Congress is told of lawn-chemical threat

May 10, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Americans' pursuit of the perfect lawn is exposing them to toxic chemicals that can harm humans and the environment, experts and victims of pesticide poisoning told Congress yesterday.

"I cannot run or swim," said Tom Latimer, a 36-year-old Dallas homeowner. "If I ever yell, it will feel like burning coals in my throat for several days and I will be unable to talk."

Mr. Latimer said he suffered irreversible damage to his brain, eyes and vocal cords after the insecticide Diazinon, which both he and his lawn service sprayed on his grass, reacted with Tagamet, a prescription drug he was taking.

"Too many of us fail to recognize that the chemicals that kill weeds and bugs are also powerful enough to threaten the environment and even human health," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn. Mr. Lieberman has introduced a bill that would require lawn-care companies to provide three-day written notice to neighbors within 1,000 feet before they use chemicals on a property.

Environmentalists strongly support Mr. Lieberman's bill, which they said is overdue. However, the 1,000-member Professional Lawn Care Association of America said the warning should be limited to people who live next door to a customer's property and who submit a doctor's certificate that confirms they are sensitive to lawn-care chemicals.

"We also believe, however, that Congress should consider extending the [notification] requirement to non-commercial applicators -- the do-it-yourselfers," said Ann McClure, the association's executive vice president. "The latest statistics show that 64 million people perform their own lawn care, while only 8 million engage lawn-care services companies."

Mr. Lieberman's proposal was flatly rejected by the Chemical Producers and Distributors Association, which said the warning would have a "devastating impact" on florists and greenhouses, where chemicals are used almost daily, and would be unworkable in big cities.

"If the city of New York desired to spray the elm trees surrounding Central Park, it would have to provide written notification to somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 people who live and work within 1,000 feet" of the perimeter of the park, said the chemical association's president, Warren E. Stickle.

However, other witnesses said the warnings were needed because the dangers of lawn-care chemicals were little understood by consumers and glossed over by some in the $1.5 billion lawn-care industry.

"Unfortunately, some in the pesticide industry callously ignore the potential hazards of these products, and they do their best to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers," New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams testified.

Last June, Mr. Abrams' office won a $100,000 settlement against ChemLawn, the nation's largest lawn-care company, for ads that falsely claimed that its pesticides had been tested and found safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In fact, the EPA has made "limited progress in reassessing the health and environmental risks of pesticides applied to lawns," the General Accounting Office said yesterday.

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