Our landscapes are an overlooked opportunity to halt and even reverse some of our pressing environmental crises. Here are a few simple things we can all do to fight climate change, insect and bird declines, and make our yards a more diverse habitat that contributes to a healthier planet.
Feed the soil
Soil is not just dirt, it's a living ecosystem. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides harm the biological life inhibiting its ability to store carbon, retain water, and nurture plants.
U.N. scientists say that soil is a big part of the solution to climate change, but, “We have lost the biological function of soils. We have got to reverse that.”
When you use organic landscaping practices you improve the soil's ability to sequester carbon and filter and recharge groundwater. This also leads to water conservation and healthier plants with less pests and disease.
Make friends with the natives
Habitat loss as a driving factor in catastrophic insect declines. We can repopulate local species by planting native plants. These are the plants that co-evolved with our pollinators and other beneficial insects and they rely on them to increase their numbers - think Monarchs and milkweed.
The caterpillars that these plants produce are vital food for bird reproduction. Baby birds eat thousands of caterpillars! Native trees can host hundreds of caterpillars and provide shelter to many types of wildlife. They help sequester carbon too.
No yard? No Problem.
Even for those of us who may not have much (if anything) in terms of a yard, we can still make a difference in our communities. By campaigning to stop the use of toxic pesticides and implement organic practices, advocating for natural grass playing fields, encouraging a switch to electric and solar powered landscaping equipment, and volunteering to add pollinator and bird friendly native plants to our parks and schools, we can make a difference.
Whether we have a large or small space to work with, each one of us can participate in being part of the solution.
In terms of serious threats to our environment, most people don't immediately think of plants as something to include. That's because humans don't typically look at plants with their ecosystem functions in mind.
Plants have been collected and imported that have ornamental qualities or other useful traits over the centuries, but we have learned that even though they may appeal to us, some of them grow differently outside of their native range. These plants are classified as being invasive.
Invasive plants are defined as, "A plant that is both non-native and able to establish on many sites, grow quickly, and spread to the point of disrupting plant communities or ecosystems." Not all non-native plants are invasive, in fact most aren't, though they don't provide the same ecosystem services as native plants do. Researchers have found that Carolina chickadees require an area with at least 70% native plants to keep populations steady.
This is where the harm from invasive plants come in - decades of research have shown invasions have the ability to alter ecosystems and displace native plants. They are a major and growing cause of population-level and species-level extinctions. Rigorous evidence demonstrates the ecological harm caused by these plants that humans have moved outside the region they evolved in.
This isn't the plants fault of course, and they aren't inherently bad or evil. All invasive plants are a vital food source for the insects and wildlife that they co-evolved with in their native range. These organisms evolved and adapted over millions of years. Our planet is a complex system made of billions of different organisms - these are not interchangeable like lego blocks. It is not the plant's doing, but the human disruption of this balance that is the source of the problem.
Invasive plants are unquestionably a problem and they do need to be managed. Unfortunately, many are quick to reach for the toxic herbicides as a first line of defense. As pesticide reform campaigners, we want to encourage prioritization of the non-chemical methods that are available.
One way we can do this is by meeting local habitat restoration folks where they are at and focusing on common goals. However, the promotion of myths around invasion biology, or even outright denial of invasion science will definitely not gain more allies in our fight against the cosmetic use of toxic pesticides in our communities. It will absolutely hurt our credibility, and not result in a positive outcome.
In fact, promotion of myths or baseless criticisms can indirectly cause the use of more herbicides. How? As it is not nearly enough people are removing the invasive plants in their landscape simply because they are uninformed about the problems they cause. But by actively engaging in apologetics for invasive plants, we encourage people to become even less likely to remove them from their landscapes. Without removing these plants, they spread to wild areas, increasing herbicide use. This is one of many reasons why we strongly encourage people to plant natives, and remove invasives in their landscapes.
Both camps clearly care about our ecosystems and wildlife, so we need to use this common ground to work together to find non-chemical solutions whenever feasible. A few ideas:
Organize a volunteer effort to pull invasive plants. Not only is this a learning experience, but it can gain a lot of good will from land managers who do employ herbicides and open a channel of communication to help support each others goals and reduce the use of chemicals.
