Are Lawn Fertilizers and Pesticides Harmful to Children and Pets?

Gardener fertilizing lawn
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Pesticides, by their very nature, are toxic: their purpose is to kill insects and animals. Fertilizers are often combined with weedkillers or made with products that can be toxic. Depending on how they're used and how children are exposed, they can indeed be harmful. There are safer alternatives, particularly for young children and babies.

Lawn Chemicals Can Be Toxic

Lawn chemicals have come under tremendous scrutiny in recent years and have been blamed for everything from poisoned wells to sickness in children and even death. Children and infants are particularly vulnerable because they are more likely to crawl through treated grass and put fingers or grass in their mouths.

Many municipalities have banned pesticides and certain fertilizers in an effort to halt the dangers associated with their use and misuse. These decisions are not random; pesticides and fertilizers have been implicated in a wide range of physical and neurological symptoms in human beings as well as to serious symptoms in animals.

When it comes to relative safety, fertilizers are fairly safe, herbicides can be dangerous, and insecticides are the most dangerous because they usually affect the central nervous system.

How to Avoid Health Issues

To help consumers choose and use lawn chemicals wisely, chemical companies are required by law to list only their active ingredients and not inert ingredients. Some believe that these inert ingredients are just as harmful as the active ingredient and should be listed on the label. One easy way to determine whether a particular lawn chemical is likely to be toxic is to look for "signal" words on the label. These include words such as "caution," "hazardous," and "toxic."

If you can, hire a professional to apply lawn chemicals. If you are applying lawn chemicals yourself, read the label carefully, follow the directions, be aware of the effects of exposure, and do not over-apply. More is not better. Lawn chemicals can begin to get dangerous with repeated exposure and improper handling so wear the recommended personal protective equipment. The label will also indicate when it is safe to re-enter an area after the product has been applied.

Try to use chemicals as little as possible. When they are used, do it safely or hire a licensed pesticide applicator. Do not let children or pets on the lawn until the product has been watered in, preferably with a minimum of 1/4 inch of rain.

Non-Chemical Lawn Alternatives

If you feel reluctant or fearful of using lawn chemicals, consider allowing your lawn to grow without the use of chemicals. If that's not an option, consider:

  • Using organic products (though "organic" and "safe for children" are not always synonymous)
  • Using compost or bone meal as fertilizer, and corn gluten to decrease weeds;
  • Look for the EPA's Safer Product label when you choose lawn products;
  • Explore natural integrated pest management systems that include, for example, elimination of standing water to decrease mosquitoes; the addition of pest-resistant plants to your garden; the addition of bat houses to attract insect-eating bats; etc.