For the Birds Radio Program: Lawn Chemicals

Original Air Date: Nov. 28, 2001 Rerun Dates: Nov. 22, 2005

In a thorough examination of dead birds retrieved in New York after the outbreak of West Nile Virus, more of the birds had died from pesticides than the disease. Laura thinks lawn care companies should be prohibited from applying insecticides without evidence of actual problems with insects, and should be required to spot spray weeds where the weeds cover less than 10 percent of the lawn.

Duration: 4′14″


This fall I was horrified to learn this fall that most of the 80,000 birds collected and examined in a NY study tracing West Nile Virus had died from pesticide poisonings, including from common lawn products. Lawn pesticides are very dangerous for baby Blue Jays, and so, since it IS National Blue Jay Awareness Month, I decided I really have to do something about pesticides. So right now I’m trying to figure out how I can get a law written and enacted that will significantly reduce pesticide use.

I can certainly appreciate the human desire for an attractive lawn. But right now, major companies like ChemLawn use a basic formula, including the same amounts of herbicide and insecticide, on every lawn they treat in a given region, regardless of the relative amounts of insects and weeds on those lawns. It makes no sense at all that a lawn that has been treated for 20 years and has two dandelions receives the exact same amount of herbicide as a lawn that has never been treated and has six bazillion dandelions. And very few lawns have insect problems, yet an insecticide is included in most applications. Insecticides pose serious dangers for humans, pets, earthworms, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife, and have no value whatsoever on a lawn that isn’t suffering from an infestation.

I would very much like to see a law enacted that puts two restrictions on lawn care companies. First, it would limit lawn care company insecticide applications to those lawns that show clear evidence of insect damage. Without such evidence on file, or a clear and specific written request from the consumer, lawn care companies would simply not be allowed to administer insecticides. Second, I would like lawn care companies to be required to spot spray weeds on lawns with less than, say, 10% coverage of dandelions, rather than spraying herbicide over every millimeter of a lawn that has very few weeds.

Both these measures would significantly reduce the amount of pesticide applied in urban and suburban areas, and reduce contaminated runoff, while not reducing in any way the beneficial use of pesticides in situations where the consumer actually has a weed or insect problem. This would require changes in the methods lawn care companies use in treating lawns, and they can argue this law would make them less efficient. But they would also realize some savings by reducing the amounts of pesticides they purchase.

I would like to draft some sort of legislation regarding this matter, but have no clue where to begin, so I wrote letters to James Oberstar and Paul Wellstone, asking them, first, at what level of government would this be most appropriate. Would national standards supercede state or local ones in this situation? Would I be wisest to start with a Duluth ordinance, a state law, or jump in and try to get a national law passed?

I also asked it either of them would be interested in helping with this issue. It may take a while for Oberstar’s office to receive the letter, since I couldn’t figure out how to e-mail him and I’m sure right now all the snail mail going to members of Congress is being carefully checked out, but I sent Paul Wellstone’s via his web page. I have no experience whatsoever with drafting legislation at any level, but I think this is an important issue and someone has to get it started. Now we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.