Encourage landowners to remove invasives and provide education to the public about organic management methods.
Turn (invasive) lemons into lemonade. Look for ways to use the invasive plants that are removed from the landscape. They can be made into paper or other goods, many are edible and others can even be made into medicine.
Promote and trial non-chemical methods like goats, and mechanical removal.
By following the science, thinking outside the (chemical) box, and presenting ourselves as allies not adversaries, we can work together to manage invasive plants and restore biodiversity in our communities.
So Why Don’t You Use the Chems, Mike?
Ecological Land Management With Goats
Bringing Nature Home
If someone were to pull out a pack of cigarettes, smoke one in front of you and then when they were done, proclaim that this proves tobacco products are safe, you'd think they were pretty crazy right? Yet, this exact same type of argument is regularly being used to defend the use of toxic pesticides - most often seen with glyphosate.
When approaching decision makers about toxic pesticide use most advocates, if not all us, have run into some form of acute toxicity comparison with pesticide products. LD50 (lethal dose 50%), or the median lethal dose, is the measure used to account for the acute toxicity or short-term poisoning potential of a substance that when given at one time causes the death of 50% of a group of test animals.
These measurements help determine the signal word on a pesticide product; CAUTION, WARNING and DANGER. These signal words are useful to the person applying the pesticide, but they do not account for the risk of long-term chronic exposure to pesticides which is the main focus of community concerns. And yet, when discussing this issue, groups have received promotional literature from the manufacturer, or are presented with lists of acute toxicity comparisons from industry trade groups like this one to help "ease" their concerns.
This graphic is lying with facts - while the acute toxicity of these substances are correct, comparing them like this is very deceptive. This is a clear example of false equivalence.
Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is an essential mineral that we all need in proper amounts. Nobody needs to replace Bravo, Treflan, Roundup and Pendulum when they sweat profusely. These chemical concoctions serve no function in the human body, they are classified as xenobiotics.
Vitamin D is a hormone, essential to immune function. Normally our skin makes it when exposed to sunlight and we absorb what we need. Taking a whole bottle of synthesized vitamins is a very bad idea. But that doesn’t mean being exposed chronically to a little pesticide is a good idea. Dose is important, but it doesn’t make the poison, despite what you’ve heard - this is very old, outdated science. We know there are dose response curves that are not linear, for endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and substances like lead and chlorpyrifos cause harm at very low levels.
There are no safe levels of exposure to some toxic chemicals like lead, or to asbestos that has such low acute toxicity it has no LD50 assigned to it. This was used as a frequent argument to prove how safe it was by the industry that sold it. Sound familiar?
Another reason this argument is misleading is that pesticide products are more than just a singular active ingredient. The formulated product being sold and used on landscapes have added adjuvants - other chemical ingredients designed to help the active ingredient work better - usually listed by percentage as "other" or "inert" ingredients on the label. The actual chemical names of these ingredients are not required to be listed. The acute toxicity of the final formulated product is generally not required to be tested. In one independent study that did test it was found that Roundup was 125 times more toxic than glyphosate. The U.S. National Toxicology Program has also found the formulations to be much more toxic than the active ingredient alone.
Acute toxicity is only one measure of toxic effects. It’s relevant to people spraying a pesticide, so they know what type of precautions to take and protection to wear, but it’s completely irrelevant in the context of chronic exposure.
Getting back to the example at the outset, smoking is perfectly safe when you only look at acute toxicity. DDT has a very low acute toxicity but we now know it can cause breast cancer, and that the timing of exposure is a determining risk factor. Recently, Washington State University researchers have found a variety of diseases and other health problems in the second and third generation offspring of rats exposed to glyphosate. This blows the argument that glyphosate is somehow safer than table salt.
So dose matters, yes, but the dose alone doesn’t make the poison - sub-lethal effects, chronic toxicity, timing, sequence of exposures, combinations of exposures, individual susceptibility and many other factors determine the toxicity of a substance. When this argument inevitably comes up, you should be armed with the knowledge to refute it and steer the conversation back to the core issue of chronic low level exposures to toxic pesticides by the public.
See our Myths PDF for more.
