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Beware of the grass: Oak Park grapples with the lawn-chemicals problem

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Less than a block from her Oak Park apartment, Mills Park was a pleasant and convenient place for Donna Jawor to walk her 12-year-old Yorkshire terrier each day. It wasn't until she and Rocky were back home last September 15, a rainy day, that she noticed the dog was behaving strangely.

"He was licking his feet like crazy," says Jawor. "I had never seen him do that before. . . . That night he had the same symptoms that he had had for the past four years since I moved to Oak Park, only to a much more severe degree, and I actually thought that he might die." Jawor says that although Rocky always enjoyed excellent health in the winter, he was prone to listlessness in the summer.

Rocky recovered somewhat, but he'd lost weight he couldn't get back. When Jawor took him to the vet last April, the doctor suspected that Rocky's liver and kidney weren't functioning properly. The vet kept Rocky a week, and on the day he was supposed to come home, the dog died.

Jawor is convinced that Rocky died of poisoning by herbicides sprayed in Mills Park--it's a theory that she says also explains why the dog became sick each summer. Her conviction has helped trigger an investigation--which possibly could lead to new village legislation--into the dangers of exposing the public to pesticides.

Jawor spoke up at last May's public meeting of the village's Environmental and Energy Advisory Commission (EEAC). Then she complained formally to the village, asking Oak Park officials to confirm whether Mills Park had in fact been sprayed last September 15, which is when a neighbor swore he'd seen spraying done. Village officials later responded that only the company that sprays Oak Park's parks under contract could say for sure. But when Jawor went to the company, an official who refused to cooperate said the village had records of their spraying schedule. Not until the end of July did Jawor finally get hold of hard information: Mills Park had been sprayed on September 11 with a solution of Trimec, a mixture of three herbicides that is used to kill broad-leaved weeds.

Jawor thinks village officials misled her about the spraying records. "I feel I was treated very badly," she says. "Whether the dog's death was due to that [pesticide spraying] or not, they shouldn't have treated me that way. If they're doing something they're proud of, why are they covering it up?"

Mike Grandy, superintendent of buildings and grounds in the village's parks and recreation department, insists that he turned the spraying records over to Jawor just as soon as he got them from the contractor.

In response to Jawor's complaint and one other, the health department conducted a monthlong review of recent research into the health effects of pesticides. The department also solicited opinions from 12 toxicologists.

The department's conclusion, released at the end of July: "Based upon the scientific literature and pesticide expert consultant input, the Health Department and Board of Health do not recommend suspension of the commonly known herbicide and insecticide lawn care products that are controlled by the Environmental Protection, Agency, as long as they are mixed and used according to the EPA guidelines."

The report did recommend that signs be posted for three days on lawns that had been chemically treated. Oak Park has flagged its parks only on the day they're sprayed, removing the signs at the end of the day. Private lawns haven't needed to be flagged at all.

Most of the experts contacted wrote that limited use of pesticides on lawns should have little or no effect on humans or animals. A typical response: while conceding that 2,4-D, a component of Trimec, may be carcinogenic, Thomas Long, senior toxicologist at the Environmental Toxicology Program of the Illinois Department of Public Health, wrote, "There is very little in the scientific literature that raise concern for exposure under ordinary conditions of use. There would appear to be little reason to end the use of these products based solely on degree of potential hazard or risk to occupationally or non-occupationally exposed individuals."

At the August meeting of Oak Park's Environmental and Energy Advisory Commission, critics of the report called it biased, pointing to the lack of opinions from environmental watchdog groups and to the fact that one of the researchers cited was now a vice president of Chemlawn Services Corporation, the largest lawn-care company in the country.

Nancy Haggerty, director of the Oak Park health department, responds that the report was compiled impartially. "Whatever most recent literature was available was reported on," she says.

Critics of the report also complain that the "control" exercised by the EPA on pesticide manufacturers and users is minimal. "The EPA is backlogged," says Mary Ross, pollution issues coordinator for the state chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's got hundreds of pesticides to be tested. And they've got really a very small budget and a very small staff to try to do this all. So they're doing what they call 'interim registration,' which means they're doing some tests they don't really think are quite enough. They'll say 'OK, you can use these, with these restrictions.' It doesn't necessarily mean that they're safe, and what the EPA will never say is that they're approving these pesticides. If you call the EPA and ask them they'll deny that they're approving them; they're just saying that with certain restrictions it seems possibly OK to use them. I think it's sort of an easy way out for the health department to say 'Well, the EPA says they're OK, so we're not going to do anything.'"

