The Killer in Your Yard
Each time you douse your lawn with pesticides, you could be poisoning birds,
wildlife, even the neighbor's kids. Here are some alternatives.
By Joel Bourne
Whenever the subject of pesticides comes up, it's easy to point a finger
at farmers. But we homeowners, with our manicured lawns and exotic flower
gardens, have nothing to be smug about. Each year we pour approximately
136 million pounds of pesticides on our homes, lawns, and gardens, which
amounts to three times more per acre than the average farmer applies. In
fact, most of the wildlife pesticide poisonings reported to the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency result from home use. According to the EPA's wildlife
mortality incident database, just three of the chemicals commonly used in the garden and home--diazinon, chlorpyrifos,
and brodifacoum--kill thousands of birds each year.
Photo by James P. Blair
In the early 1990s two California metropolitan areas--the City of Davis
and central Contra Costa County--discovered levels of diazinon and chlorpyrifos,
high enough to harm aquatic organisms, in their storm-water systems. After
testing, officials in both places determined that the greatest source of
pesticides in local surface waters was single-family homes.
"Chlorpyrifos is very prevalent," says Jacques DeBra, pollution prevention
program manager with the City of Davis Public Works Department. "It's
like mowing the lawn. People have been using it for years. It's hard to
get them to look at alternatives."
Oddly enough, both diazinon and chlorpyrifos (see chart, below),
because of their high toxicity to birds and wildlife, meet the Environmental
Protection Agency's criteria for "restricted use," which means that they
require a permit and training to purchase. The Rachel Carson Council petitioned
the EPA to upgrade the label for diazinon in 1997 and last year requested
that the use of chlorpyrifos be banned around dwellings.
When and where pesticides are used is also critical. The majority of
bird kills occur in February in southern states, where the early growing
season and spring migration coincide, followed by March, May, and April,
the months when birds as well as gardeners are on the move. Birds with
the highest risk of exposure include waterfowl, such as brant geese, which
have been known to eat large quantities of pesticide-treated foliage. Seed-eating
songbirds, because they are attracted to pesticide granules and treated
seeds, are also at high risk. A third hard-hit group includes scavengers
as well as raptors such as red-tailed hawks or great-horned owls, which
often feed on pesticide-poisoned prey.
To help reduce the pesticide threat, the National Audubon Society has
launched BirdCast, a cooperative program with Cornell University's Laboratory
of Ornithology, Clemson University's Radar Ornithology Laboratory, the
Academy of Natural Sciences, and Geo-Marine, a private engineering firm.
Employing state-of-the-art NEXRAD radar and reports from citizen-scientists,
the program will use the Internet to post detailed radar images of bird
migrations in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas. The site (www.BirdSource.org/Birdcast/)
will tell what pesticides to avoid during peak migrations and how to make
your backyard more hospitable to birds. The site will also provide information
on local pest threats and the safest ways to manage them. More important,
thousands of birders will get the chance to contribute to the project by
verifying the species that visit their backyards or favorite birding spots.
They will then be able to enter their sightings into a database and see
running tallies of species almost instantly.
Kicking the pesticide habit isn't mission impossible. Just ask one of
the nation's more than 6,000 certified organic farmers, or the City of
Arcata, California, which, after 15 years of using nontoxic pest controls,
banned all pesticide use on city property as of this past February.
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© 2000 NASI
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