At a certain point in your campaign it will come time to meet with decision makers. This may be officials from your city or school district, or HOA board.
Regardless of whom it is that you meet with it's imperative that you present yourself as an ally, there to help find solutions, rather than someone who is simply critical of pesticide use without offering alternatives. Be sure to stay on topic during your meeting, and remember to stay politically neutral as well.
Being prepared is key. Leaving officials with printed materials from your group will help them remember you, and have something to reference. Our resources page can help you find documents to include in a packet, folder, or binder.
It is very important to understand that most decision makers know next to nothing about landscaping practices, and their employees or vendors will likely come back to them with the reasons they cannot change to organic methods. The staff or landscaping contractors have been trained for years by the chemical industry representatives, who have told them that the products they are using are “perfectly safe” and that there are no other viable or cost effective measures that can be employed. You will need to inform them that other cities and school districts have switched over successfully and that costs were kept in control. Include this information in your printed materials, along with alternatives, a cost comparison and studies looking at the public health and environmental risks from using toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
By being prepared, using credible information, and delivering it with a positive and professional attitude you will be able to make allies of officials and begin the process of switching to sustainable organic practices just like so many other communities have been doing.
If there isn't already a local group near you to join and support, a key part of changing the landscape practices in your city, school district, or HOA is forming a strong team.
Look for people with diverse backgrounds and try to include both men and women. Many times people have professional skills that lend themselves to grassroots organizing. Define roles for everyone based off their strengths.
Create a social media and Internet presence for your group. This will help you gain support and share information as well as gain signatures for a petition.
A logo can help people recognize what you are about, and help your group stand out. We can help you by providing one. You are welcome to use our branding, but not obligated to. You may use one permanently, or just to start until you are able to come up with something on your own, we can even design something specific for you if need be.
It is not necessary to call your group "non toxic" but you are definitely welcome to. The advantage of this is that it links your group to an already established and successful movement. However, a unique name may be better suited to your purpose. It is up to you.
Our purpose here at Non Toxic Communities is to support you in your efforts - and we believe running a group is best left up to the local advocates. Contact us to let us know how we can help.
The following letter has been sent to Mayor Bowser and the DC City Council by DC Safe Healthy Playing Fields regarding high lead levels on the Janney Elementary poured in place (PIP) playground. This Q and A document will help explain some facts and background about this issue.
Read the email sent 5/2/19 Re: High Lead Levels on Janney Elementary Playground
Dear Mayor Bowser and DC City Council,
High concentrations of lead have been found at Janney Elementary School. Multiple samples from a rubberized poured in place (PIP) playground at Janney Elementary School tested positive for high concentrations of lead. These elevated lead levels should result in the immediate closure of the Janney PIP.
This same PIP material is present in playgrounds throughout the District. It is possible that some or all of these other locations also have dangerously high lead levels that put our city’s children at risk.
This type of PIP surface is a non-uniform material: a low finding for lead in one area or sample does not necessarily extend to the rest of the surface. Each playground must be tested in multiple locations using a protocol that tests individual pieces, rather than averaging a sample.
Of the many problems with PIP playground surfacing, we will also highlight these two additional concerns:
(1) Playground surfaces that fail to meet ASTM standards for impact attention may not protect children in the event of a fall. The District has failed to answer our repeated questions about testing results and upcoming testing dates.
(2) Heat issues – PIP surfaces can get dangerously hot and present burn and health risks for children. We have been raising this issue for two years, and there is still no monitoring of surface temperatures at schools during recess.
We have attached our open letter sent to you in July, 2018, which also links to the policy recommendations we made in January, 2018, which included the recommendation to test for lead.
We are calling on you to take swift and decisive action to protect District children. What actions will you be taking immediately at Janney Elementary? Will you be posting warnings and notifying District residents about potential lead and potential impact attenuation failure at other PIP playgrounds in the District?
DC Safe Healthy Playing Fields
Thank you to DCSHPF and the Ecology Center for conducting these tests and getting word out to parents, decision makers and officials that the playground surfaces in their communities could be exposing their children to a neurotoxic metal. We hope that this example can create awareness so that safer alternatives can be chosen when installing playgrounds and fields.
This is one of many reasons why we at Non Toxic Communities support using only engineered wood fiber (EWF) and natural grass for children's playing surfaces.
