What’s lost when the spray clears

Times Staff Writer

As the Saturday morning TV gardener P. Allen Smith gave tips last weekend on how to make a toad house by turning a flower pot upside down, the commercial breaks consisted entirely of dueling lawn care ads from Scott Co. and Bayer CropScience for products that would kill dandelions, kill crabgrass, kill grubs.

There was no mention that these products would also kill the toad.

Not many of us could be expected to know this. Too few of us farm to recognize many garden products as diverted agricultural pesticides. But many are, and in the last 50 years, the home garden market has become one of the easiest, and least scrutinized, places for agrochemical giants to funnel untold amounts of big-gun farm chemicals.

Yes, they are legal, but if given one wish, mine would be to ban them. To my mind, there is no place for these products in the home garden. They kill insects, kill weeds and kill fungi precisely because they’re poisons. The chances that we might misuse them isn’t high, it’s inevitable -- and mistakes can have devastating consequences.


Take Rosepride, an Ortho product promising “total flower care.” The insecticide in it is an organophosphate, a class of chemicals developed in the runup to World War II in Germany as a chemical weapon and a suspected cause of Gulf War Syndrome and chronic fatigue. A farmer would use it in the face of a plague of locusts. Ortho recommends we use it in our flower beds as often as every seven days.

Every seven days?

For flowers?

Perhaps more egregiously, for the novice gardener inundated with advertisements, the overwhelming message is that using these chemicals is the way to garden. In fact, with a bit of skill, we not only can produce beautiful, healthy plants, but also protect ourselves.

For most of human evolution, humans didn’t poison pests, we outsmarted them: We’d avoid mosquitoes by clearing stagnant water, or stocking ponds with fish that ate them. We’d aerate shrubs to avoid fungus. We’d compost yard clippings in a pile mixed with leaves and manure and wet as often as it took to get hot enough to kill weed seeds and check plant pathogens. We’d stop pruning in spring to encourage nesting birds who glean aphids. Some farmers kept lush hedgerows in old fields precisely to accommodate those fabulous creatures. Birds would get help from lacewings and wasps and ladybirds. We’d add compost soil to improve drainage and avoid boggy and diseased conditions. We’d choose hardy plants, suited to the region.

As so many of us moved to cities, in only two generations we have largely lost those skills. We’ve gone from gardening with our wits to using chemicals. During the transition, we’ve trusted our regulators, chiefly the Environmental Protection Agency, to keep those chemicals safe.

It’s done as good a job as the Food and Drug Administration has keeping junk food healthful. Back to Rosepride, which, in addition to containing organophospates to kill the bugs, contains the fungicide Triforine as part of its “triple action” cocktail. It is an EPA Class 1 chemical, meaning highly toxic. We apply it to rosebushes to do the job discreet pruning and a spray with the hose could manage.

The predominant herbicide in weed-and-feed treatments is the chemical 2,4-D, one of two active ingredients that made up Agent Orange. This is a hormone-disruptor that throws a plant’s growth into overdrive, causing it to grow itself to death. Chemists explain it as “cancer for plants.”


EPA statisticians and University of Minnesota pathologists associate 2,4-D with high levels of cancer in Midwestern crop workers, and birth defects in children conceived during spring spraying. The National Cancer Institute looked at it as a possible source of cancer in family pets exposed to treated lawns. The debate remains open as to whether the chemical caused the cancers; meanwhile, 2,4-D remains on the market.

Manufacturers only admit problems when we fail to follow their instructions. The industry term is “off-label” use. This ignores the overwhelming likelihood that a busy householder won’t read the fine print, and spray pesticides wearing nothing but a T-shirt and shorts, inhaling residual as he goes. A professional applicator would wear boots, long pants, long-sleeves, a mask and often goggles. He or she would work before dawn, before winds rise.

The risk is even more alarming for immigrant gardeners who don’t speak English.

The interests of wildlife and the environment are treated as beneath mention. The newest wave insecticide, Imidacloprid, used in systemic rose treatments, is heralded as a good thing because it kills only bees. What about the inherent obscenity of treating a flower with a chemical that kills its pollinator?

Finally there is the irony that once you begin using pesticides, particularly insecticides, you not only lose your pollinators, but you also either poison or starve the beneficial insects, reptiles and birds that would have naturally controlled scale, aphids, mites and white flies in the first place. Once you do this, you’ve effectively fired nature and become hooked on pesticides.

The agro-chemical industry likes to promote the idea that using pesticides is the traditional way to garden, that more organic practices are niche, new wave, a bit out there, frankly. The opposite is true. The ability to synthesize nitrogen for fertilizers (and bombs) was only developed in Germany during World War I, and the fertilizers only mass-marketed after World War II.

Pesticide manufacturers invariably point to the exhaustive safety trials done before the products are licensed by the EPA. The problem with these is we don’t use what the government approves. Our regulators scrutinize only the active ingredient, the poison. This rarely constitutes 10% of the product, and often as little as 2%. The rest is a mix of soaps and oils to make a product stick and penetrate the target. But safety tests on rats done during the licensing phase use only pure active ingredient, before it’s been mixed with things expressly designed to make it more persistent.


They say dose makes the poison. However, with pesticides, there is no way of measuring the environmental load. Manufacturers are not obligated to report sales, and most decline EPA invitations to volunteer the information. Even the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which monitors professional use, does not audit the home market. A 10-year-old EPA estimate, fashioned after studying financial reports, is that 50 million pounds of active ingredient goes into the American homeowner market every year.

Whatever the amount, when the U.S. Geological Survey tests streams and rivers around urban centers, it routinely finds every garden chemical, led by weedkillers. The overflow is inevitable. Lawns are graded toward gutters to direct water from home foundations. When sprinkler systems click on, irrigation water, fertilizers and pesticides run the same course, down gutters, catch basins, storm drains, streams and to the ocean.

Although farmers try to alter their practices every year with a steady conversion to organic methods and ever more refined versions of Integrated Pest Management, there is a social imperative to allow them to use pesticides when needed.

For homeowners, the obvious solution is to avoid pesticides. Why poison our eighth of an acre under the stars?