by Kathy Sykes
“Mommy, what does this sign say?” asked a 3-year-old child who was sitting on our lawn, taking a break from gardening with me in the treebox on Appleton Street. Her mother immediately picked her up, whisking her away from the hazardous grass as she read the sign: “Caution, pesticide application. Keep off.”
This happened a few years ago, and unfortunately, it was not the last time that I was reminded of the harmful practice of applying chemicals in my neighborhood. Last fall, I was planting a pollinator corridor along Connecticut Avenue with Elizabeth Daut, a fellow gardener. She is also a veterinarian, and we noticed that a number of dogs were playing in the grass across the street. We also noticed the little yellow flags posted there, warning of a recent pesticide application. Elizabeth informed the dog owners of the hazards of chemicals applied to rid lawns of weeds, and told them what to look for if their pets suddenly presented the symptoms of pesticide poisoning.
And this spring, while I was taking photos of the UDC greenhouse and vegetable garden, I was sad to see the same little yellow sign on UDC property near Dennard Plaza.
Having completed the Master Gardener program at UDC, and after reviewing the UDC’s ten-year Campus Plan regarding sustainability, I was very troubled. The plan fortunately proposes to cease the application of chemicals on the campus, but my question is, why can’t implementation start immediately? This is an easy step to take to have a chemical free landscape. Why wait?
What is the problem with applying chemicals to our yards and gardens?
They harm more than their target. Pesticides are chemical substances developed to kill pests, including rodents, fungi, unwanted plants, and insects. Unfortunately, the toxic chemicals in herbicides, insecticides and other pest-killing treatments affect the beneficial plants and creatures, too. And they have significant ecological and human health consequences.
For example, these chemicals are detrimental to ladybugs, garden spiders, butterflies, hummingbirds and other birds, and of course bees. Without these essential pollinators, the future of our food supply is at risk.
Also, one of the most common weed killers is Roundup (its trade name) and its active ingredient is glyphosate, a suspected human carcinogen. Glyphosate is absorbed through the foliage, and minimally through roots, and is transported to the growing parts of a plant. It inhibits an enzyme involved in the synthesis of amino acids, critical to the life cycle of plants.
The chemicals stray. That is, they fail to stay where they are sprayed. Also known as pesticide drift, it can affect people’s health and the environment when carried by the wind and spread to other areas such as nearby homes, schools, and playgrounds.
Wildlife, plants, pollinators, and streams and other water bodies are also affected by unnecessary spraying. A recent United States Geological Survey study concluded that “(1) pesticides persist in environments beyond the site of application and expected period of use, and (2) the potential toxicity of pesticides to aquatic life is pervasive in surface waters.”
Glyphosate “can now be found in the majority of rivers, streams, ditches and wastewater treatment plants as well as in 70 percent of rainfall samples.”
What can we do as a community?
The pandemic has awakened many of us to the importance of nature as a critical part of our lives. It gives us joy, lifts our spirits and is important to sustainability and food supply.
The time has come to ban these unneeded and harmful chemicals. The District can take action for the welfare of our community and stop their spraying and application. While some communities have already taken these steps, there is no better time than now for DC to ensure a chemical-free, healthy environment. If you agree, please contact your elected leaders: the mayor, DC Council members, and ANC commissioners.
You, too, can take immediate action. Stop applying chemicals to your yards and gardens. If you live in an apartment building, encourage your building managers to eliminate chemicals from the landscape. There are alternatives to chemicals that are as effective and less toxic, such as integrated pest management or IPM (see resources below), to ensure a sustainable and healthy future for human health, animal health and the environment.
And we can support the pollinators. Van Ness Main Street, with the support of UDC’s Master Gardeners, has created pollinator corridors along Connecticut Avenue. We began planting native plants, perennials and wildflowers from Nebraska Avenue to Van Ness Street this past April. Volunteers from the all around the area joined in to help prepare the tree boxes for spring as well as the other seasons. And if you would like to create a pollinator corridor on your street, we can help with a list of native plants that thrive here in shade, partial shade, and full sun.
What is a pesticide? (Beyond Pesticides)
Why it’s so important to save the pollinators. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
The human health harms of pesticides. (Natural Resources Defense Council)
Poison Control Center: Call (800) 222-1222
Kathy Sykes was inspired by the memory of her mother, a master at gardening, when she seriously took up the art in 2017. To learn more, she completed the UDC Master Gardening program, and volunteered at Hillwood Estate and Peabody School on Capitol Hill until Covid-19 interrupted that work. This past spring, Sykes coordinated with Van Ness Main Street to plant pollinator-attracting gardens in the tree boxes along Connecticut Avenue.