The killer lurking in your front yard

As the average Wellesley homeowner meanders around the town’s many residential neighborhoods, often times the most visible manifestation of Wellesley’s character is the aesthetic appeal of different homes’ attractively manicured lawns.  But hidden beneath their apparent beauty, many of these lawns contain a potentially-dangerous secret: the presence of toxic pesticides.

Pesticides are defined by the federal government as any material that kills, repels or mitigates any pest.  They include but are not limited to insecticides, herbicides, weed-and-feed, pre-emergents, fungicides, rodenticides, and more.  According to the Natural Resource Commission (NRC)’s stated guidelines, “all pesticides are toxic to some degree, and that even at low levels, may cause serious adverse health and. environmental effects.”

Luckily for Wellesley residents, the majority of dangerous pesticides are banned on NRC- and school-owned property in town, with the exception of “safer” pesticides under the National Organic Program and others classified by the federal government as “minimum risk.”  Alternatively, applicable areas are maintained by processes including “tall” mowing, deep and infrequent watering, aerating, reseeding, specified fertilizing, and the planting of native species.

Unfortunately, however, these protections do not extend to private properties in Wellesley.  At the risk of every person’s health, Massachusetts law overrides the Town’s ability to regulate the pesticides that homeowners use in their backyards.

“Preemption doesn’t allow towns to be more lenient about pesticides, but it doesn’t allow them to be stricter either,” said former NRC Commissioner Dr. Sarah Little. “Many state environmental laws were initiated by local citizens who had a specific problem to address and solved it on a local level. Preemption prevents this from happening, which is a bad thing from an environmental standpoint.”

According to Little, the only tool available to the Town for the minimization of private pesticide use is education.  “In my neighborhood, and driving around town, I see and smell pesticides on pretty much every block and street,” said Little. “Clearly there is plenty of room in our town for educating homeowners how to beautify their own land using methods and materials that create a clean and supporting ecosystem around us rather than a toxic and polluted one.”

The dangers of this deficit in environmental regulation present a risk to passerby throughout town.  Symptoms of exposure to the toxins in pesticides can include lethargy, dizziness, headaches, loss of breathing, and more.  The results of the inhalation, ingestion, or skin absorption of pesticides over time can range from hormone disruption and fertility problems to cancer, Parkinson’s disease and outright death.  Small doses of pesticides at critical stages of a child’s growth can produce attention disorders and learning disabilities.

“If I were a 175 pound male past childbearing age I would have very little fear of pesticides, unless I were to breathe deeply into a bag of grub control and suffer potentially lethal, pesticide poisoning.  However, if I were a pregnant woman, or a child, or a young marriageable man, and I was routinely exposed to household, lawn or garden pesticide applications, I would be very concerned,” said Little. “Especially if those applications were done sloppily, with pellets left on the walkways and sidewalks, or little piles of material left in the street for me to pick up on my shoes and bring in the house, or if I am young enough, to put in my mouth.  Applications with strong, lingering chemical smells wafting across my yard and into my house would also alarm me.”

Furthermore, the NRC’s prohibitions do not extend beyond NRC and school land within Wellesley’s confines.  To date, land governed by the Board of Selectmen, Police Department, Fire Department, and Library is not required to adhere to the same standards, and consequently pesticides have been used on their grounds in recent years.  If these groups were to sign on to the same restrictions present on NRC and school lands, the regulation could become a town-wide ordinance, carrying more weight than the policy that stands now.

There are many ways that Wellesley residents can implement the effects of pesticides at lower cost and without using the dangerous substances.  Aphids, for instance, insects that often populate gardens to the detriment of plant growth, are repelled by marigolds, geraniums, and alliums, all attractive flowers that fit right in with a garden scheme.  Many fungi and other insects are also available for purchase as predators on typical pests, acting as alternatives to dangerous pesticides.  Seeding in the fall also prevents the interference of weeds in grass growth, and watering infrequently in the spring and summer reduces the chance of grub infestation.

Sustainable Wellesley and the Natural Resources Commission are also gathering addresses for inclusion on a map of Wellesley that visually shows how much of Wellesley is “pesticide-free.”  Homeowners can send their address to or for inclusion on the map.

(Matthew Hornung & Olivia Gieger)


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