According to a 1986 General Accounting Office report, of some 600 active chemical ingredients being used in pesticides, only a handful had been fully tested. These active chemicals are mixed with "inert ingredients," which the federal government considers proprietary, and thus secret, information. Although the inerts often make up more than half of a pesticide, the applicators don't have to reveal which ones they contain.

Of 1,200 inerts mentioned in the GAO report, 50 were of "significant toxicological concern," while 800 had never been tested enough to determine possible health hazards. Inerts used in the past have included such carcinogens as benzene and formaldehyde.

Thomas Long wrote in his report to the village health department that inerts pose no significant health threat. "It is generally true that they are no more toxic than the active pesticide ingredient(s) and usually much less toxic."

The Oak Park EEAC plans to propose an ordinance later this year that is likely to skirt the issue of the dangers from the inert and active chemical components of pesticides. Tom Daggett, a lawyer for the EPA for the last nine years, is the EEAC member who is working on the first draft of the ordinance. "We're going to take as a starting point the Schaumburg ordinance that has as a principal factor a posting of yards that are sprayed, so anyone walking by can tell it's been sprayed," he says.

The main provisions of Schaumburg's ordinance--which took effect earlier this year--require that lawn-care company employees be licensed by the village and that signs be posted for 24 hours after a lawn has been sprayed by a commercial applicator. The Schaumburg posting requirement does not apply to home owners who apply a pesticide themselves, mainly because of the difficulties of enforcing such a provision. But Daggett says Oak Park will also try to address the question of personal application. In the past, lawn-care companies have complained that ordinances like Schaumburg's were unfair to them, as home owners could easily douse their lawns with the same over-the-counter chemicals used by commercial applicators, and would do so with less knowledge of the process.

The first right-to-know ordinance concerning pesticides was passed in 1984 in Wauconda, Illinois. It called for a three-day posting period, but was struck down in federal court in 1985. Since then, communities in at least five different states have passed similar ordinances, Tom Daggett says the EEAC has not yet decided for how long signs should be posted in Oak Park, but he thinks it will be either one or three days.

The Oak Park ordinance that Daggett is writing probably won't deviate much from the health department's recommendations. "I know it's a very controversial issue," says Daggett. "But we basically have to rely on the technical experts. We were also provided with some information from experts brought in by citizens, including groups who advocate banning pesticides." He cites the village's ban on malathion--a pesticide used against mosquitoes--as evidence that village officials are receptive to citizen complaints.

Environmentalists who advocate bans are quick to suggest alternatives to pesticides. They suggest using natural fertilizers, weeding by hand, and planting grass species that shade out weed seedlings. They also preach tolerance.

"Spraying for weeds," muses Mary Ross of the Sierra Club. "I'm not sure what the value is. There's risks and there's benefits. The risk is the health risk. The benefit--I don't know. A few dandelions are killed in the area. It's a question of priorities, of what you think is important."

Ross's sentiments are echoed by Robert Hollingworth, director of the Pesticide Research Center at Michigan State University. In his response to the village health department's request for expert advice he wrote, "The point here lies beyond the realm of toxicology. If a significant number of people feel that they are at considerable danger from the use of these chemicals, regardless of the real risk, there is a problem that must be addressed at a different level. . . . In the face of an unknown, even if very slight, degree of risk, is it really necessary to use herbicides at all? Their effects are largely cosmetic. Dandelions are weeds only if you call them so. This is a community decision to make. As a toxicologist I see no pressing reason to change your current usage as long as the materials are being applied by trained and conscientious people, and only when needed. As a local politician I might well feel differently."

"What I'm finding out about these chemicals is very frightening," says Donna Jawor. "I don't know if anyone really knows the long-term effects of these things. . . . I know there are some important benefits for the use of these things, but I don't know if on lawns it's so darn important. I really don't know."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Noel Neuburger.

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