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INSIGHTS

Kiss My Grass - It's Organic: Interview with Paul Tukey

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As early as six years ago, I was that person who ignored the little yellow Keep-Off-The-Grass flags left behind by the lawn-care professionals after a chemical treatment. I let my son crawl over any lawn, oblivious to the dangers lurking beneath his tiny hands, and didn't think twice when it came time to treat our own lawn. When my brother first warned me about the dangers in the lawn, I rolled my eyes. Clearly he was an alarmist, but I kept my thoughts to myself. If the stuff in our lawns wasn't safe, surely it wouldn't be on the shelves.

Today I know better. Through my own research, I've found studies have linked many of the synthetic chemicals used in lawn fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides to migraines, a number of cancers, autism, behavioral issues, birth defects, diabetes, and Alzheimer's.

I know that the fertilizer chemicals wash away and eventually make it into our drinking water, and that chemical vapors can seep into homes through cracks in the foundation. I understand so much more now that just because something is sold legally in this country doesn't mean it's safe.

Although I kick myself for the days I allowed my son to crawl through that chemical cocktail, I do what I can now to spread the word so other parents don't make my mistake.

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As Spokesperson for Safelawns, Paul Tukey is one busy guy. Back from a trip to Disney, where he was invited to showcase his latest book, Tag, Toss & Run- co-authored by Victoria Rowell, and his latest appearance on the Martha Stewart show, Paul is now off to Chicago, Missouri, and a number of other North American locations where he speaks to the benefits of an organic lawn.

Named Horticulture Communicator of the Year for 2006, Paul has also appeared on Good Morning America and the Today Show. Former editor of People, Places, and Plants Magazine, Paul first published the best-selling Organic Lawn Care Manual and his documentary, A Chemical Reaction, directed by Brett Plymale, continues to surprise audiences all over North America.

On top of all that, he happens to be my brother. So I was able to hold him down long enough to answer a few questions for us.

You used to own your own landscape business and frequently applied chemicals to lawns. What was the impetus for your change in attitude toward lawn chemicals?

I was one of those guys who made a lot of money putting weed 'n feed and insect killers on people's properties. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, by 1992, the company that I started was in the top 10 of all lawn care applicators in Maine in terms of lawn care clients. I did most of the pesticide applications myself and, to make a long story short, was getting very sick by 1993 and 1994.

Blurred vision, incessant eye twitches, headaches, nausea. You name it. I was finally diagnosed with acute chemical sensitivity due to all the lawn chemicals I used to kill weeds and insects. I tried to go what I call, "cold-turkey organic" in 1995, but lost my proverbial shirt because I didn't know what I was doing. I was essentially, at that time, trying to make a product-for-product swap from chemical to organic and hoping for the same results. I really had no idea how to "go organic," and I initially lost a lot of money trying.

So I sold the lawn care business. I had no idea, in those early days, that lawn chemicals were dangerous poisons. Most people still don't and I hope my movie, A Chemical Reaction, will open some eyes.

What do we know for sure about lawn pesticides and how they affect our health and the environment?

For justification of the province-wide ban in Ontario, Canada, in 2009, a coalition of doctors, The Ontario College of Family Physicians, compiled all the peer-reviewed data about lawn pesticides available at that time and found "overwhelming" evidence of deleterious health impacts for children and all humans.

No one, in fact, will challenge the reality that pesticides are especially bad for children, whose minds and bodies are still developing. A recent study links lawn pesticides to ADHD, which hits home for me as a parent of a child with ADHD. My son's doctor thinks my former occupation might have had a negative impact on him. Likewise, the evidence of environmental damage has been documented by countless watershed associations from Maine to Florida and beyond. Florida, for example, has banned applications of fertilizers high in nitrogen because of nitrogen's impact on the ocean; other states on the Eastern Seaboard should follow their lead. Of all the chemicals sprayed around homes, which would you say are the most dangerous?

There are four primary herbicides (weed killers) in the arsenal of every non-organic lawn care program.

1) Glyphosate: most commonly sold as Round-up. Studies have shown that this herbicide is toxic to humans at lower levels than what has been approved by the EPA. Roundup could potentially cause DNA damage, endocrine disruption, and cell death. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the "inert" ingredients in Round-up are not so benign, increasing the odds of absorption through the skin.

2) 2, 4-D: Commonly sold under these product names, was a major ingredient in Agent Orange, used during the Viet Nam War. This herbicide has been linked to cancer, damage to the reproductive system, kidney and liver damage, and birth or developmental defects.

3) Mecrop: often sold in chemical combinations that include 2,4-D. Linked to reproductive damage and spreading plant disease.

4) Dicamba: sold under trade names like Banvel and Trimac, dicamba is another chemical sold in combinations with 2,4-D and mecoprop. Dicamba has been found to cause damage to the central nervous system, cell death and has been linked to birth defects and developmental damage.

What kills me is when I see these guys spraying this stuff around the foundations of their homes, or onto weeds in the sidewalks, with shorts and flip-flops.

What can people do if they want to switch to organic lawn care?

The good news for Massachusetts is that it's the state with the most number of certified lawn care companies. Whether living there or in another state in New England, your readers should check with the Northeast Organic Farming Association for a listing of accredited organic lawn care specialists.

And for those DIY homeowners who want to switch to organic lawn care methods?

Homeowners need first to understand that healthy soil is alive with organisms of all shapes and sizes. All of those organisms have a purpose and make natural growth possible. Once we embrace the soil's life, and our role as gardeners in enhancing that life, than anything is possible. For details on lawn care, visit the step-by-step guide at Safelawns.

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Can you have a beautiful lawn without chemicals? You betcha! A little TLC- spring raking, aeration, and reseeding in the fall- can give you that same green carpet. Here are photos from my chem-free yard...

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