“Pesticides All Around Us” Conservation Café Recap

By Bhavya Reddy, Member Relations Coordinator

Conservation Café offers a forum for constructive dialogue about current environmental issues.

Co-sponsored by Federated Conservationists of Westchester County, Grassroots Environmental Education, Greenburgh Nature Center, Mianus River Gorge, Pace University, Teatown Lake Reservation, and Westchester Land Trust.

All views presented are those of the speakers, and do not necessarily represent those of FCWC or co-sponsoring organizations of Conservation Café.

Around 35 people attended “Pesticides All Around Us,” a panel presentation and interactive discussion at Pace University’s Pleasantville Campus, held on June, 2, 2017. Topics included the possible health impacts of pesticides, ways to engage community members and local officials in reducing pesticide use, and the political landscape of pesticide regulation.

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Patti Wood, Grassroots Environmental Education

Patti Wood, Founder and Executive Director of Grassroots Environmental Education, started off by talking about the impact that pesticides have on the environment and on our health. According to Patti, “We’re killing off our army — all the microorganisms in the soil that help us.” In addition, pesticides can also harm pollinators that are essential for the growth of food crops.

Unfortunately, the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs has not been effectively regulating the use of pesticides, providing contradictory information about the safety of pesticide use. In addition, Scott Pruitt, current head of the agency, has reversed the EPA’s own recommendation on chlorpyrifos, which may have adverse impacts on children’s neurological development (see “EPA Decides Not To Ban A Pesticide, Despite Its Own Evidence Of Risk” for more).

As far as local action on pesticides goes, “municipalities can’t pass pesticide ordinances stricter than that of the state.” However, local governments can restrict pesticide use on their own land and can run public education campaigns to help residents manage land without pesticides as well. Some are adopting “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM) policies, which mean that a non-toxic solution needs to be attempted first, but afterwards any type of pest management can be used. Unfortunately, the reduction in pesticide use under these policies can be highly dependent on whoever is running the IPM program.

According to Patti, we have “more organic landscapes in Westchester than any other county in the United States.” We also have a lot of land bordering important waterways, like the Long Island Sound, so there is a lot at stake when it comes to regulating pesticide use. In her words, “We have an obligation and a responsibility not to poison this land.”

Peter deLucia, Westchester County Department of Health and Mike McCall, Pest Management Committee

Peter deLucia, Assistant Commissioner of Westchester County Department of Health, and Mike McCall, Westchester County Pest Management Coordinator, spoke about efforts at the County level to reduce pesticide use. Before applying pesticides, they send mosquitoes to be tested for disease like the West Nile Virus and train employees to recognize which catch basins could be possible breeding grounds for mosquitoes. They also test for pesticide residue in water bodies like the Long Island Sound to ensure that they aren’t entering waterways through runoff.

Mike McCall also spoke about the “environmental impact quotient” (EIQ), which can be used to compare pesticides with each other based on characteristics like their likelihood of leaching, toxicity to fish and bees, etc. and which is now used by the County when deciding which pesticide to use.

In addition, they discussed some ways to reduce mosquitoes and ticks without pesticides. For instance, Westchester County gave away minnows to homeowners with standing bodies of water. These fish can help control populations of mosquito larvae in an “organic” way (for more information, see “Westchester helps fight mosquitoes with fish.” They also recommended cleaning out gutters and emptying any containers that contain water because “usually mosquitoes that are biting you were breeding in your or your neighbor’s property.”

They also presented some facts about how to prevent ticks. For instance, they recommended creating a barrier out of mulch or gravel around a yard, which ticks would be unlikely to cross. When returning from the outdoors, they suggest putting clothes in the dryer to kill ticks, before putting them in the wash. To prevent mosquitoes inside the home, ensure that there aren’t any holes in screens on doors and windows.

If using insect repellant, they suggested using 20% DEET and applying as little as possible. They also cautioned against using insect spray along with sunscreen that includes repellant in it, and to wash it off immediately after coming back inside (for more on potential health impacts of DEET and some alternatives, here’s a short article in Scientific American).

Sara Goddard, Chair of Rye Sustainability Committee (RSC)

Sara Goddard discussed ways to work with the community to reduce the use of pesticides at the town level and in residents’ own homes. She had a few recommendations for anyone looking to start their own campaign like the Rye Healthy Yards program:

  • Understand what the needs of the community are; for instance, natural landscaping is better not just for the environment, but for the health of humans and animals too. As Sara said, “it’s neighborly” to reduce pesticide use and protect those around us.
  • She recommended creating “community buy-in” through events and educational campaigns. For example, some Rye residents with healthy yards held neighborhood coffees at their homes. They would invite neighbors to hear an expert speak about topics like how to compost or talk to a landscaper. Attendees also had the opportunity to take a pledge to start taking action in their own homes.
  • Online communication is also important and provides a great platform for sharing educational videos or engaging preexisting groups (like Chappaqua Moms). Email newsletters are also a great way to reach anyone who doesn’t use social media.
  • Community engagement should be “positive, personal, locally-focused, and empowering for individuals.” After all, each resident is an important part of the solution. Rye created a Healthy Yards Gallery to allow homeowners to share photos of what their yards really look like, thereby normalizing pesticide-free yards and showing that “healthy is beautiful: your neighbors have healthy yards and you can too.”
  • Another idea from Rye Healthy Yards was to have a design contest for yard signs. In addition to getting more people involved through a competition, the signs could be placed on Healthy Yards to give even more visibility to the program.

