Pesticide-Treated Lawns and Fields Are a Hazard to Children and Dogs

Many parents avoid pesticides in food, but what about in parks and playing fields?

child plays on freshly mowed lawn
Child plays on freshly mowed lawn.

@rubypeanut via Twenty20 

This summer I am having some landscaping work done by a young couple who come each day with their eight-month-old baby in tow. They're experienced landscapers, but are new to the challenges of working with a young child around. The baby, however, seems very content to spend her days riding in a carrier on her mom's back, napping in her carseat, and playing in the grass and dirt. 

One day, as her father set her down on my weedy, lumpy lawn, he said, "Don't take this the wrong way, but I can tell you don't spray." He's right. Our lawn stands out like a sore thumb among the perfectly manicured ones in our neighborhood – owned, of course, by lovely retired people who have all the time in the world to pluck at their immaculate lawns with tweezers and shears. "And that's why I'm comfortable with her sitting on it," he finished. "I would never set her down on a perfect lawn because who knows what's on it."

In that moment, he validated my own thoughts and concerns about soaking lawns in pesticides for the sake of appearances. I quizzed him further, and he said there was nothing wrong with letting weeds grow and keeping them mowed, and that it results in a healthier, more resilient eco-system that won't die and turn brown nearly as fast as my neighbors' perfect lawns. "Just keep doing what you're doing," he said. "No one can tell from the street, and you're the ones using and enjoying it. Plus, your kids are on it all the time."

His words were fresh in my mind when I received a press release this week from Stonyfield Organic, the yogurt company, which has recently spearheaded an initiative to get pesticides out of kids' playing fields across the United States. It made a profound point – that 69% of parents want to reduce their children's exposure to pesticides in food, while nearly the same number (67%) don't view it as a threat at sports fields, playgrounds, and parks. 

Perhaps they don't realize that "65% of playing fields in the U.S. are sprayed with harmful pesticides like glyphosate, 2,4-D and Dicamba," which are potentially carcinogenic. Stonyfield goes on to say that 2,4-D has been linked to Parkinson's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, thyroid and endocrine disruption, and that children are more susceptible than adults to its harmful effects because they weigh less and their organs are not yet fully developed. 

Dr. Philip Landrigan, founding director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said, "Several of the most commonly used chemicals on playing fields are either proven or likely endocrine disruptors, which can interfere with the development of children’s immune, reproductive, and metabolic systems."

Kids play with their dog on a lawn
Kids play with their dog on a lawn. @TonyTheTigersSon via Twenty20

Pets are also at risk, with studies showing that dogs have a 70% higher risk of canine lymphoma cancer after being exposed to herbicide-treated lawns than dogs who have not been exposed. Most pet owners are not nearly as worried about this as they should be.

"The majority of pet parents (58%) were not aware that public parks are using pesticides to treat the grass where their pups run and play. Paradoxically, 75% of pet owners think it’s important for humans to take their shoes off before entering a house, but 77% don’t wipe their pet’s paws after outside play and walks, leaving the door open for pesticide residue to be tracked inside the home. What’s even more alarming, 74% of dog owners also said they let their dog sleep on the bed or couch!"

Stonyfield wants to start a widespread movement toward pesticide-free lawns and playing fields, and the coronavirus pandemic has only served to highlight the importance of this campaign. Many more people have started spending time outdoors, whether it's in their own backyards or at local parks, and this increased time walking, playing, or lying on chemically-treated lawns could be a health hazard. Stonyfield's initiative is called #PlayFree and it includes a lawn-care guide for homeowners wanting to detoxify their own yards, as well as a commitment from Stonyfield to convert 14 U.S. communities to organic playing fields. You can see a list of the communities with chemical-free fields here.

In the meantime, I'm thrilled to know that I'm already on the right path with my chemical-free yard. I've even decided to reseed the back portion of my yard with a wildflower mix that the landscapers say will attract pollinators, never has to be mowed, and will be a colorful, dynamic play space for my kids. I'll provide an update on that as it grows.