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As Income Levels Rise, Chemical Use On Lawns Increases

Uh-oh, these research findings are not a surprise. A study conducted in 6 U.S. metro areas found that as income levels go up, peer pressure to apply pesticides on lawns increases. As well as to irrigate lawns and apply fertilizers. One can definitely see this in the NYC metro area - the wealthier the neighborhood, the more monochromatic fake-looking lawns. Some even keep their pesticide lawn signs on the lawn for days as a status symbol.

This has an incredibly large environmental impact because lawns can be thought of as the biggest crop in the USA. Lawns cover the most area (ahead of corn) and many lawns have intense chemical management (many have pesticides applied every month for most months of the year). Yikes!

Unfortunately, every year more evidence is accumulating of the harmful health effects of pesticides - in humans, pets, wildlife, water, air, and soil. Harmful effects include neurological and immunological effects, endocrine disruption, cancers, and birth defects. Fertilizers and water irrigation of lawns (sprinkler systems) also have a set of problems, including algae blooms in water and depletion of fresh water resources. [See posts on pesticides.]

And of course, last, but not least, pesticides disrupt the microbial life of the soil, as well as kill insects and worms. I will never forget young children in a classroom being shocked by all the worms found in good soil (in a bucket of organic dirt from my yard) - they had never seen them in their chemically managed yards.

Bottom line: Be a trend-setter in your neighborhood and embrace the natural wildflowers weeds in your lawn. Think of it this way: clover and dandelions can't give you cancer, but pesticides can. In addition, studies find that untreated lawns result in diversity of grasses growing in the lawn and are also important bee habitats for all sorts of bee species. All positive.

From Beyond Pesticides: High Income, Peer-Pressure Correlated With Chemical Intensive Yard Care Practices 

Common yard care practices are driven by income, age, geography, and peer-pressure, according to research funded by the National Science Foundation and published in the journal PLOS ONE. Lawns cover 63,000 sq ft in the United States, four times as much land as corn, making them the largest crop in the country. So while decisions over whether to irrigate, fertilize, or spray pesticides are made at the household level, even minor changes in practices could have major impacts on the environment.

“The apparent widespread nature of industrial lawn care, and the well-known associated negative environmental effects at the local-scale suggest a need to better understand the drivers, outcomes, and geographic variation in yard care practices, across the U.S.,” the study reads.

Researchers surveyed over 7,000 households in six major U.S. metropolitan areas, including Boston, Baltimore, Miami, Minneapolis-St Paul, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. Participants responded with their age, income level, the number of neighbors they know by name, and whether they used pesticides, fertilizers, or irrigated their yard within the last year.  Overall, the survey found that 80% of people irrigate their yard, 64% fertilize, and 53% apply pesticides.

Unsurprisingly, individuals living in water-starved areas like Phoenix and Los Angeles are more likely to have irrigated their yards than those living in cooler, wetter climates. Irrigation also increases 8% when homeowners know their neighbors by name. Individuals who know their neighbors are also 9% more likely to fertilize their lawns. And age is also associated with a similar increase in the likelihood of fertilizer use.

The most significant association is found between income level and land management practices. Higher income individuals are 23% more likely to irrigate their property, 26% more likely to fertilize, and 16% more likely to apply pesticides.

“It’s eye-opening that most people felt they needed to water their lawns and apply pesticides,” says Doug Levey, PhD, a program director in NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research through its Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research site. “If neighbors expect this of each other, more and more lawns will be treated in these ways. The ecological and economic costs would also increase.”

Pesticide use on home lawns is associated with a range of diseases and health impacts. As Beyond Pesticides has documented, of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 16 are linked to cancer, 17 are endocrine disruptors, 21 are reproductive toxicants, 12 are linked to birth defects, 14 are neurotoxic, 25 cause kidney liver effects, and 26 are irritants. Lawn pesticides also harm petscontaminate waterkill off wildlife, and disrupt proper ecosystem functioning.

Synthetic fertilizers can present similar health concerns, with nitrate pollution linked to birth defects, cancers, and thyroid problems. Their use damages soil microorganisms, impeding their ability to sequester carbon. They’ve been known to run-off or leach through groundwater into rivers, lakes and streams, resulting in eutrophication and oftentimes massive dead zones. A major drawback with the current study is that the authors did not differentiate whether the fertilizers used were organic or synthetic. By working alongside natural processes and feeding microorganisms in the soil, organic fertilizers pose significantly less risk than their synthetic counterparts.

The study provides some important insights into how the country can move in a better direction in the management of our own lawns and landscapes. The general finding that many are “keeping up with the Joneses” indicates that higher income households and those who know their neighbors are more likely to employ potentially hazardous and resource-intensive practices. In that sense, those in a community who make the switch toward less-intensive organic land care can set an example that their neighbors are likely to follow.

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