Summer 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of the second of two U.S. Senate sub-committee hearings on pesticide use by the lawn care industry. The first hearing on Capitol Hill took place the previous summer. Senators John Warner (R-VA), Harry Reid (D-NV) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) conducted the hearings. Representatives from the lawn care industry and pesticide critics, including people claiming to have been harmed by them, testified.
The professional lawn care industry was understandably concerned. The hearings marked the first time that the industry came under the national media spotlight. And, it was clear from the start that the hearings weren’t being called to pat the industry on its back for ridding the nation’s lawns of crabgrass and dandelions. Their purpose was to determine if the industry’s use of lawn care chemicals was harmful to the health of customers.
Scrutiny fails to uncover hazards
Industry professionals, business owners and spokespeople from the Professional Lawn Care Industry of America (PLCAA) defended industry practices. Industry critics received equal time to state their case. Overall, their testimony was, for the most part, anecdotal rather than substantive. In one instance it bordered on silly when the manufacturer of a “natural” lawn care product suggested that homeowners pay neighborhood children a nickel for each dandelion they dig from their yards. The supplier earnestly floated this as an alternative to professionally applied weed controls.
(You can’t make this stuff up. I had a front-row seat to both hearings.)
In the end, neither Capitol Hill hearing gave the senators ammunition enough to move against the industry or the products it uses. In terms of damning revelations the hearings were a flop.
Even so, the hearings led to the establishment of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), representing the specialty chemical industry, which has since successfully defended the industry's right to use pesticide products. The U.S. lawn care industry remains healthy in spite of the economic turmoil of the past several years and (to my knowledge anyway) has not been proven to result in any undue health risk either for lawn care customers, the public at large or chemical applicators.
A different sort of celebration
Coincidentally, this summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Town of Hudson in Quebec Province banning the use of most synthetic pesticides for lawn care. The town is planning a special celebration on June 18. Hudson’s Awakening Festival will reportedly feature 14 speakers from across North America, including Paul Tukey, who has fashioned a high profile career bashing the lawn care industry's use of traditional pesticides.
Tukey, who claims that lawn care chemicals harmed his health when he was as a lawn care professional in Maine, travels the United States and Canada promoting pesticide bans wherever. Articulate and media savvy, Tukey has deftly positioned himself as the champion of the anti-pesticide movement in lawn care, and is in high demand as a speaker.
Whether out of genuine concern over the health effects of pesticides, entrepreneurial opportunism or a combination of the two, Tukey’s efforts have the potential to contribute to the failure of thousands of businesses and the loss of tens of thousands of lawn care jobs in the United States. That’s a lot of damage to be directing at an industry on what is (being generous) flimsy and poorly documented evidence of harmful effects.
The consequences of what Tukey and other like-minded individuals (for whatever reasons) are promoting are staggering. Witness Canada’s rapidly shrinking lawn care industry where provinces and local governments have implemented a welter of pesticides bans, each with its own set of rules.
All of this has taken place since Hudson’s landmark victory to enact its ban. Is this is something to be celebrated, really?
Perhaps forgotten in the town's 20th anniversary Awakening Festival is that the issue, at least from the courts’ rulings, wasn't about the safety of lawn care pesticides, at all. The courts' ruling upheld the town’s right to enact its own legislation. — Ron Hall