When they started feeling woozy barely an hour into their batting practice, Alan Gorkin and his son Tristan, then 12 years old, didn't think too much of it. But as they packed up to leave the grassy field across the street from Tristan's school in Wilton, Conn., they spotted a little yellow sign warning that more than spring was in the air: The field had been sprayed with pesticides the day before.
"Parents should have a choice over whether their kids are exposed to pesticides or not," says Gorkin, who manages an organic farm in the area.
Back home, his and Tristan's symptoms subsided a couple of hours later. That was a year ago, a few months after the Connecticut state legislature's ban of pesticides on elementary and middle school grounds took effect. Unfortunately for the Gorkins, they had unwittingly chosen to play on the wrong side of Danbury Road -- at a city baseball field a mere 200 yards east of the school's pesticide-free property.
At the time, Alan Gorkin didn't know he actually had a choice. He hadn't heard about the now-endangered legislation. Today, he wonders, "Why would anyone want to get rid of it?"
The battle lines have been drawn. While child-health advocates work to corral support for a repeatedly thwarted federal bill that would extend a similar rule across the country, a lobbying blitz by lawncare industry members, with the support of some local officials who argue that a blanket ban goes too far, now threatens to undo the Connecticut law.
Using both organic strategies and synthetic chemicals is a "responsible approach utilizing the best of all worlds," says Gregory Foran, parks superintendent for the town of Glastonbury, Conn. Scientists caution, however, that many key elements of pesticides' effects on human health and development remain largely unknown.
Throughout the United States, most athletic fields are likely treated with at least one of the 20,000-odd pesticides registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Robyn Gilden, a professor at the University of Maryland's Environmental Health Education Center, who conducted her doctoral research on the issue.
While pesticides are by nature designed to be poisonous, different chemicals seek different living targets. Humans, especially children, are particularly vulnerable to some commonly used products, including organophosphates, which belong to the same chemical family as sarin, a nerve gas classified by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction.
The most common herbicide Gilden found was Monsanto's controversial flagship weed-killer, Roundup, which is powerful enough to irritate the skin and respiratory system and provoke the kind of acute illness the Gorkins experienced. More seriously, chronic exposure to Roundup, among other pesticides, is associated with higher rates of birth defects, hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder, as well as errors in DNA transcription, which can lead to a host of other dysfunctions, disease or even death.
Children are the most vulnerable to such agents, primarily because developing human organ systems are more sensitive than fully formed ones, says John Wargo, an environmental health professor at Yale University. In part, Wargo says, that's also because they're taking in more food, water and air per unit of body weight than their parents, although it doesn't help that kids are most likely the ones "rolling or wrestling on the grass."
The dangers from pesticides aren't limited to the field, either. They can leach into waterways and groundwater supplies or simply be tracked inside homes and schools.
Yet the Connecticut ban's opponents argue that such chemicals are a key component of effective field management, which includes the protection of children. Without pesticides, they say, the state's green spaces have become more dangerous.
"The law as it now stands handcuffs the most educated practitioners and sells organic care as a panacea for all problems," says Foran. "Meanwhile, crabgrass and poison ivy are getting footholds in turf and landscapes, and white grubs nibble on turf roots, while skunks, raccoons and crows tear apart thousands of dollars' worth of soccer fields. It's happened already, and it's going to get worse if left unchecked."
More subtly, Foran says, recent research comparing regional field conditions to injury data suggests that organic care results in lower-quality grass and, possibly, looser footing or decreased cushioning for athletes. His takeaway: "Organic care results in more injuries."
Then, of course, there are the ticks, a worry for most every parent in Connecticut, the state where Lyme disease got its name. "Pesticides are the primary way to take care of those things that could pose a threat to kids' health," says Karen Reardon, a spokeswoman for the pesticide industry group Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment. "Pesticides are very well-understood products. They are rigorously reviewed and registered by the EPA."
Some child-health advocates, however, argue that the agency could use more rigor. "We don't have as many answers about pesticides as we should, given how much we use," says Jay Feldman, executive director of the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides. The EPA generally does not determine the relative threat pesticides pose to high-risk children, such as those with cancer or asthma, Feldman says.