Glyphosate, also known by the brand name Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide in the world and it has been coming under increased scrutiny over the last several years. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) designated glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. Other independent research has generated concerns about other potential human health effects like endocrine disruption, liver disease, birth defects and reproductive problems. Even more research has flagged up environmental harms.
While we wait for more data to come in and inform us further of the consequences of using glyphosate based herbicides, many cities have decided that the potential risks (including that of liability due to lawsuits) are no longer worth it and have decided to ban glyphosate. But what does that mean exactly?
Certainly, it should be applauded that decision makers are starting to pay attention to the fact that pesticides like Roundup are not nearly as benign as they are advertised to be. Unfortunately, in many if not most instances, a ban on one herbicide just means that another chemical formula will take its place and status quo will remain essentially unchanged. Even if the one chemical is replaced with an organic alternative, that would still not address the rest of the synthetic chemicals and fertilizers being used in our landscapes.
This has been the case in several cities. Glyphosate gets banned, and glufosinate, or diquat dibromide are now used. They have even been coupled with pre-emergent herbicides like indaziflam and flumioxazin, meaning that instead of one toxic herbicide being used, now there are two. For pesticide reform campaigners, this means they are right back where they started, or even a step backward.
For example, prior to passing an organic policy in one city, the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid was banned and replaced with another synthetic chemical insecticide to be blanket applied as a "preventative" grub treatment - whether there were grubs present or not. Now, with an organic policy and plan in place, grubs will be spot treated only if they are present above a tolerable threshold, and the product used will be an organic product that contains natural soil bacteria that target just the grubs.
Organic is not about swapping out conventional products for organic ones, but rather it is a soil-based approach that relies on cultural practices and mechanical and biological controls rather than just reaching for a product. When a product is needed, then the least toxic option is chosen.
This is why we advise groups to advocate for a comprehensive organic policy so that they may avoid what's known as regrettable substitution. In cities that have been successful, they have implemented policies that exclude toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, and allow least toxic organic and EPA exempt options.
In the case of weeds outside of a turf grass area, like on sidewalks, medians, roadsides or other areas where glyphosate is typically used - herbicides do not have to be the only choice. Dover, New Hampshire has just become the first city in the Northeast to purchase a steam weeding unit to manage vegetation on roadsides. Use of this machine is supplemented with organic herbicide on 30+ miles of roadway. This is a cost-effective and safe method that uses water to "cook" the weeds and can even reduce the amount of weeds that grow over time by exhausting the seed bank.
When looking to make changes in our communities, we are best served by looking at how to switch management strategies and present options for organic compatible alternatives, rather than seek to ban single chemicals.
See our Documents page under "policies and practices" for examples you can share with decision makers.
Our co-founder, Kathleen Hallal shares her thoughts on why CA Bill AB 468, the Children's School Environment Act is needed.
Kathleen was an original founding member of a citizen's group that helped implement a landmark organic policy in Irvine, California. She co-founded Non Toxic Communities in 2016 to take her advocacy for organic land care to other cities, schools, and HOAs. Now, Kathleen is leading the charge in her home state to protect children from pesticides on school grounds.
Why shouldn’t we have a statewide organic policy throughout our state? Connecticut has one. New York has one. Why not CA? Aren’t we supposed to be the “progressive state”? Really, it’s time for everyone to look around and start asking questions. Who decided that our tax dollars should be spent on pesticides that might seem more convenient, but are not great for anyone’s health? I think the recent landmark lawsuit won by Dwayne “Lee” Johnson really brought this issue to the forefront. Two important realizations came out of that suit. The first thing was that Roundup, which is casually being used everywhere from our parks to our food supply, can cause cancer. The second thing, and something that is even more fascinating, was seeing Monsanto’s own correspondence showing clearly how they go about “buying” science, and even influencing regulators.
In light of that information, clear as day for all to see, how can anyone continue to use glyphosate, or any other toxic products, around children? What is boils down to is this: Why are we using toxins around our youth for aesthetic purposes when we don’t have to? In study after study, epidemiologists are stating that it is startlingly clear that even tiny exposures to chemicals typically used in school yards are having a detrimental effect on children’s health and learning abilities.
