Pesticide

Migrant workers pouring pesticide at Jarmoc Farms in Somers. Right now, Connecticut has no way to determine how much pesticide is being used in the state annually. (Marc-Yves Regis I / Hartford Courant / December 17, 2013)

The European Union this year put a two-year moratorium on the use of a type of nicotine-based pesticide that some studies have linked to "bee colony collapse." That mystery condition has killed off vast numbers of bees in hives across the U.S. and Europe. Experts fear that a continued loss could prevent pollination that's critical to food crops of all types.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn't made the same ruling on those "neonicotinoid pesticides" and the big chemical companies that make them have ferociously condemned as unscientific efforts to stop their use.

Despite the lack of hard data about pesticides in Connecticut, Silbert says national figures indicate that "certain types of pesticide use is increasing."

Monsanto's popular weed-killer "Roundup" is "being used in increasing amounts because weeds are becoming more resistant," according to Silbert.

Environmental groups cite statistics showing that as much as 80 million pounds of pesticide a year are being used on American lawns. The EPA has approved something like 200 different types of pesticides for use on lawns and playing fields.

Silbert says a spot survey in 2006 by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute found about half of Cheshire homeowners said they used pesticide on their lawns.

The reason so many homeowners and landscaping professionals love pesticide is simple, says Silbert: "It does work... [Pesticides] are quick, they kill the weeds."

Whether or not they are really that harmful to people is a matter of huge dispute.

"The K-8 Ban bans the use of EPA-approved pesticides," says Fearn. Federal experts have conducted multitudes of tests and these chemicals "are considered very safe to use," she points out.

The trouble is, more and more people distrust those federal experts and fear they've been influenced or conned by the giant pesticide companies.

A Connecticut legislative report issued earlier this month concluded "there are substantial uncertainties regarding the health and environmental effects of some widely used pesticides."

One example is a very common lawn weed-killer known as "2,4-D" (short for 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), which has been the target of harsh restrictions in several Canadian provinces, Sweden, Denmark and Norway because of cancer fears. The EPA and Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency disagree, and so do a lot of folks who get paid to keep lawns and playing fields pretty, smooth and weed-free.

Wallace says athletic directors around Connecticut "have been clamoring for fields that are not infested with grubs" ever since the K-8 ban went into effect. He says playing fields are rapidly deteriorating and that kids shouldn't be forced to play on weedy, grubby and potentially dangerous fields.

Most licensed professionals, according to Fearn, use pesticides as a last resort and use "the least harmful control available."

Of course, kids a century ago played on non-pesticide-treated fields all the time. "They put up with what are now considered sub-standard conditions," says Wallace.

He argues ballplayers shouldn't have to worry about slipping on patches of clover or other weeds and possibly injuring themselves.

Silbert snorts at those kinds of claims. He says pesticide industry types "don't want to let people know there are non-toxic ways to take care of lawns."

One of the simplest, Silbert says, is to just re-seed lawns and playing fields regularly, and to make sure the soil is healthy. "When you hear people saying non-toxic care doesn't work, it's almost always because they're not putting seed down," he says.

Brad Robinson is DEEP's pesticide control program supervisor. He's the guy in charge of all those unread annual reports (from 2,810 licensed applicators and 507 pesticide-using farmers) sitting in files at his agency's headquarters on Elm Street in Hartford.

Robinson says the last time state regulators made an attempt to figure out how much pesticide was being used in Connecticut and for what purpose was more than two decades ago.

At that time, the best guess was that about 45 percent was for agricultural use, another 45 percent for non-agricultural use, and the remaining 10 percent was being spread by private homeowners. Aside from the fact those numbers now have to be horribly out of date, Robinson isn't sure they were correct even back then.

"I don't have a huge amount of confidence in those estimates," says Robinson. "We simply don't know who is buying [pesticides] and how much."

And when you don't even know the size of a potential threat, it makes dealing with it all that much tougher to figure out a solution.

 

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