Chronicles

Cosmetic use of chemicals

        After a long winter, we take considerable pleasure in getting outside and beginning to address attention to our landscaping. That means, in large measure, encouraging our lawns and flower gardens back to life after their winter of dormancy. For many and until very recently, that has meant a trip to the local lawn and garden centre to pick up our annual doses of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. It has only been within the last three or four years that some of us have begun to question the so-called "cosmetic use" of such chemicals. Or, perhaps I should say that it is only within that short time that such use has become a public issue.

        As a matter of a conscious decision years ago, my wife and I have always done all of our gardening and landscaping organically. Our vegetable gardens have always been weedy, demonstrative of some insect predations - and very productive. Our lawns have been hacked out of the weeds and wild grasses which surrounded the various houses we have inhabited. Invariably, they have adundant crops of dandelions, daisies and other wild flowers. But they also have worms and all sorts of other beneficial insects crawling around and under the surface. Interestingly, these lawns have always stayed green longer than those of more fastitious neighbours in the long, dry days of late summer. They also resist winter kill much more effectively than do the better manicured efforts of others. Much the same can be said for our various lower gardens and fruit plantings.

        Until recently, we considered this purely a matter of personal preference. It has only been within the last few years that we have come to realize that what was a lifestyle decision was also one that had a very important environmental benefit to it as well. it has become very evident that many of the chemicals that people use for cosmetic property care are being implicated in the increasing incidence of childhood asthma, early onset cancers and other very serious health-related issues, for our children, our pets and for others who have any sort of respiratory or immunity sensitivity.

        The evidence is convincing, enough so that Halifax has enacted a law banning all such chemical usages throughout it municipal region. Moncton is currently on a program to reduce and eventually eliminate them from its public places. Similiar decisions are being taken across the country. It seems significant that municipalities would react so strongly and quickly; it must mean that they have very serious concerns, because, as an environmentalist, I know that governments do not act so positively unless they have very potent reasons for so doing.

        Pesticides are designed to do one thing - they kill. Whether the target is weeds (herbicides), insects (insecticides) or various fungi (fungicides), they will kill much more than they are intended to, unless they are used with absolute precision, something which is virtually impossible for anyone to guarantee in applying them in any sort of outdoor situation. The slightest breeze will cause drift, passing pets and small wild creatures will spread them, they adhere to clothing, to tools and other objects in the vacinity (including overlooked toys) - and they persist, in the ground and on the surface, sometimes for days or even weeks after they are applied. (Otherwise they would not be effective in many cases). Signs warning that a site has been sprayed are becoming mandatory in some places but, unfortunately pets and small children may not be able to read them.

        Chemical fertilizers, in comparison, are relatively benign, if they are used properly. Even so, the run-off from agricultural sites laden with excessive fertilizers has been implicated in the eutrophication of lakes and streams. This means that these fertilizers are too much of a good thing; they encourage growth so rapidly that they end up by choking life out of the water by consuming the oxygen - and turning it into a stagnat pond. On a smaller level, soil which has only been fertilized with chemicals loses its organic life - it will have few, if any, worms or soil-producing bacteria and it will be subject to impacting every time the weather turns dry. After some years, such soil becomes little more than a support structure for plants and one might just as well pave it over, paint it brown (or green) and stick the various plants in, each with its own chemical dosage.

        What strikes me about the whole issue is that we need to rethink our concept of what is beautiful. I was walking through a section of downtown Dalhousie one day last summer and I happened to pass by a vacant lot into which, it seems, someone had thrown several handfuls of wild flower seeds. The place was alive with colour; bees were everywhere and I spotted several butterflies. Yes the grass was unkempt and one could see,here and there, some of the trash which seems to be an invariable indication of our passing, but, withal, it was beautiful in its abundance of life in an area of the town that many would not find particularly attractive. It caused me to wonder, again, just how many people have taken the time recently to look carefully at a dandelion. Every time I do I think again that if this was a rare and hard-to-grow plant, people would cultivate and cherish them,including, I suspect, the same ones who seem so determined to kill them every summer.

        It all comes down to a simple decision. We don't need to do things which harm much of our local environment in order to fulfill our need for beauty. It is all around us; often all we really have to do is to stand back and let it reveal itself. Then we can appreciate and encourage it, rather than wrestling it into some preconceived notion of what it should be.

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