April 19, 2001

New rules may kill off pesticide use

  • Focus is shifting to sustainable options, customer education.
    Special to the Journal

    Increasing restrictions on traditional pesticides are signaling significant changes in the way landscape contractors and maintenance companies conduct their business. Much of the fear over chemicals harmful to the environment seems more focused on homeowners’ untrained use of powerful off-the-shelf pesticides than it does on serious problems within the commercial sector. But corrective action is having an impact on professional landscapers.

    Landscape contractors are convenient targets, complained Peter Dervin, executive director of the Washington Association of Landscape Professionals (WALP). The statewide organization, headquartered in Everett, has 325 member businesses, primarily landscaping contractors and suppliers.

    “Whether it’s drought or pesticides, our industry tends to be the target for a lot of things,” Dervin said. “As professionals, we know how to mix and apply landscape chemicals without harm to the environment or our people. We know what protective clothing to wear. But consumers can go into retail stores and buy the same powerful chemicals, take them home and misuse them. That’s why we’re working so hard to educate the public that they’re part of the problem, too.”

    Harming more than bugs

    The overall “problem” is that traces of toxic chemicals are increasingly showing up in Puget Sound eco-systems, spurring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to restrict the use of the insecticide chlorpyrifos, frequently applied under the trade name Dursban in and around homes, schools and businesses.

    Used in more than 800 products, the chemical agent kills by overwhelming a bug’s nervous system. EPA risk studies have found evidence the insecticide has affected muscles, vision and memory in some humans, and officials are concerned about subtler effects on the human nervous system, especially in children.

    Officials of Dow AgroSciences of Indianapolis, the major manufacturer of Dursban, dispute the federal view, pointing to numerous studies they say indicate the chemical is safe, and charging the EPA study “contains numerous errors and omissions of fact and is premised on fundamental errors of science and law.” However, the company has announced it will stop marketing its product for homeowners’ outdoor landscapes and public areas by this December.

    Along with Dursban, the EPA is banning Diazinon over the next few years, eliminating its use indoors next March and stopping use for lawns and gardens in 2003. Diazinon is lethal to both bees and birds.

    Both chemicals are the main tools for protecting Northwest lawns and commercial landscaping against crane fly infestations. Crane flies eat the root and the crown of the grass plant, and can devastate a lawn.

    The EPA review was triggered by the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, which requires pesticides be safe for the most vulnerable elements of the population, particularly children.

    Several years ago, the city of Seattle and King County began expressing concerns about the use of outdoor pesticides. Contamination concerns have been fueled by U.S. Geological Survey water samples showing traces of a variety of pesticides in Puget Sound area streams.

    Listing of Northwest salmon under the Endangered Species Act has heightened concerns about the impact of chemicals on aquatic life, a concern that prompted King County and the city of Seattle in 1999 to adopt an Integrated Pest Management policy that allows pesticides only as a last resort in pest control. Instead of chemicals, IPM stresses preventing pest problems through design and maintenance practices, and uses a range of pest management techniques, including biological, cultural and mechanical.

    As further pesticide reviews are conducted in the wake of the Food Quality Protection Act, Washington State University agricultural researchers have predicted other pesticide and herbicide products will also be restricted or eliminated for both home and industrial use, leaving the landscaping industry to find alternatives.

    “In the Puget Sound area, the landscaping industry is starting to move toward issues of environment and habitat. We’re faced with problems such as where we’re going to dispose of (pesticide contaminated) grass clippings and the use of pesticides versus integrated pest controls,” Dervin said. “Our role as professional landscapers is to be at the forefront of this, to educate our customers. They need to recognize that avoiding chemicals can mean using more labor intensive alternatives.”

    The WALP has been working with King County and Seattle officials to raise the awareness of landscapers about the IPM’s natural lawn care techniques so they can educate their customers. For instance, the IPM philosophy includes using pesticides more wisely, such as applying chemicals only when necessary rather than on a yearly cycle regardless of need. Also, establishing better soil conditions in landscaping provides an improved environment for root development without fungicides, pesticides or herbicides.

    WALP has also developed a new Certified Landscape Technician program for advanced horticultural management, to train professionals in IPM practices and pesticide awareness, working with King County, Seattle Public Utilities and the local Hazardous Waste Management program in King County. Certification tests will be held in May, Dervin said.

