Connecticut Failing To Monitor Pesticide Use

Sitting in dusty file cabinets at Connecticut's environmental agency are tens of thousands of reports by licensed landscapers, lawn-care professionals and farmers about how much pesticide they are putting down each year.

No one is reading them. No one has ever read them or totaled the numbers since the reporting law was first passed in the 1980s. Which means no one has any idea how much pesticide is actually being used in this state on lawns, school grounds, in parks and on agricultural land.

"No one's adding the figures up," says Dr. Jerome Silbert, executive director of the Watershed Partnership. "There's no way to know what the trends are."

It's a rather peculiar situation when you consider that pesticide is such a hot-button issue in Connecticut, one likely to see another round of legislative warfare in 2014.

Another curious thing about this impotent statute (state officials say they've never had the staff or money to actually look at the reports) is that no one apparently wants to or even thinks it's possible to repeal the law.

"It's useless," admits state Sen. Ed Meyer, a Guilford Democrat who is co-chair of the legislature's Environment Committee. "The reason why it's not been repealed is that those of us who support the environment are every year hoping to put the funds in to properly staff this agency."

"I don't think it will ever be repealed," agrees Erica Fearn. "Pesticides are such a hot topic."

Fearn is executive director of the Connecticut Environmental Council.

The CEC isn't, as you might expect from its name, a bunch of tree-hugging, anti-pesticide left-wingers. It's actually an association of more than 160 professional lawn-care types, landscapers, groundskeepers, municipal park officials and farm groups that are in favor of what they argue is the proper and safe use of pesticides.

You'd think a business-oriented organization like that would be gung-ho for repealing a law that does nothing for anyone except create more paperwork. But that doesn't seem to be the case here.

Fearn says the pesticide-reporting law is like a lot of other state environmental rules and regulations that aren't really being enforced because the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) doesn't have adequate staff. She insists keeping those records is a good thing, even if no one uses them.

"I think it's a good law," says Mike Wallace, a CEC board member and manager of Simsbury's municipal golf course. "The fact that they don't have anybody there to [read the reports] isn't our fault... If the citizens of Connecticut don't fund their environmental agency, well then, shame on the citizens of Connecticut."

Meyer puts it in even harsher terms: "State government could be indicted, in my opinion, for failing to properly fund its environmental agency."

The lack of hard information about pesticides in this state (that reporting law doesn't even address the use of lawn chemicals by do-it-yourself homeowners) has in no way inhibited the often heated arguments surrounding the issue.

The CEC has repeatedly sought repeal of a state law that in 2010 banned any pesticides on school grounds used by kids in kindergarten through 8th grade. Meyer says that law was passed because there was an "abundant amount of evidence that pesticides are toxic to children of that age."

Landscapers and groundskeepers insist they need those federally approved pesticides to kill grubs and other stuff they say is ruining lawns and playing fields. Anti-pesticide types call those claims a bunch of, well, cow manure would be the nice translation.

"In Connecticut, there are three things certain in this life," says Martin Mador, a spokesman for this state's Sierra Club chapter: "Death, taxes, and that the pesticide applicators will be trying to remove that K-8 ban."

The CEC and its allies tried and failed to win repeal in the 2013 General Assembly. Mador and a collection of other (traditional tree-hugging) environmentalists tried and failed to extend the ban to public high schools and all public parks.

Meyer says lawmakers on both sides of the pesticide fence agreed to pull back and get some independent advice on how toxic these disputed pesticides are for humans of school age. The state has hired a Harvard toxicologist for $75,000 to report back next month to both the DEEP and the General Assembly.

Another environmental concern likely to come up in the 2014 legislature is the possible effect of pesticides on crop "pollinators" like honey bees and butterflies, says Meyer.

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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