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Bronxville Mayor Marvin: Is the 'Perfect' Lawn Actually a Bad Thing?

In this week's column, Bronxville Mayor Mary Marvin asks the question, "How did we as a nation become so enamored with the perfect lawn?"

Bronxville Mayor Marvin: Is the 'Perfect' Lawn Actually a Bad Thing?
Written by Bronxville Mayor Mary Marvin

At the most recent Westchester County Mayors’ meeting, the featured speaker was Diane Lewis, MD, an internist, nephrologist and author of “The Great Healthy Yard Project”. This project is national in scope and piloted locally by our neighbors in Bedford.  

Its goal is to educate citizens on the relationship between the synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and weed killers we put on our lawns and the quality of our drinking water.

We place 80 million tons of fertilizer on 30 million acres of lawns equating to 10 times the amount farmers use on the same acreage.

There is a direct relationship between this pesticide exposure and diseases including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and lung cancer.  

Some of our lawn chemicals rub off directly on children and pets but most are washed with rainwater into streams and rivers or are absorbed as ground water.   Fifteen years ago, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey found at least one pesticide in every stream and fish sampled.   

The amounts of these chemicals that we often use unknowingly on our lawns cause long term health problems in ways only recently understood. What were thought to be acceptable amounts of chemicals, scientists now know have a cumulative effect, most notably of disrupting the endocrine system.

The Endocrine Society, a group of doctors, researches and educators, released a study linking lawn chemicals and resulting endocrine disruption to increased risk for prostate, breast and thyroid cancers, infertility and diabetes.

Just last year, an EPA test found fertilizer in more than half of our water nationwide and up to 71% in East Coast water.

Simply put, what we put on our lawn ends in in our drinking water and is not removed by water treatment. Bottled water is not the answer because it comes from the same sources and thus susceptible to the same contaminants.  

How did we as a nation become so enamored with the perfect lawn?

Early colonists had no use for a lawn – something they saw as time consuming and useless, rather they grew gardens with edible and medicinal plants.

However in the mid-1800’s, literate Americans were exposed to magazines and books touting a lawn as an essential ingredient to a beautiful home. It was also a time when emulating the British upper crust reached great popularity. A lawn said one had the staff to cultivate a place that was used only for leisure making it a status symbol in the U.S. as well as in England.

In 1870, the push mower came on the scene, thus making a lawn affordable to many more homeowners.

Lawns were equated with an improved lifestyle and the Department of Agriculture joined forces with the Garden Clubs of America and the U.S. Golf Association promoting the gospel of grass. “Best lawn” contests were held and neighborhood uniformity encouraged.  A lawn become a moral imperative.

Post World War II, gas powered mowers were in widespread use and all the chemical companies that had warehouses full of potent chemicals left over from the war effort repurposed them into chemicals and pesticides for the lawn. This new industry came at the perfect time for the post war boom generation when everyone seemed to want to be a suburbanite.

Scientific study simply did not keep pace with manufacturing production so there is no reason to believe that just because something is on the store shelf, it is safe.

Given what we are now learning from scientific research, the perfect lawn should not be a source of envy but a sign of potential harm.

The Great Healthy Yard Project asks residents voluntarily to refrain from using chemicals on their lawn so as to improve the quality of the drinking water in their area. In Bedford alone, owners of 3,831 acres have pledged to take care of their property free of chemicals. I think it is an effort worthy of emulation.

As a start, I would encourage you to read the contents of the lawn products you purchase and/or inquire with your lawn care service exactly what is being placed on your property.

Water is the ultimate shared resource and a small change in lawn care habits and landscape expectations will have long term healthy implications.

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