About the Author

Louise Chawla is a Professor in the Environmental Design Program at the University of Colorado in Boulder, co-editor of the journal Children, Youth and Environments, and Associate Director of the Children, Youth and Environments Center for Community Engagement. She is also a member of the C&NN Advisory Board.

CHILD-FRIENDLY LAWNS AND GARDENS: Ten Things You Can Do to Reduce Hidden Chemical Risks

While children are at risk from indoor pollutants and toxins, Louise Chawla reminds us about the hidden chemical risks just outside the door, and tells us what we can do about them.

Everyone who advocates connecting children with nature needs to add—“not nature sprayed with herbicides, insecticides and other pesticides.”

In November 2012 the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on “Pesticide Exposure in Children” that warns that risks are commonly underestimated and underdiagnosed. The statement focuses on prenatal and early childhood risks, noting robust evidence that exposure to pesticides is associated with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive functioning, and behavioral problems.

All ages, however, are at risk. Insecticides function by attacking the nervous system, which follows similar chemical pathways in insects and humans. Therefore they are repeatedly linked to learning disabilities as well as cancers. Herbicides attack cell growth, which is consistent with their association with cancers.

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When herbicides have been tested for endocrine disruption, many have been found to mimic our bodies’ hormones at minute dosages, with the potential of disrupting metabolic, neurological and reproductive development in humans and other animals.

As well as fetuses and young children, preadolescents and adolescents are especially vulnerable, with consequences that can affect their future offspring.

The policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics echoes the conclusion of the President’s Cancer Panel in 2010. Distinguished medical experts reviewed research on carcinogenic chemicals in our environment, including herbicides and other pesticides. In their report, they concluded that the burden of risk has been grossly underestimated and called for action to protect the public from exposure.

Young children take in more pesticides relative to their body weight than adults, live close to the ground, and have organ systems that detoxify chemicals less effectively. As they develop, they pass through periods of vulnerability when exposure may result in irreversible damage, whether effects are immediately apparent or latent for many years.  Unfortunately, protecting children is not a simple individual choice. Herbicides, insecticides and other synthetic chemicals are everywhere in the United States. The bodies of pregnant women and umbilical cord blood of newborns in the U.S. carry upwards of 100 to 200 industrial chemicals, many at levels associated with adverse outcomes.

What You Can Do

In your family, you can significantly reduce your children’s exposure to toxins:

  • 1. Buy organic food whenever possible and plant an organic garden at home or in a community garden plot.
  • 2. Practice organic lawn care. Systems for organic turf restore healthy soil so that grass puts down deep roots and grows so thickly that it crowds out most weeds, and organic weed and insect treatments are available.  See Paul Tukey’s book The Organic Lawn Care Manual or the website www.organiclandcare.net.  If you use a lawn care company, select one that has been trained in these methods.
  • 3. Natural lawns offer opportunities to learn lessons about biodiversity with your children. See Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony by F. H. Bormann, Diana Balmori and Gordon Geballe.
  • 4. Remember that dandelions are an important food source for bees. If they bother you or your neighbors, keep your lawn weed free the old-fashioned way, by preventing flowers from seeding and digging weeds out when the lawn is wet after irrigation or rain. You can make it a game: “Who can make the longest dandelion chain?” “Ten cents a plant! Who can dig up the most?”

Join with other parents and people in your community to demand safe environments for children. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ statement has the potential to change the culture of lawn and garden care in the U.S., but only if people work together to make this happen:

  • 5. If you live in a homeowners association, build a coalition of other families with children and concerned neighbors to educate yourselves, the property manager and board of directors about this subject. Bring letters from your pediatricians about the importance of protection. Point out that safe lawns and gardens can be advertised as amenities that add to property values.
  • 6. If people object to dandelions, divide the turf into areas that nearby residents volunteer to keep weed free. You can turn weeding into “Healthy Lawns, Healthy Children” celebrations that build community.
  • 7. Organize with other families and local pediatricians to demand safe environments at schools, preschools, child care centers, playing fields, parks and all public lands.
  • 8. Tell your child’s college or university that you want campus greens to be safe too.
  • 9. Get your local state representative to introduce a Child Safe Playing Fields Act, similar to the one enacted in the state of New York.
  • 10. On a federal level, ask your Congressional representatives to support the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which would update current inadequate laws that were passed in 1976.

