Lush lawns seen as risk in suburbs

Some residents fear chemicals used on grass threaten their health

March 10, 2000|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

It is one of the benefits of living in the suburbs.

Perfectly landscaped, lush green lawns are a homeowner's dream. But a group of residents in the Howard County community of Aspenwood is worried that the beautiful lawns present a health risk because of the pesticides used to treat them.

"We know that the pesticides are a health hazard to both humans and animals, and we would prefer that they use more natural products," said Judith Oyler, who has lived in the community eight years. "Nice lawns are great and they may help property values, but we are concerned with safety, and I wouldn't mind paying a few extra dollars to use something natural."

The concern over pesticides was sparked last springin Aspenwood -- a townhouse community of more than 200 homes near Jessup -- after resident Leslie A. Ebert noticed children getting off a school bus and walking through grass that had just been treated with herbicides.

"I asked the men what they were spraying and they said, `Don't worry, it's just pesticides,' " Ebert said. "At the time, I didn't know anything about pesticides at all."

What followed were several phone calls to the community's board, the company that treated the lawns -- Lawn Systems -- and state officials to learn more about the chemicals used in spraying. Ebert said she has discovered studies that suggest a correlation between pesticides and diseases in household pets, as well as information that suggests the chemicals could be hazardous to children.

She and other neighbors have signed a petition asking their community board -- which contracts with the lawn-care company -- to explore other, more natural methods to rid their lawns of weeds.

Mark Carson, president of the Aspenwood board, said the panel has researched alternative methods, and a leading company that specializes in alternative treatments -- NaturaLawn of America -- said there is no such thing as natural weed control.

"We were told that by one of the largest natural fertilization companies in the county," said Carson, who added that very few residents have attended recent board meetings to complain.

"We have what we think is a qualified contractor using chemicals that are on the market. We feel that we are doing the best we can to address the residents' needs."

But former resident Linda Junkins disagrees. Junkins, who recently moved to Frederick County, pointed out a natural weed control and an organic fertilizer advertised in a gardening catalog as a possible alternative.

"I went to a board meeting with my concerns, and their response to me was that we had to kill the dandelions," Junkins said. "I was very, very concerned about this because I had a dog that died of bone cancer, and there has been research done which linked those chemicals that they use on lawns to cancer in animals."

Mary Ellen Setting, chief of pesticide regulation for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said most chemicals that companies use are commonly found on the market and are registered by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which subjects them to a battery of tests before they can be sold.

Setting said that to be certified for pesticide application, an individual has to have either a year of on-the-job experience or a degree in a biological field and pass an exam given by the state.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture maintains a list of 140 people statewide who are sensitive to the commonly used chemicals. The list is distributed to lawn-treatment companies which must notify those residents before they spray in their area.

"It's not uncommon to expect people who have not contracted for the work or who have no desire to be exposed to pesticides to be concerned about the application," Setting said.

Kris Kinsey, president of Lawn Systems, a state-licensed company, said he is sensitive to residents' concerns.

"At no time do we ever sacrifice the safety of residents, children or animals to make money," Kinsey said. "Our goal is to make the community as beautiful as possible."

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