Phasing out Pesticides

Phasing out Pesticides

Byline: Sadie Puglisi, Cornell Cooperative Extension

In response to a growing concern of high cancer rates in Long Island communities, Suffolk County legislators passed a law in 1996 requiring all county employees to implement integrated pest management (IPM) practices on land that is owned or leased by the county. The law included an Organic Parks Plan for all county parks and golf courses to follow. The plan was developed to reduce or eliminate the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and toxic chemicals from regular maintenance routines. As a result, the three county-owned golf courses reduced chemical applications and began using organic fertilizers and products containing kelps, vitamins and nutrients.


In 1999, three years after the law was passed, the legislature determined that the IPM law was insufficient in addressing the ever-growing concerns of pesticide-related cancers. They revised the law to phase out the use of all pesticides. This phaseout was accepted as a three-step process. First, as of Jan. 1, 2000, no pesticides labeled “Danger” or any pesticide classified as a known, likely or possible carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could be applied on county-owned or leased property, or used inside buildings. As of Jan. 1, 2001, the restrictions broadened to include pesticides labeled “Warning.” Now the only pesticides allowed are those that are labeled “Caution” and are not classified as possible carcinogens. Some exceptions include containerized baits, antimicrobials and pesticides used for mosquito control.

Legislators did, however, grant golf courses three special exemptions in cases of emergency. For example, if a particular golf green became severely infested with anthracnose and none of the allowed fungicides could remedy the problem, the superintendent could declare an emergency and apply a “Warning” labeled or carcinogenic fungicide for that disease to save the course from severe turf loss.


The legislators also recognized the county’s need for assistance in implementing this law. They formed a community advisory committee (CAC) that included representatives of county departments, local activist groups, the local medical community and the local university extension service. The CAC meets monthly to discuss issues involving the law and alternative solutions. The CAC has faced situations where county agencies use pesticides in manners that are unique and that were not anticipated by lawmakers. For example, the police department uses pesticides to clean human parasites from police cars and jail cells. The Suffolk County Health Department, Public Works Department and police department use boat-bottom paints for their water vessels. When faced with such obstacles, the CAC follows a loose protocol to respond to these situations. First, the committee educates itself on the issues presented. Sometimes the committee members who specialize in a particular area can offer information for the rest of the committee, or the group looks to experts such as university faculty or other county representatives. In the case of the boat-bottom paints, the CAC invited the respective agencies to speak about how boat-bottom paints are applied and the problems that would arise if the paints were not applied.


After the CAC identifies the pros and cons of applying the pesticide in question, it begins to research alternatives. This is done informally amongst the group. Typically, one representative will have heard of an alternative solution that may be worth looking into. Representatives from the local extension service find unbiased data that proves whether the alternative plan or product is effective. If no data is available, local extension service representatives research the proposed solutions themselves. Research includes conducting trials of products on county land or simply asking for opinions from others who have used the alternative solution.

If no alternative solution is identified for a particular situation, the CAC then has the power to grant county departments an exemption from the law for that pesticide for one year. The exemption is granted with the understanding that the department will continually make efforts to find alternatives and reduce pesticide use until an alternative solution is found. Exemptions were granted in the cases involving the human vectors and boat-bottom paints.


Two of the major issues the CAC faces are the use of herbicides for the highway and parks departments and the use of fungicides and insecticides on Suffolk County golf courses. The highway department stresses the need for a broad-spectrum herbicide to eliminate vegetation around roadsides and guardrails. Decreased visibility of signs and rails is a safety concern to motorists. The parks department has a responsibility to keep public areas free of poison ivy for the safety of the public. Parks employees cannot pull poison ivy plants as that would compromise their safety. At the present time there is no alternative management practice that sufficiently eliminates the diseases, grubs and weeds that plague golf course turf.


Looking for alternative solutions to pesticides on the Suffolk County golf courses is an example of the CACs group dynamic. In an effort to find an alternative solution, the CAC first was educated as to the great challenge it faces in creating a management plan for golf courses that does not include the use of pesticides. The superintendent of the three courses, in cooperation with a representative from the local extension service, began educating the CAC on basic golf course turfgrass management. Members called upon third-party participants from major universities and surrounding golf courses to explain what goes into a typical turf management program.

After learning what types of pesticides are used on golf courses and the reasons for them, the CAC recognized what alternatives were needed. Members of the CAC used their network of resources to come up with ideas. Some members had heard of a new product that could be used to decrease disease pressure; others suggested classes and informational programs that the golf course employees could attend to learn of organic maintenance alternatives. The golf course superintendents turned to their local extension service representative to look into each of the suggested ideas. Extension educators performed test plots of many products and compared them to a traditional fungicide. They performed trials of nematodes and demonstrations of weed steamers and weed burners. Based on the results of each test, the CAC determined if a product or tool should be implemented on the golf courses. No single product or management system has unveiled itself as an alternative for pesticides on the golf courses, and the research continues.


Throughout this difficult task, the members of the CAC have learned valuable lessons. First, always keep an open mind to the ideas of others. With the diversity of the members comes diverse ideas for solutions. What one person sees as feasible may seem unrealistic to others. Members of the CAC realize that they are embarking on a new system of property management and, in some instances, may need to recreate the wheel. What was not seen as feasible yesterday may be tomorrow’s reality.

Secondly, it is important to accept change. We live in a consumer-driven world, and the consumers must remain satisfied for businesses to remain in the market. In this situation, the consumers are the citizens of Suffolk County, but in many cases the consumer is the homeowner or golfer. When the consumer asks for change, we must be willing to comply. If we are not willing to change with the trends of the market, the market will change regardless, and leave us behind.

Lastly, the CAC has learned that diversity is a necessity in any influential organization. When all viewpoints of a community are recognized in the decision-making process, the outcome will appeal to a broader range of consumers. Compromising one’s agenda is not a simple task, but small sacrifices that keep consumers content will likely benefit everyone involved.

Sadie Puglisi is pest management specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension, Suffolk County (Riverhead, N.Y.).

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