaged in a war against weeds and insects—a war that we can only win with the help of the featured chemical weapons.
But they are poisons on our side, the names are carefully geared to get us to think. Who wouldn’t want to weed and feed their lawn with a helpful sprinkling of granules? For those who still like the image of the frontier quest of the unruly wilderness, there is Round Up. And for those who would like to banish dandelions as easily as pressing the nozzle button on a sprayer, there is Weed B Gon.
What good gardener would take up their work without getting the weeds and insects under control by enlisting these weapons? One that cares about the quality of our rivers and the salmon that swim there, for one. Certain of these pesticides have been directly linked to destruction of endangered salmon. All pesticides work their way into groundwater, which works its way into rivers and streams. As a result of a court ruling in 2003, pesticide sales displays in Oregon, Washington and California are required by law to display a warning stating that these chemicals are harmful to salmon.
Someone who wants their garden to set fruit might also avoid these, since usage of pesticides is linked to “colony collapse disorder” that is currently causing wholesale destruction of honey bees. The links are strong enough for some European countries to outlaw the nicotine-related pesticides that are most directly implicated. In the US, the state of California, whose almond crops have been hit especially hard by the death of bees, is re-evaluating the registration of particular pesticides as a result.
And one who cares about children should opt out of this war. We can now trace in profound detail the chemical steps by which the most commonly used household insecticide in the US, chlorpyrifos or CPF, disrupts the brain development of the human fetus and growing child.There are verified “cancer clusters” among the families of agricultural workers who apply pesticides as well.
As a result of its health risks, herbicides with 2,4-D in them–along with many other agricultural chemicals– have been banned in Sweden since 1977. More and more European countries have joined Sweden’s ranks. Quebec also joined their ranks this spring and is currently standing firm in the face of Dow Chemical’s legal suit in response.
When is enough proof enough? Sweden’s cancer rate has fallen since it banned a number of agricultural chemicals. By contrast, the breast cancer rate of Israeli women during the period when large numbers of agricultural chemicals were used to remake the land was double that of other industrial nations. Ten years after they developed stricter controls on these chemicals, their breast cancer rate fell into line with that of other industrial nations (which is already rising alarmingly). In one study, biopsied breast material of women with cancer had twice the concentration of a class of pesticides (chlorinated hydrocarbons) as did the breast cells of their peers without cancer. It was this same class of chemicals (organophosphates) which was confirmed as the cause of the death of four children in India on June 1.
Study after study associates commonly used pesticides with numerous cancers, autism and other neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, thyroid abnormalities, asthma and other respiratory diseases, early puberty of girls and sperm decline in boys and other general endocrine disruption, and bone and skin disorders.
All three herbicides above mimic plant hormones that cause plants to overgrow and die. These plant hormones are chemically similar to human ones: which is why 2 4-5 T (a key ingredient in the infamous Agent Orange along with the 2,4- D in Weed and Feed and Weed B Gon) is off the market after its byproducts caused abortions in humans. The combination of the prevalence of 2, 4-D in the environment (including in amniotic fluid and in breast milk) and the clear indication of harm to developing humans has caused the EU nations and Quebec to pull it off the market.
But in the US, chemical companies have lobbied for a standard of proof of harm that is hard to reach in humans. For one thing, as we know from tobacco/lung cancer data and data from soldiers subjected to radiation in early A-bomb tests, cancers may only be detectable twenty years after exposure to their precipitating cause.
I venture that if one found cancer the day after spraying these chemicals, they would be off the market immediately.
There is also the fact that these hazards hit only a certain percentage of those subjected to them. But to use this as an excuse not to limit their use is tantamount to saying it is fine to give a serial killer a rifle and permission to shoot it—as long as some of his bullets are blanks.
The very reason that it is difficult to absolutely prove harm in humans to the current US chemical industry standard (we don’t want to subject humans to experimentation) is the reason why we should invoke the precautionary principle as the European Union has done with respect to man-made chemicals in its REACH program. To prevent making humans into experimental subjects for toxic chemical effects, we should require proof that these chemicals are safe before they are released.
This also leads me to ponder just what is it about the dandelions that incites us chemical warfare? Is it the fact that they have the audacity to trespass on “our” lawns? A friend noted that they are so blatant in their yellow flower– they tell the world we are not in control.
