Lawn Chemicals May Make Fertile Soil for Local Environmental Stories

May 5, 2021
Pesticide application is often done on a kind of “honor system,” with homeowners admonished to follow instructions on the label. Photo: Vincent Horn, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Lawn Chemicals May Make Fertile Soil for Local Environmental Stories

By Joseph A. Davis

It’s summer, and the lawn anxiety and softball practice season is getting underway.

Perhaps a truck with a tank full of unknown liquid is even spraying something on the lush turf of your next-door neighbor right now.

Whether or not, it’s a good time for stories about lawn chemicals and how they affect your audience. It’s a story for the local patch.

Case in point: In Montgomery Co., Md., it is now illegal to spray pesticides on residential lawns. That’s a unique situation, because Maryland is one of the few states that has not taken the authority to regulate pesticides away from local governments.

It’s a reminder that good journalism is needed to let people know the lay of the land regarding pesticides — wherever they live.


Why it matters

Pesticides are often toxic, especially when misused. Even under federal and state regulation, there are pesticides that can poison people’s nervous systems, cause cancer, disrupt endocrine hormones, cause birth defects and harm parts of the environment.


Because we use our lawns a lot,

we are exposed to whatever

chemicals they may contain.


Moreover, lawns are for many people a locus of relaxed, outdoor family life — where dogs sniff, kids play and people picnic. Because we use our lawns a lot, we are exposed to whatever chemicals they may contain.

Many lawncare products combine fertilizers and pesticides, promoting grass growth and, at the same time, suppressing weeds and insects.

The fertilizer components can cause environmental problems when they run off into waterways, often as a result of overapplication or excess watering or precipitation. The runoff fertilizes algae growth in waterways, a process called eutrophication, which in turn can harm fish and other aquatic life.


The backstory

The federal government has been involved in regulating pesticides for a long time — or not regulating them, as some environmentalists might argue.

Farmers depend heavily on pesticides, and agriculture and chemical lobbies are quite powerful. So the authority to regulate pesticides is limited in many ways.

The main federal law on pesticides, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA, was first enacted in 1947, updating the Federal Insecticide Act of 1910.

FIFRA has been amended many times, but one of the most important changes came in 1972, when authority for carrying it out was transferred from the Agriculture Department to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Making the EPA the main federal agency involved in pesticide regulation, however, hardly ended the influence of the farm lobby on pesticide regulation.

To this day, pesticide application is often done on a kind of “honor system” by farmers or homeowners, who are admonished to follow instructions on the label. Commercial applicators (the only ones who can apply restricted-use pesticides) are licensed by states under federal rules.

FIFRA differs from most other environmental laws in that it allows EPA to weigh economic benefits of the pesticides against any harms. FIFRA does allow states to do some fine tuning, but it does not allow states to set requirements more lenient than the federal ones, except in very limited circumstances. In other words, it preempts state pesticide rules by setting a “floor.”

In recent decades, though, some local governments have tried to set rules stricter than federal ones (e.g., by banning lawn chemicals). Industry, in concert with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has opposed this trend and gotten state legislature to adopt laws whereby the state preempts local authority to regulate pesticides.

As a result, only seven states do not preempt localities on pesticides.


Story ideas

  • See those little lawn flags? Some 21 states have laws requiring commercial lawn services to plant them as notification to neighbors that something has been applied. Does your state require them? See a list here. Try asking what they applied.
  • Who are the major lawn chemical service companies in your area? You may see their signs planted too, like sunflowers in people’s yards. Talk to them about what they apply, and when, and how. Are they forthcoming?
  • Check in with your local homeowners association or similar group. Do they have rules, norms or expectations about lawns? Do they discourage weedy lawns?
  • Look for neighbors with alternative front yards. These may be low-water xeriscapes. Or native plant wildlife habitats (see this certification program). Or urban farmers growing veggies. Talk with them about their methods and experiences.
  • Visit your local hardware, garden or home improvement store, and talk to the staff in the garden department as well as managers. What do they sell? How much? To whom? Do they support more “organic” alternatives too?
  • Take your notebook to the garden department and jot down the major ingredients in the leading lawn care products. Then look up those ingredients on sites like this one.
  • Talk to local beekeepers, birders, naturalists and butterfly buffs. Or their clubs. (Hint: insecticides kill insects.) Ask if they see any impact of chemical lawn care on the critters.


Reporting resources

  • EPA: As the main federal regulator, EPA is the horse’s mouth on pesticides. Their website offers a lot of information, much of it nontechnical. Start by looking here.
  • State pesticide agencies: States vary on pesticide regulation in important ways, so it’s often good to check in with your state agency. Here's a directory.
  • Beyond Pesticides: A decades-old advocacy group pushing for pesticide rules that protect public health and the environment. Its daily news blog may offer story ideas.
  • CropLife America: The main pesticide industry trade group, which often lobbies for less stringent pesticide regulation (media contact info).
  • Association of American Pesticide Control Officials: One place to get the viewpoint of state-level pesticide regulators.
  • National Pesticide Information Center: Run by Oregon State University under a cooperative agreement with EPA, the center offers a wealth of science-based information. Plus, you can call them up with questions.
  • Pesticide Properties DataBase: This online, free, searchable database provides chemical identity, physicochemical, human health and ecotoxicological data on many pesticides. It is run by the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 18. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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