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.