She also had some suggestions for how to work with local governments on reducing pesticide use:

  • First understand what other communities have already done for ideas and inspiration. For example, here’s a list of different ordinances in towns in Maine. Get in touch with some of the leaders in these communities to understand what challenges they faced and for any advice they may have.
  • In addition to being a source of ideas, this can also show local officials that there’s precedence for these types of laws. They can also demonstrate how our own towns could be potential leaders when it comes to pesticide reduction.
  • She also recommended speaking with lawncare professionals, city staff, the chamber of commerce, local non-profits, and more to build a network of community support.
  • Some of the challenges of developing this type of initiative are that no one wants to be told what they can or can’t do on personal property, and that these efforts can be difficult to enforce. According to Sara, the “will of the people” is necessary for enforcement to work, which is why it’s helpful to build community support as well.

For even more ideas on community engagement, check out our recap of how to pass a reusable bag ordinance, which includes ideas that can be applied to any kind of environmental initiative.

Question and Answer Session

After the panel presentation, attendees had a few questions for the speakers:

Q. “Could you give us a brief outline of what constitutes organic lawn care and where to start?”

A. Patti suggested starting with aeration and overseeding at the end of August or September. This helps ensure thick turf with fewer weeds. Compost or compost tea should be applied before the winter. In the spring, she recommended doing a soil test to understand what the soil’s pH and other characteristics are like and then “feeding the soil with whatever the soil test tells you,” such as corn gluten meal. If fertilizer is necessary, use organic fertilizer with water-insoluble nitrogen, which will prevent the nitrogen from immediately being washed away as runoff.

She also suggested rethinking what a really healthy lawn looks like, which may include “a little bit of weeds and clover.” For more on rethinking lawns, see our recap of “Dealing with Climate Change in Your Landscape” by Kim Eierman.

Q. “How do you convey information to homeowners in a way that gets to them?”

A. Try to get the message out through different means, like with neighbor coffees, through photo galleries, workshops, etc. Delivering lawn signs in person creates another avenue of communication with homeowners.

According to Peter and Sara, enforcement tends to be “complaint-based” like with idling laws, showing the importance of community buy-in. While the ideal would be municipal ordinances banning pesticides, Sara also noted that unfortunately, municipalities’ “hands are tied” given the current dominance of the states when it comes to pesticide regulation, so it’s especially important to work with local community members and businesses along with local government officials.

Repeated education may be necessary, like with leaf blower bans; otherwise, residents may forget about the issue. Incorporate resident feedback into educational campaigns. Create trust that neighbors think that having a healthy yard is ok.

Pattie also highlighted how children can help spread the message as well, just like they did with recycling. She also talked about highlighting the potential neurological and endocrine risks for children’s health.

Q. Is anyone monitoring the health impacts on landscapers, who go home to their families after applying pesticides on lawns?

A. There is currently no county-wide effort to track these health impacts, but Grassroots Environmental Education created bilingual guides for landscapers on how they can protect themselves.

Q. Are crabgrass and dandelion native, and are they ok to leave in your yard?

A. According to Mike, they’re “not going to hurt anybody” and can even be a source of food (like dandelion salad). He hasn’t applied pesticides in five years and has started to view his lawn differently; for instance, he now sees it as a food source for bees.

Some other suggestions:

  • There were suggestions of weeding by hand if a homeowner cannot tolerate weeds; after all, “it’s amazing what you can do in 30 minutes.”
  • Sara also reiterated the importance of visual markers like yard signs showing that a yard follows natural landscaping practices: “Once you see one sign, then 2 signs, then people are like: why don’t I have a sign?”
  • Mike also recommended that if you live in a condominium or apartment complex, it can be helpful to ask the building manager about what pesticides are being used and when. Ideally more than one resident will be concerned about this issue. It’s also helpful to have some alternatives to pesticide use and to be prepared to address any possible challenges to changing the current lawn care regimen (like cost).
  • Peter suggested getting business on your side; after all, local governments do not want to make their own towns less friendly for certain businesses. Having landscapers who are behind an initiative will make it much easier to pass.
  • Patti reiterated how important it is to have organic landscapers within the community, and that there are already many resources available for towns looking to make a change.


Grassroots Environmental Education has a “Childsafe Playing Fields Act” available as a template here. They also have a directory of landscapers, fact sheets on pesticides, and much more.

Westchester County has a page with even more tick facts and videos.

Rye Healthy Yards has extensive information about what constitutes a healthy yard, photos of real yards, and more.

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