Debate continues over safety of weed killers, pesticides CHEMICALS ON THE LAWN

September 07, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Eight-year-old Jared Arminger loves to ride his red two-wheel bicycle, play baseball and go for walks around his Arbutus neighborhood. But every time he does one of these things, he risks getting sick.

"I get nasty when I am around lawn care pesticides," says the brown-haired, blue-eyed boy who has a near-genius IQ of 133 and has given testimony to a U.S. Senate subcommittee and the Governor's Pesticide Council.

"I get angry about a lot of things. I have a hard time writing and doing my homework. I can't think. I get depressed. A lot of stuff happens to me, like I don't listen. I salivate more. My nose runs. I get swollen glands and my ears hurt. . . . I get really angry that I can't go outside and play with my friends."

September is prime time for chemically sensitive people like Jared to be forced indoors as homeowners and lawn care companies prepare to douse 40 percent of the nation's lawns with chemicals to kill weeds and prepare the grass for winter.

Although physicians believe that only a small segment of the population is chemically sensitive, the long-range safety of lawn chemicals has become one of the controversial environmental issues of the 1990s -- from state legislatures to the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency.

The controversy heated up again this week as the National Cancer Institute reported results of a long-awaited study that showed dogs were twice as likely to develop immune system cancer (lymphoma) if their owners used the common weed killer 2,4-D on their lawns at least four times a year. The study is significant, according to the NCI, because dogs and humans are known to have similar reactions to some cancer-causing substances.

Chemical manufacturers and professional lawn chemical applicators insist that chemicals like 2,4-D are safe, and most people will suffer no adverse effects from exposure to them. But critics say scientists still don't know how safe or unsafe many of the chemicals are, who is at high risk of getting sick and why, and when it's really safe to allow children and pets to go back on the grass after a lawn has been sprayed.

Safety questions

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of determining how much health risk Americans should be willing to take for the benefit of a pretty lawn. But the General Accounting Office says EPA has been too slow in reassessing health and environmental risks of the $700-million-a-year lawn chemical business.

Of the 41 chemicals currently used most often on lawns, the GAO says only one has been reregistered under the stricter safety standards that have been in effect since 1984. Three of the 41 are new chemicals approved under more stringent tests, but the remaining include some that were tested and registered as long as 40 years ago when testing methods were less sophisticated.

"The range of concerns about the risks of pesticides has expanded to include potential chronic health effects, such as cancer and birth defects, and adverse ecological effects," according to the GAO. "Currently these pesticides are being applied in large amounts without complete knowledge of their safety."

Documented symptoms of acute exposure to pesticides include convulsions, difficulty in breathing, headaches, dizziness, vomiting and eye irritations. Wildfowl and songbirds have died as a result of pesticide poisonings. But scientists have too little data to prove that spraying your lawn today will mean health problems tomorrow.

Besides the latest NCI study on dogs, here's what they do have:

* Preliminary data in a University of Cincinnati study of 100 ChemLawn Services Corp. employees showed no adverse health effects in workers who have applied lawn chemicals for nine to 17 years. Cancer was excluded from the study. ChemLawn, the nation's largest commercial lawn-care company, paid for the research.

* An NCI study of Kansas farmers showed that those who used herbicides, especially 2,4-D, were more apt to get non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. Farmers who used herbicides on their farms 20 or more days per year had a risk six times greater of getting the disease than non-farmers.

* Another NCI study found an excess of leukemia among farmers in Iowa and Minnesota. Exposure to herbicides (such as 2,4-D) did not increase the risk. Only farmers who used certain pesticides to control insects on their animals were more likely to get leukemia; these chemicals are not used on lawns.

Several chemicals have been targeted for a closer look because EPA is concerned about their health or environmental risks and wants more extensive analysis than is normally performed. Included are diazinon and 2,4-D -- two of the chemicals most widely used in lawn care -- as well as DDVP, Maneb, Benomyl, and Pronamide.

Inadequate testing

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