    Educating the public

    While training professionals is an important step, educating the public is even more important, he said, noting that landscapers have to be licensed to handle the same pesticides that consumers can buy in retail stores to the bring “instant results” people want in their lawns.

    “We need to be problem solvers and not part of the problem,” Dervin said. “Our industry may see the day when 6 to 8 inches of organic top soil becomes part of the solution. That creates a better environment for turf or plants, which provides more resistance to weeds and pests. The top soil scrapped off construction sites has all of the nutrients, and replacement soils are often thinner and not tilled in. Two years later people are complaining the landscaping is gone because roots stopped growing two inches down when they hit clay.”

    Ray Rudie, regional technical manager for TruGreen LandCare in the Northwest, said his company has used Dursban for 30 years but stopped “right away” when its manufacturer prohibited residential use of the product.

    “Concerns about pesticides have changed the way some landscapers apply chemicals, moving from a wide area treatment to more spot treatments. Also, new chemicals registered in the last 5 to 6 years have pretty low toxicity and pretty good environment characteristics. Companies are trying to come up with more of those types of chemicals but getting new products to market can mean 8 to 10 years and $25 million to $30 million for development. That’s the downside,” he said.

    “The industry is shifting,” he said, “limited by what you can get and by the higher cost of products, which tends to encourage more limited usage. But think of the labor cost in weeding flower beds in a large commercial project if chemical applications weren’t available.”

    Going organic

    An upside to the pesticide challenge is that companies can prosper with a safe, organic approach to pest problems.

    Organic tips for landscaping
  • Start with healthy soil and add compost annually, along with a balanced organic garden fertilizer, to promote flowering and root and foliage development

  • Apply partially decomposed bark mulch to maintain soil moisture and temperature to deter weeds.

  • Monitor plants regularly for signs of pests and diseases.

    Need more help? Washington Association of Landscape Professionals, 1723 100th Place SE, Suite C, Everett, WA 98208, phone 800-833-2186 or 425-385-3333, send e-mail to or visit the Web site at In Harmony, P.O. Box 755, Woodinville, WA 98072, phone (425) 486-2180 or (888) 472-7748, send e-mail to or visit the company’s Web site at

    Ray Rudie, Regional Technical Manager, TruGreen LandCare, Portland, Ore., phone (503) 597-2308 or visit the company’s Internet site at

  • In Harmony, a seven-year-old Woodinville company, has had great success with its organic residential landscaping, so much so that it has won the Governor’s Award for Achievement in Pollution Prevention, a 5-Star Envirostar honor from King County’s Hazardous Waste, the Distinguished Business in the Green award from King County Solid Waste, the WIN (Waste Information Network) award and the Northwestern Environmental Guide’s 1995 Environmental Achiever of the Year award.

    Ladd Smith, co-owner of In Harmony with partner Mark Gile, said the best approach to lawn care is focusing on the overall well-being of the lawn, in order to prevent crane fly infestations and other pest issues from happening in the first place.

    “The organic trend with all companies, commercial or residential, is because of all the new environmental laws and product restrictions. We felt since we started seven years ago that this is the way people should be doing things, focusing on a healthy plant environment so plants naturally resist some of the things Mother Nature throws at it,” Smith said, noting that people prefer pesticides because “there has been a very successful marketing of these products, they are easily accessible at a good price and provide the instant result that people hope to get, killing a weed or insect or dealing with a disease.”

    Smith said he teaches people to tolerate a few dandelions or a bit of clover in their lawns, urging them to think of it as a trendy thing, as evidence the homeowners don’t use pesticides.

    “All of these things that are happening - the salmon issue, pesticides, water conservation for the drought – are saying the same thing: we need to have healthier landscapes, using organic matter, creating good soils and understanding the environment. That’s not an overnight thing, and it costs maybe 20 percent more than traditional pesticide-based approaches, but you recover your costs ten-fold later. Organically developed landscaping just gets better and better over time,” Smith said.

    Terry Stephens is a freelance writer based in Arlington. He can be reached by e-mail at

    Terry Stephens is a freelance writer based in Arlington. He can be reached by e-mail at

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