Beware those signs of spring

From Newsday’s Opinion section

My favorite form of exercise is one of the simplest. Whether I’m hiking on the beach or taking a stroll with my lab-mix Charley, I’m at my happiest exploring Long Island’s neighborhoods, one foot at a time.

But this time of year, my sole-ful outings feel less like a healthy pastime and more like a walk through a minefield. The threat proclaims itself in brightly colored yellow signs, about the size of a CD cover, stuck in the ground of every third or fourth house along my route. “Caution: Pesticide Application: Keep Off Lawn for 48 Hours.”

Yanking my puzzled pooch away from the offending grass, I walk quickly past until I reach the lawns that look like mine, grassy and green but sporting assorted patches of dandelions and other weeds. Those naturally yellow indications that spring has arrived don’t carry with them any health risk, so I let Charley sniff away. I rarely make it a full block before the next ominous warning leaps into view.

Every time I walk by these signs, I can’t help but wonder: Haven’t people heard about the hazards of pesticides? Do they know the risks, but value their pristine lawns above all else?

Apparently, most either don’t know or don’t care. More than 10 million pounds of pesticides are applied to Long Island lawns each year, estimates the Neighborhood Network. That’s a whole lot of nasty stuff entering our bodies, our food, our air and our water. And, despite the signs’ implication, the danger lingers long after 48 hours.

Pro-pesticide industry groups (it’s a multibillion-dollar business) will argue otherwise, but the science is clear: These chemicals pose risks to our neurological, respiratory, endocrine and immune systems, with the danger even greater for infants and children. Pesticides are designed to kill organisms, and they don’t discriminate.

What does that mean in real-world terms? Scientists cannot definitively state that specific diseases like cancer, autism, birth defects and others are directly caused by pesticide use. But it seems likely to me that they could be contributing factors.

Because we’re exposed to so many chemicals in our environment each day, there’s simply no way to separate them out and determine which might be the “smoking gun” in an illness. But it’s time that we took a good look at our daily intake of chemical cocktails, found in everything from traditional cleaners to plastics to car exhaust.

The bottom line is this: Although we can’t eliminate all toxins from our environment, our lawns and gardens are one place where we have control. Make a commitment to your mom, your kids and all of us this Mother’s Day: Learn about natural methods of weed and pest control, and learn to live peacefully with a few dandelions.