Hence this bill, authored by the Honorable Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, who represents California’s 66th District. AB 468 is sponsored by The California Guild, and it is co-sponsored by Non Toxic Communities and Beyond Pesticides. Assemblyman Muratsuchi is representing an issue that his constituents have brought forward. In other words, he cares, and he is standing up to do something to protect kids! Modeled on Irvine’s successful policy implemented over the past three years, the bill quite reasonably asks for organic practices to be employed for all maintenance needs. There is an exception for which stronger chemicals may be used in case of an emergency if children’s lives are endangered. But just for your standard dandelions? It’s a no go.
A lot of people thought it might be a good idea to simply ban glyphosate. But the problem with that is that the next day a toxic cousin like glufosinate could be substituted, and all of the other toxic products currently employed by most districts would just continue on. No, what needs to be done here is to have a completely new approach. One that puts the health of the children, and not necessarily “convenience,” first. This is a whole new mindset.
Costs are about the same: districts buy less product but pay for a few more hours of work. There are significant water savings. But most importantly, such practices help to preserve children’s health. Can anyone put a price on that? Let’s stop applying toxins where children play!
We are excited to be co-sponsoring the Children's School Environment Act (CSEA) with Beyond Pesticides, sponsored by the California Guild. Our Advisor, Christina Shea, Mayor Pro Tem of Irvine, has been busy reaching out to elected officials throughout the state of California in support of AB 468, (Muratsuchi), D-Torrance, to share Irvine’s success and to encourage other schools and communities to transition to organic land care. Studies have shown that where organic methods of maintenance are adopted, soil health improves, and water use and costs decrease. That is just what we are seeing in Irvine.
The City of Irvine adopted this organics-first landscaping policy in February 2016. Since then the City of Irvine has successfully, and organically, maintained all pest pressure from weeds to rodents, on more than 570 acres of community and neighborhood parks, athletic fields; over 6,000 acres of open space, over 800 acres of public right-of-way, including street medians and parkways; 70,000 trees; and nearly 1.5 million square feet of facilities. The organic landscaping policy protects open space reserves, multiple wild life habitats, children, pets and families from exposure to toxic pesticides in all city-maintained space. The City of Irvine has demonstrated that you can have beautiful parks, athletic fields, and open space, that meet community expectations, without the use of toxic pesticides.
In fact, over 160 cities across America have implemented some form of this policy. Increasingly, studies show that many of the products people assume are safe are actually being shown to cause harmful effects, especially to children, even in tiny amounts. It’s time we stop applying toxic chemicals around our youth when safer, cost-effective methods are available.
We are very grateful to Assemblyman Muratsuchi for his vision and positive action to protect school children from toxic pesticides where they play and learn in all communities throughout California.
How you can help
California residents, please help us support requiring organic landscape management at schoolsites by sending a letter of support for AB 468 (Muratsutchi) the Children's School Environment Act (CSEA).
Send letters to the author, Assemblyman Muratsuchi and also to Assembly Education Committee. The first hearing on the bill is March 27th in Assembly Education Committee. Deadline for letters is Tuesday the week prior to hearing: March 19, 2019 at 5:00 p.m.
Copy and paste the email addresses of Assembly Education Committee, Author and staff:
cc: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Letters should be addressed to Assemblyman Muratsuchi, and to the Chair of the Education Committee.
The Honorable Al Muratsuchi
66th Assembly District
State Capitol, Room 2179
Sacramento, CA 95814
Send support letters to the Author by e-mail:
The Honorable Patrick O'Donnell, Chair
Assembly Education Committee
1020 N Street, Room 159
Sacramento, CA 95814
Vice Chair Kevin Kiley, Vice Chair
Assembly Member Ash Kalra
Phone (916) 319-2027
Assembly Member Kevin McCarty
Assembly Member Christy Smith
Assembly Member Shirley N. Weber
Deadline for letters is Tuesday the week prior to hearing: March 19, 2019 at 5:00 p.m. The first hearing for AB 468 is scheduled on Wednesday, March 27th at 1:30 p.m. in Room 4202 of the State Capitol.
Read a summary of the bill here.
See a sample letter here.