GM [Greater Milwaukee, Wisc.] Today  [Printer-friendly version]
July 21, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "The bottom line is that if you have an
opportunity to reduce an obvious toxin that people are electively
putting all over their yards, it would make a significant impact on
the health of the environment... If there is risk associated with
something, why take the chance?"]

By Howard Hinterthuer

In an era when natural and man-made environmental disasters are making
daily headlines, it can be difficult to decide whether to panic now or
later. Whitefish Bay's Amy Joyce, co-founder of the Healthy
Communities Project, has opted to channel concern into action.

Joyce and co-founder Melanie Ariens launched the Healthy Communities
Project in 2001 as a way to voice their concerns about herbicide use
and misuse in Whitefish Bay and beyond. The group currently counts 15
active members plus 15 to 20 others who lend ad-hoc support.

"Pesticides," Joyce says, "is the umbrella term for everything that
includes rodenticides, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides. Our
primary issue in terms of excessive use in the Northshore is
herbicides. We have one of the highest rates of commercial lawn care
application in the state," she says. "When you and several thousand
other residents are doing it two or three times a season, it adds up.
And there are serious health concerns."

Applicators are required to notify owners, take precautions and flag
the areas for a good reason, she says.

Joyce points out that herbicides have a valid purpose in terms of
extreme circumstances where there is a major weed infestation that
can't be controlled any other way. "There's a spectrum of the way we
feel about pesticides or any of these toxins that are used," she says.
"My personal opinion has always been that if everyone knew more about
them and used them judiciously, and only when absolutely necessary, we
wouldn't even have this issue.

"The bottom line is that if you have an opportunity to reduce an
obvious toxin that people are electively putting all over their yards,
it would make a significant impact on the health of the environment,"
Joyce says. "It also reduces the chance that you or your family or
your pets are going to have any kind of inadvertent exposure. While
one dose of this group of chemicals may not hurt you, they don't know
the effects of repeated, long-term, low-dose exposure, the kind you
might get when you're walking your dog, when you smell it in the air
or you walk across someone's lawn and you have no idea it's there."

The group has been guided by this precautionary principle, Joyce says:
"If there is risk associated with something, why take the chance?"

Though alternatives to expanses of manicured lawns are gaining in
popularity, such as created prairies, rain gardens and enlarged flower
and vegetable beds, grass is here to stay. Ball diamonds and soccer
pitches are grass-dependent. So are cemeteries and golf courses. Are
there alternative strategies to control lawn weeds?

"Yes," says Darrell Smith, proprietor of Natural Oasis Landscaping.
"It requires a different mind-set," says Smith. "Weeds invade because
they out-compete the grass. The chemicals contribute to the problem."

Melanie Ariens (left) and Amy Joyce, with sons Liam Peregrine and Joe
Joyce, are co-founders of the Healthy Communities Project. The group's
goal is to reduce the public's exposure to toxins.

Chemical lawn treatments can cause a quick green-up in spring, he
says, but all the roots develop on the surface. "The chemicals can
harm the vibrant soil ecology so that worms, for example, aren't there
to loosen the soil. Then the roots have difficulty penetrating
deeply," Smith says. If there's a drought later on in the season, the
chemical lawn may actually die, while a healthy lawn will simply slow
down and go dormant, he says. Meanwhile, the root system is still
finding moisture and nutrients.

Smith uses a three-pronged approach to weed control. He applies
organic fertilizer, a deodored fish emulsion with extra biological
components, to improve the soil and its ability to break down and
deliver nutrients. He applies corn gluten meal during the spring and
fall during periods of peak weed growth. Corn gluten meal has been
found to be effective against 23 different types of common weeds such
as crabgrass, quack grass and dandelions. Corn gluten naturally
interferes with seed germination. "There's no bad news for pets,
children or the environment," Smith says. "Corn gluten meal is also a
slow-release nitrogen fertilizer and a common ingredient in pet food."

Smith also "over-seeds" with high-quality grass seed so that any gaps
are filled with new grass instead of new weeds.

Independently, Joyce has been applying corn gluten meal to her lawn
for about three years. "You have to create the right underlying soil
conditions to allow grass to thrive and out-compete the weeds. If you
have a ton of weeds in your lawn it's probably indicative of an
underlying issue.

"They are more of a symptom than the problem itself," she says.

Joyce recommends doing simple things like mowing higher, keeping your
lawn mower blades sharp, applying better watering practices, pulling
the weeds and over-seeding with good-quality grass seed.

Currently the Healthy Communities Project is working for modifications
to herbicide use policies and procedures in public parks and other
places where children and pets romp. "We tried to get the village to
look at alternatives, but it came down to money," Joyce says.

She credits Gary Siegman, buildings and grounds supervisor for the
Whitefish Bay School District, for his efforts in reducing the amount
of herbicides on school grounds. "He's willing to try new things," she

Other efforts to reduce herbicides on public grounds include a
multiyear pilot project that started this spring at School House Park
in Whitefish Bay and efforts at Buckley Park on Lake Drive.

River Hills resident Darlene Lochbihler, another corn gluten advocate
and founding member of the Northshore Environmental Roundtable, says
this about the Healthy Communities Project: "I think they are taking a
very balanced approach to this issue, uncovering the facts and being
thoughtful about proposing workable alternatives."

The Environmental Roundtable brings together groups like the Healthy
Communities Project, the Sierra Club, Milwaukee Audubon Society and
others to share information on initiatives while offering support and
coordination. Like the Healthy Communities Project, a key goal of the
Environmental Roundtable is to provide reliable environmental
information to area municipalities and decision-makers.