Researchers are just beginning to recognize the nuanced effects that timing and dose of pesticide exposure can have, particularly during what Wargo, the Yale professor, calls "open periods of vulnerability" -- namely, for roughly the first six years of a child's life, when the brain matures, and during adolescence, when reproductive organs develop.
"When you get into it, you realize that controlling what is sprayed, when and where, and trying to ensure that kids are protected is an enormous task," says Wargo. "It makes a whole lot of sense to be precautionary in a situation like this."
Recent studies show that even exposure to small doses of a toxic chemical can prove hazardous -- in some cases, the smaller dose actually poses the higher risk. Preliminary research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also suggests that spraying lawns with pesticides may not necessarily protect against Lyme disease, even if the treatment succeeds in killing ticks.
"We didn't see as big of an effect on human illness as we expected, given the effect on ticks," says Paul Mead, senior author of an as-yet-unpublished study. Mead's team will continue to evaluate lawns for another year to see if their findings hold; because their focus is on residential pesticide application, it is unclear how any conclusions may apply to school grounds.
In Washington, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) last week introduced the School Environmental Protection Act, which would establish a national pest-management advisory board for schools and require local governments to hire trained "integrated pest management" coordinators. These local agents would have to sign off on pesticide use, ostensibly as a last resort.
"There are 15 states that have no protection at all for their kids," says Holt, who has regularly proposed such legislation since 1999 but has been consistently defeated by the chemical and pest-control lobbies and a Congress often skeptical of new regulations.
Oddly, in Connecticut, opponents of the law, which currently restricts pesticide use to emergency situations, are also pushing for a system called integrated pest management, long an industry term that, in practice, means pesticides can be used when local groundskeepers see fit. Holt acknowledges that the term is nebulous but says the regulatory requirements of his bill would give it clear meaning.
Meanwhile, the Connecticut roll-back bill awaits action by the General Assembly's House of Representatives, where it will expire if no action is taken before the legislative session ends on May 9. Should it pass the House, it will then be taken up in the Senate. Proponents of the pesticide ban have expressed confidence that it won't be reversed. State Rep. Richard Roy (D-Milford), who co-chairs the legislature's environment committee, still says that he won't be comfortable until 12:01 a.m., May 10.
Roy dismisses the contention that groundskeepers cannot do their jobs without pesticide. "If they use organic products and use them properly, the fields will be fine," Roy says. "We delayed implementation of the bill into law for a few years so that groundskeepers could take some classes and learn more. Most refused to go, so they didn't learn. If they're having a problem with their fields, it's because they didn't take the time to learn the craft."
Foran, the Glastonbury parks superintendent, says that's not the case, recalling several workshops and demonstrations on organic lawn care that were all "very well attended by municipal groundspeople" during the past several years. "The problems are about more than training," Foran says. "Organics alone do not give us the tools we need to maintain fields."
Some groundskeepers, however, are on Roy's side. "I know from experience that you can indeed maintain playing fields of very acceptable quality without pesticide inputs. I know that, I do it, I've shown it, I've seen it," says Kevin Trotta, a 35-year veteran of sports field management in New York, where a pesticide ban similar to Connecticut's went into effect last year. "The trick is having the resources available to intensify other parts of your management. Therein lies our dilemma."
Even Feldman of Beyond Pesticides admits that no "silver bullet replacement" exists to match the destructive power of the synthetic chemicals, but he likewise advocates for a multifaceted approach that restores soil's natural microbial health, rather than relying on pesticides for a perennial scorched-earth campaign.
"We need to harness nature, and then we can be successful in avoiding pest problems," Feldman says. That will likely be more expensive in the short term, he says, but argues that it will mean long-term savings as well as health benefits.
At his own organic farm, Alan Gorkin eschews pesticides in favor of natural biodiversity, mixing three different grasses on his farm's three acres of lawn. "That way, if a disease or insect came through, it's not going to kill the whole lawn," he says.
Over time, Gorkin says, this approach will reduce the need for irrigation and build a stronger root system that can provide both stability and cushioning for young athletes. It will not yield the pristine, 100-percent Kentucky bluegrass that soccer moms and Little League dads have come to expect, but it won't leave his son woozy from pesticides, either.
"As a horticulturist," Gorkin says, "I know it's not necessary to use this stuff."