CH ordinance banned pesticides on public property

The year 1995 was memorable for the City of Cleveland Heights. A first-of-its-kind ordinance was passed, which prohibited the use of cosmetic pesticides and herbicides on public grounds, including parks, schools, libraries and day care centers. Here's the story.

I have an inquisitive mind. In the 1990s, I read news stories about how exposure to lawn chemicals can increase a person's risk of acquiring cancer. As a health care professional, I wanted to know more, so I spent days in the stacks at the downtown library, dusting off journals. I was shocked to learn how many studies linked pesticide exposure to various other illnesses, such as Parkinson's, attention deficit disorder, and learning disabilities. One study in particular raised the red flag. Rats [exposed to pesticides] became fearful and frustrated. One could ponder the implication of behavioral changes and diminished learning capacity to society.

I was confused as I kept hearing that lawn chemicals were safe. I attended a conference in Washington, D.C., where I became aware that it's illegal for a pesticide applicator to claim pesticides are safe. I did my own survey: Out of 20 phone calls, 19 lawn care companies assured me these chemicals were safe. I was upset that customers were given misleading information.

I'm not one to vacillate and complain. I needed to make a change in order to protect Cleveland Heights families, especially children. I spoke to many residents, of various backgrounds. All agreed. We could take the path of least resistance and do nothing or we could take action to minimize our children's risks in a risky world.

I presented the Cleveland Heights City Council with a request to pass an ordinance prohibiting the use of pesticides on public grounds. Here's an excerpt from my testimony: "Some of us have read Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, where we learned that pesticides were killing birds. We've seen ads, showing Astroturf lawns and pesticide applicators pulling out their hoses. Perhaps people were afraid their property values would drop if their grass had weeds. Perhaps people don't realize the value of dandelions, which are highly nutritious."

I posed a question: How could it be that children can roll around in lawn chemicals hours after an application of the widely used weed killer 2-4 D, yet cows have to stay off treated grass for seven days? A company inadvertently sent me a copy of the inert ingredients, which carry the active ingredient. Included in the listing was naphthalene and xylene. According to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), these poisons are "very toxic." There is no testing on repeated cumulative exposures or the synergistic effect of how these chemicals react together.

The National Academy of Science revealed that children are the most susceptible to problems from exposure. This starts in utero. Children's body systems are developing and children have immature detoxification systems. This scientific fact struck me as profound: Children have windows of vulnerability where even a one-time exposure can cause irreversible cellular damage, but symptoms may not emerge until years later, when it's impossible to connect cause and effect.

According to the Institute of Medicine, doctors receive little or no training about the effects of pesticide exposure. Flu-like symptoms, rashes and asthma symptoms from exposure tend to get misdiagnosed.

The National PTA has endorsed reducing children's exposure to pesticides. The American Cancer Society published a pamphlet titled "Warning: Pesticides may be hazardous to your health."  Water departments have been advising customers not to use lawn care pesticides because these chemicals can end up in our drinking water. Lawn chemicals attach to dust particles and enter open windows during warm weather, settling on carpeting.
This ordinance not only protects children, but also our food supply. We are currently losing honeybees, a major pollinator for nearly 100 fruits and vegetables. It is prudent to encourage proliferation of flowering plants, such as clover, that encourage pollination.

Ordinance number 131-1995 PSH passed by a groundswell of caring Cleveland Heights residents. It has been a model for the passage of a similar ordinance in Cuyahoga County and others throughout the United States. We, here in Cleveland Heights, can celebrate for taking action to protect those most precious to us--our children.

Laurel Hopwood

Laurel Hopwood volunteers with the Northeast Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club and chairs its committee on human health and the environment.

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Volume 6, Issue 8, Posted 3:44 PM, 07.31.2013