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Pesticide Free New Canaan Featured in Friends of Animals “Cheers and Jeers”

October 16, 2013

Cheers to Pesticide Free New Canaan in Connecticut for its efforts to raise awareness about the health risks of pesticides to humans and domestic and wild animals. As Micaela Porta and Heather Lauver walked through their New Canaan, Conn. neighborhood on the way to pick their children up at school back in 2011, they were struck by the number of yellow pesticide application flags that they saw. The flags depict a parent, child and dog with a black line through them indicating “Keep off the grass.”

“I had this a-ha moment because I really looked at the flag and it depicted 99 percent of everybody who was within a three-mile radius of where we were standing, and I was like, ‘What are we all doing?’ ” Porta told Friends of Animals. “And there was a dog not three feet from that flag when I first woke up to it.”

To get others in their community to wake up and reduce the use of pesticides the moms founded Pesticide-Free New Canaan as a non-profit initiative supported by a local nature center.

Since then the women use their limited free time —“time that we can beg borrow or steal time from our families and other responsibilities,” said Porta, to make public presentations about the health risks of pesticides to humans and animals and the need to switch to organic lawn care.

“We started researching these chemicals and then we couldn’t not do something,” Porta said. “It’s a business. A lot of these chemicals were created as biological agents meant to kill living things.”

One of the really popular ingredients, 2,4-D, found in more than a thousand products sold in the United States, is actually derived from Agent Orange, Lauver said, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency has no testing program for human health effects of pesticides.

“So we have surplus military chemicals that needed to be monetized and sold for other purposes. This isn’t new, it’s been going on since post war but every year there is a new product, a new four-step program and a new this or that,” Porta said. “I think that even in the last two or three years people’s tolerance for weeds has diminished and what you are seeing now are lawns that look like putting greens.

“Our point is where your kids and your pets and your family and neighbors health is concerned, is it really worth increasing the rates of leukemia, lymphoma and all kind of things? We are talking about allergies and asthma and depression and fertility issues. Is it worth it for crab grass?”

On Oct. 10 the duo addressed their local Rotary Club and shared research about chemical lawn pesticides, including:

  • Long-term consequences of pesticide exposure include depression, lowered fertility and miscarriage, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, neurological damage, liver and kidney dysfunction and cancer.
  • Dogs exposed to pesticide-treated grass have increased risks of bladder cancer and lymphoma, from two to seven times respectively.
  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, evidence shows links between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems.
  • The placenta does not protect a fetus from exposure.
  • A University of Iowa study found that working as a golf superintendent significantly increased one’s risk of getting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain cancer, lung cancer, large intestine cancer, and prostate cancer.
  • The women also shared tips on switching to organic lawn care, which they pointed out people can do on their own or they can hire an organic landscape provider. The first step is always a soil test as weeds and pests thrive in soil that is not pH balanced and poorly fertilized.

    “Getting your lawn off drugs is a process,” Lauver said. “It’s like any drug problem, though, you don’t just stop cold turkey because you are going to get grubs and it’s going to look horrible. Get a soil test.”

    Porta pointed out that one of the biggest accomplishments of Pesticide-Free New Canaan thus far in addition to attracting more than 200 members is the creation of the Pesticide Educational Research Fellowship at New Canaan High School.

    “Heather is a public health expert and has a background in public health and environmental philanthropy and designed a curriculum that engages students with local scientists and other area experts to do water testing in our town, to measure pesticide levels and also nitrates and phosphates and e-coli, as well as just go door to door taking surveys on people’s lawn care practices,” Porta said.

    In Connecticut, where there is currently a ban on toxic pesticides on K-8 school grounds, chemical lawn applications are prevalent in the suburbs, but the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency charged with monitoring pesticide levels throughout the state, is underfunded so that oversight has fallen to about three statewide monitoring agents.

    "This is where we come in," said Lauver, who designed the fellowship as a way of providing a necessary, ongoing service to the town while harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of New Canaan's students.

    The data collected this year showed that there were 24 pesticide types found in the water throughout New Canaan. What was most alarming to Lauver is that water samples tested positive for imidacloprid, also known as Merit, which controls grubs, from at least half the sites around town.

    “Merit is highly toxic to bees. We are killing our bees,” Lauver said. “It’s not good. If you see this on the list of ingredients in the stuff you are spraying, stop please. Bee colony collapse is real. It’s sad. We need things to be pollinated.”

    Making a difference

    Porta said she is proud of the student fellowship because it has created a partnership with the town and that is essential for establishing a pesticide free New Canaan.

    “I am also really proud of our approach—one lawn at a time. If we were sitting around hoping that 100 people would switch in a month or in a year we would probably be very discouraged,” Porta said. “You don’t see those kinds of numbers. But every time we speak in public we do get a fair amount of people, in some cases half the people, who switch.”

    In nearby Rowayton, Conn., the womens’ presentation inspired the Rowayton Gardeners, with the help of Friends of Animals, to reach out to their elected officials about making the switch from using a chemical called quinclorac to a pesticide-free program at Pinkney Park. The park sits along the Five Mile River and is home to many community events like a farmer’s market and Shakespeare on the Sound.

    The town contracted with Paul Saultanis of Country Green in Monroe, Conn., who began transitioning the park last spring. Following a soil test, Saltanis recommended a final limited chemical application of Dimension, a pre-emergent to suppress crabgrass and other weed grass seeds from coming up, and then unrolled the organic program that would improve the soil conditions to eliminate the need for further use of pesticides.

    “The main concept of organic lawn care is to optimize the conditions for the grass by building up the soil. Grass plants like a neutral pH to grow and the whole idea of organic lawn care is to optimize the conditions for the grass so that it can outcompete the pests and weeds,” Saltanis said. “Once you get some biology going in the soil you can grow grass without the need for chemicals.”

    “You want to have living soil. You need microbes in there to offset the bad guys. And if the soil is too acidic you don’t have any microbes. The first thing is to correct the acidity with lime. The second thing is to put out some food for the microbes. And that is the organic fertilizers to encourage them. A step further is to actually add some organic material, compost, which stimulates and gives a good base for the seed. It improves everything particularly if the soil is weak.”

    In the case of Pinkney Park, the soil was acidic as well as deficient in calcium because of salt damage from flooding, so Saltanis top dressed the park with lime, organic fertilizer and compost during the summer months.

    The next step in September involved planting a mixture of grass seeds—perennial rye grass, bluegrass, and the hardy tall fescue — to give the park some genetic diversity that would sustain it through the heavier foot traffic during summer months.

    Saltanis, whose been in business 19 years, said he has seen a gradual shift over the years and now more than half of his clients are using organic lawn care methods.

    “We are not necessarily changing the minds of people set in their ways, we are replacing them with the young, environmentally minded,” Saltanis said.

    “I think pet owners are great because I think they understand their pets are walking in these chemicals and licking their paws. I found that one of the main reasons that people decide to give organic a try is they got a new puppy… they feel that they really have to protect the new puppy from harmful chemicals.”

    Start your own local movement

    If you are interested in getting pesticides out of your community, it is essential to reach out to local politicians and government. Beyond Pesticides, a non-profit headquartered in Washington, D.C., has several fact sheets available to help you organize in your community. Visit for information.