What you do in your yard matters

Using chemicals on your lawns and gardens can disrupt the Chesapeake Bay - and your family's health.

Longer days are a harbinger of spring, and for many of us that means gearing up for work in our yards and gardens. Gardens can raise our spirits and regenerate us. But what we do in our yards and gardens has far reaching implications.

Both the quality of our drinking water and the health of the Chesapeake Bay are affected by the rainwater that runs through our gardens. Many of us know that blue crabs and oysters, the backbone of the Maryland seafood industry, are struggling because the bay is warmer and more acidic. But the same pollutants that are harming them are also finding their way into our drinking water and harming us. The same simple steps that will help blue crabs and oysters grow will make them healthier to eat, and our water healthier to drink too.

Maryland is ranked fifth highest in population density in the country, according to City-Data, and half of the land that was in farms in Maryland in 1969 has been lost to development. Big yards are the rule, with half of the residential properties in Maryland between one-half acre and 20 acres, according to the Census of Agriculture. The Delaware River, the Susquehanna River and the Potomac River all run through Maryland and drain into the Atlantic Ocean. Over one hundred smaller rivers and creeks run into these bodies of water. What goes onto our yards washes into these creeks and rivers. This means homeowners, not just farmers, are putting a lot of nutrients and chemicals into the rivers and the bay, especially in light of the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical per acre than farmers do.

When we use synthetic pesticides, weedkillers and fertilizers in our yards and gardens, they wash with rainwater into streams that feed these rivers and the bay. Some of these streams are also the sources of our drinking water. Baltimore's drinking water comes from rainwater. The Liberty Reservoir on the North Branch of the Patapsco River collects water from a 163-square-mile drainage area in Carroll and Baltimore counties. The water in the Loch Raven Reservoir comes from areas in Maryland north of Baltimore and areas in Pennsylvania via Gunpowder Falls. The water in the Prettyboy Reservoir also comes from a large drainage area in both Maryland and Pennsylvania. That's a lot of square miles, and a lot of backyards that this water runs through. If we don't use these chemicals on our yards and gardens, we can help keep them out of the bay and out of our drinking water, and we can still maintain beautiful yards with a few easy strategies.

When the chemicals we use on our yards end up in our drinking water, very small amounts of them can hurt us by disrupting our hormonal systems. In 2009 the Endocrine Society published a position paper based on 485 peer-reviewed articles. It concluded that there is a direct link between these chemicals and diseases in people caused by disruption of the hormonal system. Hormones don't just control sex, they control most of the systems in our body.

When hormones are thrown out of whack by these chemicals, the ramifications include abnormal neurologic development of babies, breast cancer, prostate cancer and diabetes. It is widely known that when fertilizers wash into the bay they cause an increase in algae growth. When bacteria break down the algae, they sap the water of oxygen, and many fish suffocate. But many people are not aware that when pesticides get into the bay, fish hormones can be disrupted, just like ours. This causes abnormal shell formation in crabs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also found that for male small-mouthed bass in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, these chemicals cause them to have egg cells in their testes.

These chemicals aren't fully removed by water treatment. The only way to protect the crabs, the oysters and us is not to use them. If we make native plants the mainstay of our garden design, we will have more beautiful yards without chemicals and protect our water. Because native plants are well adapted to local conditions, they won't need lots of watering or chemicals to thrive. They will also nurture local bees, butterflies and birds so our gardens will be teeming with life.

Dr. Diane Lewis founded The Great Healthy Yard Project, and wrote a companion book by the same name. She can be reached at info@tghyp.com.

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