‘Botox for your lawn’: the controversial use of pesticides on golf courses | pesticides

Harold Nisker spent about 50 years of his life playing golf in his suburb of Toronto. He visited his country club course almost every day, setting off to play on the miles of pristine grass.

Like many golfers, Nisker began to have a certain expectation of turf: green, trimmed, with no weeds in sight. But when Nisker died in 2014 of a rare type of lymphoma, his son Andrew began to wonder if his father’s death could be linked to all those golf games – and the pesticide applications that helped the course golf to reach its aesthetic perfection.

Nisker obtained records showing what kinds of pesticides were used to treat the golf course where his father regularly played, finding among the chemicals listed a herbicide known as 2,4-D. The pesticide was one of the active ingredients in Agent Orange, a tactical-use chemical deployed by the US military during the Vietnam War that was later determined to cause cancer.

Harold Nisker photographed on a golf course in 1967. Photography: Courtesy of Andrew Nisker

“My dad was a health freak,” Andrew Nisker said. He probably never knew the golf course he loved was “sprayed with a chemical used in Agent Orange,” Nisker said.

Links to health problems

Weedkillers, insecticides and other pesticides are widely used in agriculture, schoolyards, parks and vegetable gardens. They are also used – often in large quantities – on golf courses. But a lot, like 2,4-D, have been linked to human health issues, including cancers, and several researchers and public health advocates are increasingly questioning whether an idyllic golf green is worth the risk.

In October 2023, the family of a former golf gardener who died of leukemia must go to test in Pennsylvania against some of the largest pesticide companies in the world, alleging exposure to chemicals applied on the course caused his illness. A similar court case was filed in September 2020 in California by Gary Lindeblad, who sprayed Roundup weed killer for decades while working golf clubs.

Recently, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of paraquat on golf courses, an herbicide linked to Parkinson’s disease that was popular with golf course operators. But critics say that doesn’t go far enough because many other pesticides used in the $84 billion industry have been shown to be harmful to human health and the environment. In the case of 2,4-D, for example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared the herbicide possibly carcinogenic to humans, although the EPA says there is not enough data to classify it as such.

The push to remove pesticides from golf courses is part of a broader effort by public health and environmental advocates to reduce pesticide use and protect vulnerable communities. A large percentage of pesticide applicators are Hispanic and people of color, making reducing pesticide exposure a matter of environmental justice. Black and brown quarters are sprayed disproportionately with glyphosate, a 2020 report found.

“When we decide to use a pesticide, at every stage of the production, transport, disposal chain, it has a disproportionate impact on people of color,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of the association at nonprofit Beyond Pesticides, which advocates against the use of pesticides.

Last year, New York City banned the use of synthetic pesticides on city properties, for example, although the measure excluded golf courses. In June, the Governor of Connecticut signed a bill which bans golf courses from using an insecticide called chlorpyrifos from January 1, 2023.

A gardener waters the fourth hole green in California.
A gardener waters the fourth hole green in California. Photography: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock

And at the federal level, Senator Cory Booker is proposing a bill that to forbid two classes of insecticides commonly used in golf course management – organophosphates and several widely used neonicotinoids, which have been associated with increased risk non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), neurodevelopmental damage in children and threats to the population the bees, butterflies and aquatic invertebrates.

But measures to limit pesticides are met with strong opposition. More than 350 organizations, including agricultural groups and golf associations, sent a letter to Congress opposing the bill, titled Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act. Among those opposing the bill are the Golf Course Superintendent Association of America and CropLife America, which represents pesticide manufacturers.

“Legislation to ban individual chemicals and politicize the regulatory process undermines both the work of EPA’s career scientists and a long-standing law that serves our nation well,” said the president and CEO. CropLife America executive Chris Novak told the Guardian in an emailed statement.

In a statement to the Guardian, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America said the bill risks “creating a confusing patchwork of pesticide regulations and undermining the scientific expertise that determines product safety standards.”

‘Like Botox for your lawn’

Impeccable lawns on golf courses have been an industry standard in the United States for over a century.

The sport of golf came to North America in the 1700s, with the first American golf club established in South Carolina in 1786. During World War II, chemical warfare research led to the development of synthetic pesticides. After seeing how effectively these chemicals killed insects and suppressed weeds, the golf industry incorporated several of them into their course maintenance routine.

A 1991 report found that more than 50,000 lbs. pesticides were then used on golf courses, nearly four to seven times what was used in agriculture on a one pound per acre basis. The report was part of a review by the New York Attorney General of groundwater contamination from pesticide use on golf courses.

“It’s like Botox for your lawn,” Nisker said of the use of pesticides on golf courses. “They should adopt the natural habitat instead of introducing vegetation that is not local and requires more chemicals and water to keep it alive.”

“To harm the environment with these chemicals for beauty, for a little more of this perfection, in my opinion is not justified at all,” said Ralf Schulz, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Landau in Germany. Research conducted by Schulz shows that pesticides can contribute to the degradation and biodiversity losses aquatic systems.

“There are always side effects to using pesticides,” Schulz said.

Searching for answers

Nisker still plays golf, an activity he and his father used to share. But now he sees green spaces differently and he looks for lawns that have not been treated with pesticides.

Andrew Nisker, left, Harold Nisker, center, and his brother Bernie Nisker in 2008.
Andrew Nisker, left, Harold Nisker, center, and his brother Bernie Nisker in 2008. Photography: Courtesy of Andrew Nisker

Fueled by a quest for answers to what caused his father’s illness and death, Nisker produced a 2018 documentary film titled Ground War, exploring his father’s development of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Nisker’s ultimate determination that , despite the lack of clear evidence, pesticides were to blame for his death.

Nisker lives in Toronto with his wife and three sons, ages seven, nine and 18. During the making of the film, Nisker began to worry about what might be sprayed on the fields where his children play soccer and baseball.

“Before 2009, they treated these areas the same way they treated golf courses, which is pretty awful considering kids ride on playgrounds,” Nisker said.

In 2009, Ontario enacted a Cosmetic Pesticide Ban, prohibiting the sale and use of pesticides on lawns, gardens, parks and schoolyards.

“My kids don’t come home from playing football and say it was terrible there, there’s too much weed,” Nisker said. “They don’t care and neither should you.”

Michael C. Ford