For the typical golfer, a day playing golf is a day to enjoy the beautiful outdoors. Unfortunately, golf courses typically are among the areas most heavily treated with toxic pesticides. Why is that a concern?
A medical school professor at the University of Iowa in the 1990’s, under contract with the Golf Course Superintendents Association (GCSAA), found that golf course superintendents have a higher mortality from certain cancers, including lung, brain, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, large intestine and prostate. The statistical mortality study reviewed the death certificates of 618 form GCSAA members between 1970 and 1992 and compared those rates to the general population. The researchers were cautious, urging that “a prudent strategy for golf course superintendents and their workers is to minimize their exposure to pesticides” and reminding people that “these results cannot be interpreted to mean that golfers are at risk.” Unfortunately, golfers as a group have not been studied. Previous studies of farmers, pesticide applicators, and agricultural workers have suggested that an elevated risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia among farmers are associated with exposure to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.
Even before the medical school study, the New York State Attorney General’s office published a report entitled Toxic Fairways, a widely cited study of pesticide use on 52 Long Island, New York golf courses. The report, which was particularly concerned with the potential for groundwater contamination, concluded that these golf courses applied about 50,000 pounds of pesticides in one year, or four to seven times the average amount of pesticides used in agriculture, on a pound per acre basis. The report says, “In order to maintain the greens and fairways, many golf course managers apply huge amounts of pesticides following a pre-determined “recipe” of repeated applications, rather than customized treatments addressing actual problems.” The report continues, “Many pesticides are used preventively, not in response to specific problems. Ironically, this can eventually turn into a pesticide addition, which many require increasing amounts of different types of pesticides to produce the same results.” The report recommended reducing golf course pesticide hazards by limiting or ending the use of known carcinogens, minimizing the use of other pesticides, and fully informing golf course users and the public about pesticides dangers and the times of application.
Of the 30 most commonly used turf pesticides, 19 can cause can¬cer, 13 are linked to birth defects, 21 can affect reproduction and 15 are nervous system toxicants. The most popular and widely used lawn chemical, 2,4-D, which kills broad leaf weeds like dan¬delions, is an endocrine disruptor with predicted human health hazards ranging from changes in estrogen and testosterone levels, thyroid problems, prostate cancer and reproductive abnormali¬ties. 2,4-D has also been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Other turf chemicals, like glyphosate (Roundup), have also been linked to serious adverse chronic effects in humans. So, exposure is occurring to golfers who spend time on pesticide-treated turf.
At the same time, public understanding of the deficiencies in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) process of evaluating and regulating pesticides was coming to light with reports from the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) and the National Academy of Sciences. Harmful pesticides are allowed to be used in the marketplace and acceptable risks at set by EPA based on effects to the average population and their average exposure to pesticides. However, exposed individuals may have the same health conditions that are caused or exacerbated by many pesticides. EPA’s calculation of acceptable risk to the general population does not take into account the higher exposure associated with the game of golf. In 2003, EPA negotiated a cancellation of the residential uses of a highly neurotoxic insecticide, chlorpyrifos (dursban) but allowed its continued use on golf courses. In the 1980’s, EPA banned a commonly used pesticide, diazinon, on golf courses because of bird deaths. It was not until 2004 that EPA negotiated an end to residential uses of diazinon because of health and environmental effects.
As awareness about pesticide hazards improves, more golfers and greens committees are looking for alternative approaches to turf management that are not reliant on pesticides. Some are trying organic practices that rely on building soil health as a way of maintaining healthy plants or turf grass.
Efforts to change practices on managing large sites like golf courses requires information that informs people about the hazards of pesticides and the availability of alternative methods. Understanding how a beautiful turf could somehow be hurting players and the environment requires an educational campaign that explains the effectiveness of organic methods.
The hazards of pesticides can be avoided with good turf management, protecting the health of golfers and the environment. Turf can be maintained using the following steps, which will eliminate the conditions that promote weeds and fungal diseases.
See more information on organic turf management on the lawns and landscapes program page.