Catherine Cummings, Safe Grow Montgomery co-founder

On October 6, 2015, the Montgomery County Council in MD passed Bill 52-14. This is the first law of its kind to be enacted in a County in the United States, which has been a battle ground for a David and Goliath scenario between the very powerful pesticide industries and people who want freedom from routine and harmful exposure to pesticides, including herbicides and fungicides.

Over the last two years, myself and others from across Montgomery County have worked together with one goal: to eliminate the most frivolous of all pesticide exposures, cosmetic lawn pesticide applications. We gathered dozens of studies from independent, peer-reviewed sources, we documented the myriad ways we are exposed to cosmetic lawn pesticides, and we demonstrated the folly in the application of poisons to control weeds and other pests that respond even better to organic systems management. We called ourselves Safe Grow Montgomery, as a way to continue the success two of us had in our small City of 17,000, Takoma Park, MD, where we passed the Safe Grow Ordinance restricting cosmetic lawn pesticide use in 2013.

Safe Grow Montgomery initially lacked a distinct sponsor on the County Council, but soon had the good fortune of working with Councilmember George Leventhal, who labored over presented materials, and undertook a massive self-education on the subject of toxics exposures and pesticide as well as organic lawn care management practices. In the end, logic and common sense won the day, and the majority of Councilmembers agreed that there is no good reason to allow the use of pesticides in our community for cosmetic purposes, both on private and public property, including phasing in all of our sports playing fields by 2020.

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My son at soccer practice, Takoma Park, MD

I got involved in this issue back in 2011, a year after moving to the suburban City of Takoma Park, MD. Escaping my immediate notice was my neighbor’s landscaper’s routine application of Weed n’ Feed, a mixture of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, as well as RoundUp in her lawn that abutted my fence. After I noticed the yellow warning signs go up, I remember wondering if  the berries planted in my yard could escape the drift from the pesticide spray. That concern seems minor in retrospect, since that may have actually been what harmed my 11-month old son the most.

The spring after our move to Takoma Park, my son started having episodes where he would start to cough, and a few minutes later he was not be able to inhale, not getting enough oxygen. After years of observation and head-scratching, he was diagnosed with Recurrent Spasmodic Croup, the cause and triggers are unknown. In my research on asthma and respiratory diseases affecting children, I came across an EPA webpage that listed environmental causes and triggers. I noticed that pesticides, including those used on lawns, were listed as both.

It was unacceptable to me and my husband, a physician, that our neighbor’s choice of lawn treatment could possibly trigger a respiratory event in our child, one that led to emergency hospitalization and treatment with life-saving steroids. The idea that millions of children in our Country could be suffering because of the pursuit of a weedless lawn was completely unacceptable to me. The mission to end this injustice bound me to other activists in the County. We are a group of people who cared enough to stop a senseless and extremely damaging practice that benefits few, mostly the purveyors of the pesticides themselves, when the profits line their deep pockets at the expense of our health. On October 6, 2015, Safe Grow Montgomery won, because, in the words of Councilmember Nancy Navarro, “Environmental justice matters.”

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