One pioneer story has it is that the dandelion first arrived in Seattle in a doctor’s case, brought along for its medicinal properties. Dandelion is still grown as a gourmet salad green, and the flower (not the white part, which is bitter), is a sweet addition to salads, as well as the main ingredient in dandelion wine. Picking off the heads and putting them in salads is a good way to keep them from going to seed so as not to annoy your neighbors. Of course this is the last thing you want to do with dandelions that have been sprayed.
Check out this site of the University of Maryland medical school for the many medicinal properties and uses of our humble dandelion. Indeed, we might see the dandelion as a gift instead of using dangerous chemicals to make war on it. One of the traditional and now research-supported functions of dandelion root is as a liver cleanser in this modern world in which our bodies are beset by so many toxins.
Who enforces the aesthetic standard that deems the dandelion so repugnant? Some of the same folks, I daresay, who declare wrinkles and gray hair disreputable– and urge us to pay to remove them, even if it takes surgery. As elective plastic surgery rises, so does the death toll from it.
Who decides the standards for which we are willing to make such trade-offs on our health?
The European Union and parts of Canada have looked at this issue rationally and decided that flawless lawns are not worth the health risks– especially to those, like children, unable to defend themselves. The ban on lawn chemicals used for “cosmetic” purposes in Quebec joins similar bans in a growing number of Canadian municipalities. (117 as of 2006) Measuring the potential harm to human health as evaluated by a professional organization of 6700 physicians, Quebec decided removing a few dandelions was simply not worth it.
I find it heartening that these Canadians are countering the notion that we must risk our health to achieve an aesthetic that exhibits control of nature: a notion that advertisers are all too ready to have us uphold with respect to our bodies as well as our lawns. Check out the dangerous ingredients in commonly used personal cosmetics. With eating disorders such as anorexia, adolescents risk death to look good by a standard they can never meet.
There is a dangerous element in our inherited worldview that tells us we must battle uncontrolled nature (in the dandelion or the wrinkle in our skin) in order to be an upstanding person. In accepting the wrinkles on our faces, we must give up the sense that we are at war with the nature that ages us.
In accepting a few dandelions into our lawns, we must give up the sense that gardening is a war over the nature that would go back to its own devices without us. That means giving up on the part of our Western tradition expressed by early fur traders on the Columbia Plateau who wrote in their journals that they put in gardens not to harvest the produce but to illustrate to the Indians how to control nature.
But it is time to end the war on the natural world that sustains us—before we actually win it.
Here are some ways to help end that war with respect to home chemical usage:
- Check out the very helpful pamphlet, Natural Gardening, published by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality,which gives info on beneficial insects, as well as detailing least toxic controls for weeds and plant diseases.
- Investigate the least toxic alternatives libraries at NCAP.
- Inquire about the warning signs about dangers to salmon if they aren’t on display along with pesticides in home and garden stores.
- Give your local home and garden store positive feedback for offering least toxic alternatives, as many are now doing as a result of both customer feedback and information coming out on pesticide dangers.
- If you see someone applying spray in windy conditions, talk to them. If they are a neighbor, have a neighborly conversation with them. If they are doing this for money, contact the appropriate agency to file a complaint. In Oregon, call the State Department of Agriculture.
- Talk to your neighbors and neighborhood organizations and share information about the dangers of pesticides and options for less toxic alternatives.
- Many municipalities have stormwater divisions with programs to help stem pesticide use: call yours and find out if you can support their effort or help distribute their information.
- Avoid buying and using “broad spectrum” pesticides that kill all plants, all broad leaf plants, or all insects. And if you have any of these around the house, don’t simply throw them away. They are hazardous waste: call your local solid waste facility to see when they have hazardous waste collections and bring them there to be disposed of properly.
- Here are links to information on organic lawn care (site for both professionals and homeowners) and ten reasons to ditch your lawn care chemicals, since they are not only dangerous but unnecessary.
Together we can make peace with the land.
Filed under: Environmental ethics, environmental philosophy, Environmental psychology, Health, Our Earth and Ourselves, worldviews | Tagged: Environmental ethics, environmental philosophy, herbicide dangers, positive views of dandelions, redefining "weeds" |