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Debate continues over safety of weed killers, pesticides CHEMICALS ON THE LAWN


Eight-year-old Jared Arminger loves to ride his red two-wheel bicycle, play baseball and go for walks around his Arbutus neighborhood. But every time he does one of these things, he risks getting sick.

"I get nasty when I am around lawn care pesticides," says the brown-haired, blue-eyed boy who has a near-genius IQ of 133 and has given testimony to a U.S. Senate subcommittee and the Governor's Pesticide Council.

"I get angry about a lot of things. I have a hard time writing and doing my homework. I can't think. I get depressed. A lot of stuff happens to me, like I don't listen. I salivate more. My nose runs. I get swollen glands and my ears hurt. . . . I get really angry that I can't go outside and play with my friends."

September is prime time for chemically sensitive people like Jared to be forced indoors as homeowners and lawn care companies prepare to douse 40 percent of the nation's lawns with chemicals to kill weeds and prepare the grass for winter.

Although physicians believe that only a small segment of the population is chemically sensitive, the long-range safety of lawn chemicals has become one of the controversial environmental issues of the 1990s -- from state legislatures to the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency.

The controversy heated up again this week as the National Cancer Institute reported results of a long-awaited study that showed dogs were twice as likely to develop immune system cancer (lymphoma) if their owners used the common weed killer 2,4-D on their lawns at least four times a year. The study is significant, according to the NCI, because dogs and humans are known to have similar reactions to some cancer-causing substances.

Chemical manufacturers and professional lawn chemical applicators insist that chemicals like 2,4-D are safe, and most people will suffer no adverse effects from exposure to them. But critics say scientists still don't know how safe or unsafe many of the chemicals are, who is at high risk of getting sick and why, and when it's really safe to allow children and pets to go back on the grass after a lawn has been sprayed.

Safety questions

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of determining how much health risk Americans should be willing to take for the benefit of a pretty lawn. But the General Accounting Office says EPA has been too slow in reassessing health and environmental risks of the $700-million-a-year lawn chemical business.

Of the 41 chemicals currently used most often on lawns, the GAO says only one has been reregistered under the stricter safety standards that have been in effect since 1984. Three of the 41 are new chemicals approved under more stringent tests, but the remaining include some that were tested and registered as long as 40 years ago when testing methods were less sophisticated.

"The range of concerns about the risks of pesticides has expanded to include potential chronic health effects, such as cancer and birth defects, and adverse ecological effects," according to the GAO. "Currently these pesticides are being applied in large amounts without complete knowledge of their safety."

Documented symptoms of acute exposure to pesticides include convulsions, difficulty in breathing, headaches, dizziness, vomiting and eye irritations. Wildfowl and songbirds have died as a result of pesticide poisonings. But scientists have too little data to prove that spraying your lawn today will mean health problems tomorrow.

Besides the latest NCI study on dogs, here's what they do have:

* Preliminary data in a University of Cincinnati study of 100 ChemLawn Services Corp. employees showed no adverse health effects in workers who have applied lawn chemicals for nine to 17 years. Cancer was excluded from the study. ChemLawn, the nation's largest commercial lawn-care company, paid for the research.

* An NCI study of Kansas farmers showed that those who used herbicides, especially 2,4-D, were more apt to get non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. Farmers who used herbicides on their farms 20 or more days per year had a risk six times greater of getting the disease than non-farmers.

* Another NCI study found an excess of leukemia among farmers in Iowa and Minnesota. Exposure to herbicides (such as 2,4-D) did not increase the risk. Only farmers who used certain pesticides to control insects on their animals were more likely to get leukemia; these chemicals are not used on lawns.

Several chemicals have been targeted for a closer look because EPA is concerned about their health or environmental risks and wants more extensive analysis than is normally performed. Included are diazinon and 2,4-D -- two of the chemicals most widely used in lawn care -- as well as DDVP, Maneb, Benomyl, and Pronamide.

Inadequate testing

Nonetheless, consumer groups, such as the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, insist that EPA's risk assessment has been inadequate. Jay Feldman, the coalition's national coordinator, says of 34 lawn chemicals under discussion in last spring's Senate hearings, 10 are carcinogenic, 12 cause birth defects, seven cause reproductive effects, 20 are neurotoxic, 13 cause liver and kidney damage, and 29 are sensitizers and irritants.

"The fact is, EPA believes if an individual stays off the lawn until the sprays have dried, it's safe," Mr. Feldman added in a telephone interview. "But [it has] no data."

Even industry spokesmen admit sometimes they are guessing when it is safe to go back on the grass.

"The re-entry rule of thumb that we use is stay off the grass while it is wet," says Tom Delaney, director of government relations for the Professional Lawn Care Association of America, a trade group. "Once the lawn dries, the chemicals are less concentrated and less of a problem for exposure. In the case of some pesticides, they can be watered in to reduce exposure. . . . Are we guessing how long to wait in some cases? Yes. We are going by previous experience."

Dr. Peter Deroneden, a professor of agronomy at the University of Maryland who works with pesticides, says most of the chemicals have been carefully scrutinized. He does not see a significant environmental problem and says there is little evidence that lawn chemicals will harm the general public.

