Chemical commerce fuels cancer cluster worry 

Lawn fertilization is big business; neighbors in Martinsville are nervous that local chemical use may be fueling what appears to be a local cancer cluster. - COURTESY OF  EIRIK VIA FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Lawn fertilization is big business; neighbors in Martinsville are nervous that local chemical use may be fueling what appears to be a local cancer cluster.
  • Courtesy of Eirik via Flickr Creative Commons


Before leaving for Indianapolis to visit her husband, who was in the hospital being treated for multiple myeloma, an incurable bone marrow cancer, Bonnie Atkinson (not her real name), a resident of the Painted Hills subdivision outside Martinsville, stood outside her house chatting with a neighbor. Suddenly a professional lawn care service truck appeared, and the driver sprayed herbicides on several lawns in the neighborhood, as had happened before. Although it's difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether her husband's cancer and the many other cases of cancer in Atkinson's neighborhood are linked to her neighbors' habit of treating their lawns with herbicides, she knew for sure that herbicides used on lawns are deadly to more than weeds, the target organisms, as Rachel Carson pointed out in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. Atkinson also knew that because of pesticide drift, herbicides move to areas other than were they're sprayed.

About 90 million pounds of herbicides are applied to U.S. lawns every year, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Of the 17 most frequently used herbicides, three are known carcinogens, three are possible carcinogens, and one is a probable carcinogen, according to Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit working to end dependence of toxic pesticides. Various herbicides are linked with cancers, endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, neurotoxicity, kidney/liver damage, birth defects and sensitization/irritation.

Children are especially sensitive to pesticide exposure because they absorb more pesticides relative to their body weight than adults and have developing organ systems that are more vulnerable and less able to detoxify toxic chemicals than adults' systems.

Lawn chemicals harm pets, too: according to Environmental Research, using a pesticide to achieve a lush lawn is likely to cause malignant lymphoma in dogs.

Take the herbicide 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), for example. It is the only one of the top 13 herbicides listed by Beyond Pesticides that causes all the ill effects herbicides are known to cause (http://www.beyondpesticides.org/lawn/factsheets/30health.pdf). It's one of the top 13 most heavily used herbicides in the home and garden, according to Beyond Pesticides. Lawn care companies apply it in the late spring and early summer for http://psep.cce.cornell.edu/issues/lawnissues.aspx">broad leaf weed control and in the fall for weed treatment.

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that 2,4-D, which is applied outdoors but is commonly tracked into houses on shoes or pet paws, can remain in carpets for as long as a year. 2,4-D has been widely detected in drinking water.

2,4-D was a chief ingredient in the defoliant Agent Orange, which the U.S. used to destroy ecosystems in North Vietnam during the Vietnam war. It left a legacy of cancer and birth defects among the Vietnamese exposed to it, and it left a similar legacy in exposed American troops and their offspring.

2,4-D is contaminated with a class of synthetic chemicals called dioxins, the most potent chemical carcinogens known. Dioxins cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive effects, liver damage and a skin disease called chloracne. Dioxins are neurotoxins and endocrine (hormone) disruptors and are on the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list of the worst hormone disruptors.

2,4-D is especially associated with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system, according to Beyond Pesticides, an organization that advocates abandoning the use of pesticides. 2,4-D is absorbed through the skin. Anyone who applies the herbicide or is in contact with lawns or surface water where 2,4-D was applied is at risk of exposure to it.

Just how many Indiana homeowners employ lawn care services to spray herbicides on their property is impossible to know. The Hoosier Environmental Council has no information on the subject. According to the Office of the Indiana State Chemist, no agency has information on how many Indiana households use lawn care services because homeowners aren't required to report the use of a professional lawn care operator. However, the office reported that Indiana has 1,242 licensed turf-management businesses.

TruGreen/ChemLawn is the largest lawn care company in the U.S., applying pesticides to 3.4 million households. The Toxic Action Center's analysis of the 32 pesticides the company applies routinely revealed that over half of them include possible carcinogens, as defined by EPA.

When asked whether the herbicides it applies are safe for adults, children and pets, an employee of the Bloomington office of TruGreen/ChemLawn said that treated lawns are safe to walk on two hours after they're sprayed, when the lawns are dry. He also said the company applies the herbicides every six weeks but will return every two weeks if the weeds are stubborn.

The Toxic Action Center is currently running its refusetousechemlawn.org campaign to urge TruGreen/ChemLawn to utilize a different approach to lawn care. and urges consumers to decline using the company's products until the company changes the way it does business. The campaign asks the company to: 1) Phase out pesticides considered possible carcinogens by the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2) Disclose all the ingredients in the company's pesticides, including the so-called inert ingredients (a recent French study, described in Environmental Health News reported that the inert ingredients in pesticides can magnify the ill effects of the active ingredients, sometimes as much as 1,000-fold); 3) Offer a comprehensive organic lawn care program that doesn't use pesticides; 4) Stop marketing products to children by partnering with U.S. Youth Soccer to offer funding for youth soccer leagues; 4) While phasing out pesticides, protect workers by providing them with protective equipment.

Cities in Canada and the U.S. are taking action on the issue. On July 22, 2013, the Takoma Park, Maryland, city council unanimously passed the Safe Grow Act of 2013, which restricts the use of cosmetic lawn pesticides on both private and public property throughout the city of 16,700 residents.

As for Bonnie Atkinson, she's not the only one who noticed the amount of cancer cases in her neighborhood. A February 16 article in the Martinsville Reporter-Times focused on Atkinson's next-door neighbor, whose husband died of cancer in 2011, and on another neighbor, who's had breast cancer. In all, there are seven houses in Atkinson's immediate neighborhood, including her own, that have had residents with cancer.

Atkinson is concerned that her neighborhood might be home to a cancer cluster. This term epidemiologists, statisticians and public health workers use to define an occurrence of a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases within a group of people in a geographic area over a time period. Atkinson appealed to an epidemiologist at the state Department of Health to investigate, but the epidemiologist said it was up to Atkinson to poll her neighborhood.

"Unfortunately," Atkinson observed, "like so many other communities in Indiana, Martinsville is surrounded by intense agricultural activity, including pesticide use, but it follows that the last thing we should then be doing is further risking our loved ones' health by add to that toxic soup of pesticide pollution with the application of lawn herbicides." She mused, "Do my husband and I have the right to breathe toxin-free air, drink uncontaminated water and eat healthy food, or do the rights of local farmers and our neighborhood lawn care users supersede ours?"

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