Maryland County Protects Residents from Unnecessary Lawn Pesticides

On Oct. 6, Montgomery County, Maryland, located just outside Washington, DC, became the largest county in America to ban the unnecessary use of pesticides on lawns. Passed by a vote of 6-3, the new ordinance (Bill 52-14) prohibits pesticide use for purely cosmetic purposes. The policy firmly establishes the county government's role in protecting its residents from toxic lawn chemicals, including those that may cause cancer, neurological damage, or other health problems.

Under the new ordinance, private property owners will have until 2018 to transition to organic lawn care. In a last-minute compromise, the parks department was given until 2020 to figure out how to make the county's park system and sports fields pesticide free. The ban does not apply to gardens or farm fields, and it allows spraying to combat invasive species and to prevent economic damage from pests. To ensure success, the county will need to check that homeowners and lawn care companies are following the rules and that public agencies have the tools they need to meet the ordinance's deadlines for action.

The county's protective policy was almost gutted, but residents, nonprofit groups, small businesses, and local government champions saved it.

The ordinance traveled a dramatic, year-long road through the county council: Councilmember Roger Berliner nearly rendered the policy “toothless” through proposed amendments that would have exempted all private lawns from the pesticide ban, which the council's transportation committee largely adopted ahead of the final vote.

People power drove the ordinance's success, and the council's Tuesday session drew three hours of impassioned testimony before the final vote. Organizing through a group called Safe Grow Montgomery, citizens and local activists joined together and pushed for the strongest protections possible. They also worked with a larger coalition of nonprofit organizations, including local watershed alliances and national groups like Beyond Pesticides, Food and Water Watch, Environmental Working Group, the Center for Food Safety, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Moms Clean Air Force. Businesses campaigning for safer lawn care included several landscaping and gardening companies, sustainability consulting firms, and Mom's Organic Market, a small area grocery store chain.

Industry groups, including the Maryland Farm Bureau, led opposition to the bill, and the county parks department expressed concerns about how quickly it could transition away from cosmetic lawn treatments on county land, especially playing fields.

Empowering residents and local governments to tackle toxic pesticides can help fill gaps in public protections.

Montgomery County acted, in part, because of the misguided way the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the nation's main pesticide law, is currently being enforced. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency often grants conditional approvals to pesticide products despite limited evidence of their safety. Recently, it even granted full approval to a dangerous, bee-killing pesticide despite problematic industry studies about the chemical, a decision later thrown out by a federal appeals court.

Federal law does not prevent state and local governments from adopting their own pesticide restrictions or bans as long as they are at least as strong as federal standards, and some states have stepped in to fill the protection gap. Cities and counties in some areas have also passed bans and restrictions, but 43 states prevent local governments from establishing protective pesticide polices. Maryland is one of seven states that allow local governments to take action on pesticides.

The Montgomery County ordinance is a prime example of what can happen when residents, advocates, and local governments work together to protect families and communities. States that currently block local governments from enacting similar bans and restrictions should follow Maryland's lead and reverse course so that cities and counties across the country can safeguard their residents from unnecessary pesticides.

For Further Reading:

Industry Attacks Research Showing Risks from Pesticide Exposure, The Fine Print blog, Aug. 10, 2015

Rachel Carson Was Right: World Health Organization on Pesticides and Cancer, The Fine Print blog, July 6, 2015

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