Homeowners are Maine’s Largest and Least Accountable Users of Pesticides
Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo best identified who misuses pesticides most in Maine:
“We have met the enemy and they is us.”
Us, of course, refers to the public. John and Jane Q. have access to thousands of general use pesticide products sold over the counter in hardware, bargain and garden stores. Data suggesting how these pesticides are used both support Pogo’s observation and give BPC (Board of Pesticides Control) members cause to intensify public education efforts.
Take overall pesticide product sales in Maine. Pound for pound, gallon for gallon, do-it-yourself applicators purchase annually the same quantity of pesticides as does all of Maine agriculture. Just one visit to the garden section of any of Maine’s large chain bargain stores reveals the huge selection of pesticides available to the public. Yet few assurances are attached to the use or purchase of these products. No knowledge of pests, pest control strategies or the potential environmental and health impacts of using pesticides need be shown. Nor does the law limit who may purchase these products; even a child can buy a general use pesticide, although its label is required to read Keep out of reach of children.
If pesticides are so accessible, does that mean they are misused? BPC staffers wondered that in 1993 when they surveyed people attending two of Maine’s largest garden shows.
Filling out a questionnaire distributed at the BPC information booth (passersby were lured with a large bowl of jelly beans) were 1024 folks who shared with BPC-ers their pesticide-use habits. Three hundred revealed they were either certified applicators or persons who refrain from pesticide use. Of the remaining 724 participants – let’s call these folks at-home applicators – 85 per cent acknowledged they use pesticides around the home and garden. An astounding 15 per cent of at-home applicators, after reporting they do not use any pesticides, proceeded to supply information on the frequency and types of pesticides they regularly applied!
Assume this survey represents at-home applicators statewide. With greater than 34,000 gallons and 800,000 pounds of pesticides purchased every year, imagine the sheer volume of materials used without consumers knowing what they are applying! Further, fewer than half of the at-home applicators surveyed – whether aware or oblivious of their use of pesticides – acknowledged they wear personal protective equipment (gloves, goggles, mask) when using pesticides.
Driven by Perceptions, Convenience and Perfection
Several factors may explain the public’s lackadaisical attitude towards pesticides. For one, it is reasonable for consumers to view these products with a false sense of security and assume they are safe. After all – goes the assumption – if these products were not safe wouldn’t public officials or consumer advocates step in to ban such sales? Over-the-counter drugs pose risks as do pesticides, but the former are routinely touted as safe and effective … Why not pesticides? Then there are meanings evoked by the word pesticide. For many, pesticides draw images limited to nasty, dangerous chemicals – usually insecticides – embraced by farmers or foresters and sprayed from nether parts of cropduster aircraft. In reality, growers, foresters and the general public use many of the same pesticides!
Moreover, at-home applicators have access to some products now beyond the legal reach of commercial users. Granular formulations of a common insecticide, diazinon, are now banned from turf farm, golf course and other wide area uses because of unacceptable risks to wild ducks and geese that feed on granules found in treated grass. This same chemical is, however, available to at-home applicators for yard use.
Another reason for the at-home applicators’ casual regard for pesticides they use? Consider how innocuous are product names like Turf Builder Plus Two”, Crabgrass Preventer, Greenville Preen and Green1”, Lawnbuilder™ and scores of products called simply Weed and Feed. How these products are marketed is an enigma wrapped in mystery to many at-home applicators; nowhere on these products’ packaging does the word herbicide appear. Not that this term alone would help educate the public since herbicides themselves go largely unrecognized as a class of pesticide by many people. Yet these products contain one or more of six to eight active herbicide ingredients. In 1995 Mainers purchased at least 747,000 pounds of weed and feed products.
Advertising certainly has not helped promote pesticide awareness as seen in television commercials of recent years. Ads have been an entertaining, even humorous way of pitching the convenience of applying insecticides and herbicides for the lawn and garden. Among them are scenes of shock troops rappelling down Mount Rushmore or parachuting onto the Statue of Liberty – just to spray one weed with a brand of herbicide; or cartoon characters who, at the sight of a bug – any bug – respond by spraying the advertised insecticide. Through these ads the public is ultimately sold values that encourage pesticide use as the first – rather than last – resort to pest management. Consumers then view pesticides as appliancelike solutions to solving pest problem and not as if they were poisons...which they are!
Lastly, at what price does perfection come? Obviously, it’s a luxury no one can afford but many are glad to pay for anyway. At least 26,332 homeowners did last year by contracting 105,400 pesticide treatments from certified professional lawn care companies. Exacting perfection from nature is a tall order, especially since pest-free perfection is impossible. Yet consumers willingly engage in the unwinnable War of the Roses (versus the Japanese beetles) or at least in lesser battles against dandelions.
Commercial landscapes often tell BPC-ers that their use of pesticides is client-driven, and that in a business as competitive as theirs, the failure to deliver immediate, thorough weed and insect control can result in a lost customer. Too bad, because this industry has on tap a range of Integrated Pest Management strategies as simple as selecting pest-resistant plants to as gee-whiz as inoculating soil with beneficial fungi and bacteria. Such options don’t altogether replace pesticides, but they are shown to significantly reduce the need for these chemicals. However, for IPM to flourish commercially, customers must lower the bar when it comes to perfection. They need to be convinced their trees and plants will survive nicely with up to 20 per cent blemishes, discoloration or leaf loss and that 10 per cent of weed growth in grass will go unnoticed to the untrained eye.
A New Ethic
Taking on Madison Avenue and Mainers’ God-given right to be fussy is no small undertaking, but it’s one recently asked of the BPC staff by the Board. The assignment came late last year by way of workshop discussions on whether the BPC ought to seek legislative action to mandate reduced pesticide use statewide as a way of addressing citizen concerns over aerial spray drift. The Board concluded that pesticide reduction could be achieved simply by implementing part of its existing mission to disseminate information on the proper use of pesticides. The BPC’s rationale? Educate at-home applicators and they’ll use smaller amounts of pesticides more responsibly.
Among the activities slated for meeting this objective are addressing at-home applicator concerns at trade and home/garden shows, in schools and via Internet and journalistic media; training retailers to educate customers to use pesticides as the last resort; developing a pesticide awareness module for elementary school teaching programs; and producing compelling public service announcements for print and electronic distribution.
BPC staffers already rolled out their information booth for the springtime home and garden show circuit. Central to the booth is a headline that reads, “Ever wondered who in Maine misuses pesticides most?” Immediately above that headline – at eye level for most passersby – hangs a mirror.
In time the BPC hopes that at-home applicators will see their reflections and note, “We have met solutions to pesticide misuse and overuse, and they is us.”
Reprinted from Communicator, Maine Board of Pesticides Control, Paul V. Gregory, Editor, April 22, 1997.