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Does green grass come with health risks?

Does green grass come with health risks?

By Thom Patterson

(CNN) -- Experts are split on whether chemically treated lawns can be harmful to the health of pets and people, forcing many lawn keepers to make difficult choices during the summer months.

Pediatricians say it is not uncommon for children to get sick after being exposed to lawns recently sprayed with anti-insect chemicals. Pets also are particularly susceptible to lawn chemicals, experts say.

"It's like throwing a canary in a coal mine," said Emory University's Dr. Howard Frumpkin, referring to the method coal miners once used to test shafts for poisonous gases.

But Jack Fry, associate professor of horticulture at Kansas State University, said most lawn chemicals are not dangerous if used according to the directions on product labels.

"Most of these products are tested and retested for safety," Fry said. "There shouldn't be a problem if consumers follow the directions on the container. Most lawn chemical products are as safe or safer than many chemicals we use daily inside our homes."

Some lawn chemical products require watering the lawn after application, and others ask users to allow grass to dry before granting access to the lawn.

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But labels on chemical lawn products tend to change, according to Dr. J. Routt Reigart, a pediatrician who has helped to edit a book for the Environmental Protection Agency called "Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisonings."

"If you'd asked me two years ago if it was safe to use Dursban" -- the nation's most widely used home pesticide -- "as per directions on the label, I would have said no," said Reigart, who teaches at the Medical University of South Carolina. "Then the government said it agreed and banned it for many of its recommended uses."

The EPA announced its phased-out ban on household use and over-the-counter sales of Dursban -- also called chlorpyrifos -- in June 2000. Although Reigart said he knew of no other lawn chemicals that should be banned, he did express some reservations.

"There are concerns with many of the chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides," he said. "You should use the chemicals as little as possible -- and in many cases that means never at all."

Reigart said a worst-case scenario for household lawn chemicals are homes that receive monthly treatments from lawn-care services.

"I have a problem with regularly scheduled treatments instead of waiting until there's a problem and then treating it," he said.

TruGreen ChemLawn, a Memphis, Tennessee-based lawn-care company, provides regularly scheduled lawn treatments in all 48 contiguous states.

Kirk Hurto, vice president of the company's technical services, said most of the treatments involve nutrients such as fertilizers -- which are widely accepted as safe -- and not insecticide treatments.

"Insecticide is used only when needed," Hurto said, adding that his company is increasingly in contact with university laboratories to receive the latest information on pesticides.

"There's nothing wrong with using products approved for use by the [Environmental Protection] Agency," Hurto said. "We are making scheduled applications. We do believe in frequent service visits, and we advise customers of their options, both the pros and the cons, and they make up their minds on what services they want."

Symptoms of exposure to a commonly used lawn chemical -- organophosphate insecticides -- may hide themselves at first, Reigart said.

"Early symptoms that people describe are weakness and not feeling right," he said. "Next are nausea and maybe vomiting and possibly diarrhea. So lots of times it is misdiagnosed as flu or something they ate."




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