Bay Journal

Takoma Park bans ‘cosmetic’ lawn pesticides

Supporters cite health of community at large in pushing for restrictions on private property.

  • By Whitney Pipkin on November 14, 2013
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Pesticides may still be used to control bug infestations or invasive and noxious weeds in Takoma Park, but lawn owners must post a written notice.  (Dave Harp)

Residents of a progressive Washington, DC, suburb can no longer use Roundup or similar pesticides to maintain the monoculture lawns that, for many, define suburbia.

Fueled by a group of concerned mothers, Takoma Park, MD, this summer was the first city of its size to pass a law that bans the cosmetic use of certain pesticides on privately owned properties.

Pesticides may still be used to control bug infestations or invasive and noxious weeds, but lawn owners must post a written notice.

Supporters of the ban say it will help protect residents, especially children, and the environment from unnecessary exposure to pesticides that, while legal in the United States, have been identified in other countries as likely carcinogens or endocrine disruptors.

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, pesticides can become pollutants when they’re washed by stormwater into local waterways.

While a handful of cities in the country have banned certain pesticides for use on public lands, Takoma Park’s City Council charted new territory by restricting what residents can use on their own lawns. Such bans have been popular in Canadian provinces, but U.S. cities that try to float them often get pushback based on private property rights.

Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit advocacy organization for alternatives to pesticides, said property rights were part of the discussion in this city of 17,000.

“What elected officials recognized is that governments, particularly local, really intervene on issues of local private property rights when they’re acting for social good or public health,” he said, citing examples of smoking bans that limit one person’s “rights” to protect another’s.

“Like secondhand smoke, pesticides drift. So it isn’t about private property; it’s about protecting others,” said Julie Taddeo, a Takoma Park mother and history professor at the University of Maryland who helped draft the bill.

Concerned about their children and the health of a nearby creek, Taddeo and fellow mother Catherine Cummings began researching the lawn pesticides they saw their neighbors using. Soon, they were distributing flyers about the dangers of certain pesticides and petitioning at local events.

Cummings said the problem wasn’t that the pesticides were all that prevalent in Takoma Park, but that they were there at all.

“You wouldn’t find extensive use in Takoma Park, because it already has a very progressive reputation and concern for the environment. People were surprised they were being used,” she said.

But even those who eschewed contracting with chemical companies to spray their lawns were surprised that bottles of seemingly safe pesticides sold at local stores were on the list.

To compile a list for the ban, the two women worked with scientists and oncologists and researched international sources. The law, which goes into effect in July 2014 for homeowners, restricts the use of pesticides classified as carcinogenic or a “restricted use product” by the EPA and as endocrine disruptors by the European Commission. The law also outlaws the use of “Class 9” pesticides as defined by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.

Takoma Park was only able to pass this law, which is more restrictive than the state law, because Maryland has a “very clear hands-off policy” that grants local jurisdictions such authority, Feldman said.

A 1991 Supreme Court case gave states the right to choose whether their jurisdictions could implement stricter policies regarding pesticides than those that exist at the state level. Maryland is one of nine states that does not prohibit the adoption of local pesticide legislation.

Cummings and Taddeo said they will continue to work on this issue to see if the ban can be spread to other cities or, perhaps, all of Montgomery County.

The County Council offered a community discussion on pesticides in September and has said it is considering the issue.

About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin


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Laura McDonald on November 18, 2013:

Great article, but I'm a bit confused... I thought Roundup and similar products are classified as herbicides. Has the city of Takoma Park banned the use of herbicides and pesticides or is the term "pesticide" now being used to encompass all products that kill either weeds/plants and insects. Thanks for the clarification!

Whitney Pipkin on November 19, 2013:

Great question, Laura. The term pesticide encompasses both herbicides and insecticides in this case.

Carr on November 23, 2013:

Thank you for this article, Whitney. I applaud Catherine Cummings and Julie Taddeo on their tireless efforts to keep the public safe. As someone with extreme chemical sensitivity and chronic pancreatitis (that seems to be triggered by toxic exposures, such as pesticide drift), I cannot emphasize enough how personal this issue is to me. I love the fact that Jay Feldman addressed the issue of "private property" rights vs. public health rights. It's so important to remember that our "individual rights" in no way confer the right to directly harm others. And that's precisely what happens when neighbors are unwittingly exposed to pesticide drift form the highly volatile chemicals that go into most pesticide products. One other point that isn't raised here is the highly questionable safety of those pesticides registered with the EPA. People mistakenly assume that registration with the EPA is some indicator of product safety-it's not. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Only those products that are known to have at least some human toxicity are even required t be registered. Truly non-toxic pesticides (like the essential oils) are exempt from EPA registration under section 25B of FIFRA because they are "demonstrably safe" (unlike these synthetic chemical cocktails). Moreover, the GAO (Gov't Accountability Office) recently found in a 2013 report that large numbers (between half and 2/3) of pesticides are basically registered under a "conditional use" loophole that allows toxic products into the marketplace with almost no testing. Who knew? Now you do!

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