History Is Not Destiny

Lawns were first cultivated for the aristocrats and landed gentry of Europe in the 18th century as a sign of wealth and privilege. As a landscape style, they were first imported to the U.S. for big estates, then spread to upper middle class suburbs after the Civil War. All of these trend-setting lawns were organic.

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In the 20th century, lawns multiplied across middle and working-class housing developments as symbols of upward mobility. Paul Robbins in Lawn People and Virginia Scott Jenkins in The Lawn document how  chemical, lawn equipment, and turf companies saw private lawns as a critical site for market expansion, and mounted aggressive advertising campaigns to convince homeowners that to be responsible family members and neighbors, they needed to treat their lawns with herbicides, insecticides and nitrogen at regular intervals.

Initial 20th century turf treatments included lead, mercury, arsenic, and cyanide, which gave way to “improved” products like DDT and chlordane. The synthetic herbicides currently applied to U.S. lawns and playing fields have been banned across most of Canada after close scrutiny by the Ontario College of Family Physicians and other research groups. The chemical industry in the U.S. ensured that nothing similar will happen here by lobbying state legislatures across the country to enact laws that prevent states and municipalities from restricting their market.

Although your state or municipality may not be able to mandate protection, every individual, family, organization, business, school district and public agency is free to voluntarily choose to protect our children, ecosystems, and people of all ages.

Together we have the potential to make safe lawns and gardens the new cultural norm.

People in the children and nature movement often cite Rachel Carson because she eloquently advocated introducing children to nature in her book A Sense of Wonder.  We must not forget that she also wrote Silent Spring, courageously researching and speaking out against the dangers of pesticides. For the sake of our children and all other living things on our planet, we need to spread both parts of her message.

For detailed references, click here for a fact sheet on “Child-Friendly Lawns and Gardens.”

Other Reading

From the Children, Youth and Environments Center, University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center

Benefits of Nature Fact Sheet 

Benefits of Gardening for Children Fact Sheet

Student Gains from Place-Based Education Fact Sheet

Additional Information from C&NN

How to Create a Neighborhood Butterfly Zone — and a Homegrown National Park

The Botanical City: Could Where You Live Become the Most Nature-Rich City in the World?

20 Ways to Create a Naturally Restorative Home and Garden

The Whole Child: A Pediatrician Recommends the Nature Prescription

Research and additional Resources in the C&NN Research Section

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Comments (5)

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  1. Stephanie says:

    Love this article! Thank you. Some park districts and villages are now replacing natural turf with synthetic turf made with crumb rubber (pulverized used tires). Part of their argument is that it reduces the need for pesticides/fertilizers. Would love to see Children and Nature write something about these synthetic fields that are being installed by the thousands all over the nation.

  2. Sheila Marie says:

    Share with folks!

  3. Jeff Cantrell says:

    A perfect article to go in our Master Naturalist new training class binders. Plus, it compliments Doug Tallamy’s work on Bringing Nature Home. A naturescaped yard is a healthy one for people and all life. It is just the smart thing to do, the smart way to live.
    Thank you for the helpful resource. – Jeff

  4. Liz Goodenough says:

    Thank you, Louise, for providing practical tips along with historical background regarding this ubiquitous landscape. Not only children but pets are subject to ChemLawn. My husband had to shout the sprayers away at our condo association. Coalitions such as you describe are essential to healing our cities and towns.

  5. Steffen says:

    I love this profound and interesting information. I live in Germany and see,that in the US there is a convincing movement for natural landscapes, and the garden is the landscape next to us. In my own garden,which is not too small,I do mow the lawn rather seldom, I leave islands/oasises of grass ( and of course dandelions,daisies,clover etc.), and I never water the lawn, not to speak of fertilizer, insecticides, herbicides or any chemicals. Why fighting a war against plants or insects, when the side effects are dangerous and cost time and money. I think it is a great opportunity for elderly people as I am, to do something good for themselves (satisfaction,health,happiness), their chldren and grandchildren and for nature at the very place we live.

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