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Cosmetic pesticide dilemma

While working from a home office a few years ago, I looked out the window and saw a young guy holding a wand and spraying liquid on the front lawn. He was at the wrong address — a neighbour across the lane had ordered his lawn-care service, and I was able to direct him before he had gone very far. But twice since, the service has made the same mistake when we were not home and we’ve returned to find little yellow signs saying we should keep kids and pets off the lawn for a while.

We weren’t charged, so you might say that getting free fertilizer and weed control is a pretty good deal. However, in recent wet years, the grass has been growing quite well on its own, thank you. Adding fertilizer means you have to cut the lawn twice a week instead of once, and since we don’t remove clippings, there’s now probably enough nitrogen and phosphorus in that lawn to grow one of those 400-bushel corn crops that you hear about in Iowa. Although maybe all that rain has leached some of it into the nearby Red River. Who knows? There was never a soil test to see if the fertilizer was needed in the first place.

As for the dandelions, it’s nice to have them knocked back for a while. But they always return, and goodness knows what rate of herbicide those services are using to control them when they get big and tough during the heat of summer.

But back to that young guy on the lawn, probably a high school or university student on a summer job. He was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.

Maybe iPod earbuds would classify as ear protection, but assuming he’s applying some kind of 2,4-D and dicamba product, here’s what else is recommended, based on the label for a similar product registered for agricultural use.

Handling the dilute spray solution (during application or repairing or cleaning equipment): All handlers must wear coveralls over a long-sleeved shirt, long pants and chemical-resistant gloves, socks and shoes. Gloves which are in good condition must be worn when mixing/loading, spraying and during cleanup and repair. Rinse gloves before removal.

The label also says:

Apply only when the potential for drift to areas of human habitation or areas of human activity such as houses, cottages, schools and recreational areas is minimal, and DO NOT enter or allow worker entry into treated areas during the restricted-entry interval (REI) of 24 hours.

The Manitoba government recently joined one of a growing list of Canadian jurisdictions that has implemented or is considering a ban on cosmetic use of pesticides. These bans throw terror into farmers and herbicide manufacturers, who view them as the thin edge of the wedge toward an outright ban.

Their first line of defence is always that these products are safe when used in accordance with label directions. The overwhelming scientific evidence is that they are correct, but this puts the industry between something of a rock and a hard place. It can’t reasonably argue that the lawn-care guy is using the product in accordance with label directions. The same applies to most home users. How many are really using the recommended milligrams per litre recommended rate on the Killex label? Then there are those fertilizer/herbicide combinations hooked up to a garden hose, again often applied by a homeowner wearing shorts and flip-flops.

On the other hand, what if the manufacturers were to insist that urban pesticide users should follow the same label directions as farmers? The sight of those lawn-care guys wearing the equipment the manufacturers suggest might encourage urban anti-pesticide interests even further. If it isn’t poison, why are they wearing that equipment?

Keystone Agricultural Producers reacted to the proposed ban in Manitoba in part by suggesting that lack of urban weed control might mean more spread of noxious weeds to farmland. Perhaps. On the other hand, so far farmers have been spared the emergence of any weeds resistant to 2,4-D. Should the dreaded prospect of a 2,4-D-resistant dandelion ever materialize, it’s not likely to start in a farm field being sprayed at the recommended rate. It will come from a homeowner mixing it in a watering can, and figuring that if one teaspoon is good, three must be better.

There’s no easy answer on this one, but ultimately over the long term, farmers and industry have to stick to the position that the products are safe if used in accordance with label directions. Maybe agricultural interests should acknowledge concerns that some users are not taking the same precautions as professional farmers. If a couple of urban lawn-care workers who haven’t, get cancer (from whatever cause) and that hits the news, guess who will suffer the backlash?

Maybe it’s not an outright ban, but farmers and the industry may need to accept that some restriction of cosmetic pesticide use might be the lesser evil.

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