Likewise, Allen James, executive director for Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, insists that just because a pesticide is still under review doesn't mean it is unsafe. Most of these chemicals are also used on agricultural products, he says, which have to meet more stringent safety standards. RISE is a standing committee within the National Agricultural Chemists Association, a trade group for manufacturers, formulators and distributors of non-agricultural pesticides.

"Testing is a long process and it shouldn't be taken lightly," he says. "Just to say that only one or two have been reregistered should not make people think that they have not been tested. Chemical companies are extremely concerned about safety and use of our products."

Even stricter pesticide registration regulations do not ensure safety, according to Mr. Feldman. He says EPA continues to make serious errors in its evaluation and registration process and ignore data that is important in assessing hazards.

But EPA does not consider reregistration a safety panacea. Federal law requires only that EPA judge whether the benefits of using the chemicals outweigh the risks.

"They are not risk-free," says Jeanne Richards, EPA environmental protection specialist. "We have to decide whether the benefits, including the economic ones, outweigh the risks." Misleading ads

But, according to the GAO, the public has been misled into thinking these products are nearly risk free. For example, one lawn care application company claimed it is just as safe to eat 10 cupfuls of grass clippings treated with its pesticides as it is to take a baby aspirin. Pesticides have been advertised as safe and non-toxic. In fact, the report found nine instances of false and misleading safety claims made by manufacturers, distributors and professional applicators. GAO's review found that EPA and the Federal Trade Commission have made limited use of their authority over unacceptable advertising claims.

In response, during the past year the EPA has stepped up enforcement and is working with the FTC to monitor advertising and sales claims.

"No one should be saying that these chemicals are safe," adds EPA's Ms. Richards. "Safe means without risk. We want people to regard lawn chemicals with caution and use them only when necessary."

Finding lawn pesticide information

Information on the safety of lawn care chemicals and chemical-free lawn care is readily available, but you have to know where to look.

Here are some key sources:

* Poisoning hot line: The National Pesticide Telecommunications Network is a 24-hour, toll-free hot line partially financed by the Environmental Protection Agency and administered by Texas Tech University. Operators can provide advice on medical as well as veterinary pesticide poisoning emergencies and can answer general pesticide questions concerning toxicology, chemical or environmental characteristics. Call toll-free (800) 858-7378.

* Support group: The Chemical Sensitive Disorders Association is a support group for people who suffer adverse reaction from chemicals in the environment. Call Marian Arminger at 247-3953.

* EPA booklet: "The Citizen's Guide to Pesticides" provides information on federal registration of pesticides, tips for handling pesticides, how to determine correct dosage, how to choose a pest control company, how to reduce exposure to pesticides and what to do in a pesticide emergency. For a free copy, send your name and address and name of the booklet to: Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Pesticide Programs H7502C, Attn: Claire Grubbs, 401 M St. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20460.

* Organic Pamphlets: The National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides is offering two booklets on gardening and lawn care. "Least Toxic Control of Pests" gives advice on how to maintain a healthy and pest-resistant lawn through maintenance, monitoring and control. "Organic Gardening: Sowing the Seeds of Safety" gives tips of managing the soil to prevent problems and the least toxic control of pests. The pamphlets are $3 each or $4 for the pair. Send a check or money order with your request to: National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, 701 E. St. S.E., Suite 200, Washington, D.C. 20003.

* Organic book: "Rodale's Chemical-Free Yard & Garden" (Rodale Press, $26.95) offers information on natural insect, disease and weed control, a problem-solving encyclopedia for 125 plants and a chapter on lawn care without chemicals. If the book is not available at your favorite book store, ask the clerk to order it through Rodale.

Maryland's pesticide posting

Maryland is one of four states nationwide that maintains a list of chemically sensitive individuals who must be warned 24 hours in advance if a neighboring property is to be sprayed with chemicals.

The list is mailed to all commercial lawn companies as well as government agencies that may spray public property. The applicator must check the list before spraying and inform anyone on the registry who lives in a contiguous property. Violators face progressive penalties -- from warnings to a maximum civil penalty of $1,000. The law does not apply to neighbors who apply the chemicals themselves.

Only 57 people are registered in Maryland, but how many others are chemically sensitive no one knows because some may not even realize the registry exists, says Mary Ellen Setting, chief of the state agriculture department's Pesticide Regulation Section.

To get on the registry, fill out an application and get a doctor to document the ailment that prohibits exposure to pesticides. Write: Maryland Department of Agriculture, Pesticide Regulation Section M, 50 Harry S. Truman Parkway Room 500, Annapolis 21401 or call (301) 841-5710.

Under Maryland law:

* Government agencies and commercial businesses must post 4-inch-by-5-inch warning signs on lawns that have been sprayed. The sign must remain on the property for 48 hours after application of the chemicals.

* When you contract with a chemical lawn care application company, the company is required to give you a copy of the product label, state-approved information from the label or a state-approved document containing appropriate health, safety and environmental hazard information from the label. The company also is required to provide the common name or the active ingredient of the pesticide to be applied and the telephone number of the Maryland Poison Center (800) 492-2414.

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