The Not So Merry Month of May... Pesticide Poisoning at the Needham Public Library

Editor`s Note: This month`s newsletter was supposed to focus on organic lawn care. Instead the following multi-part story ensued which in all my training in writing short story fiction, plays, novels, I could not have invented. Unfortunately it is not a pretty story and speaks of this toxic addiction that has taken over middle class suburban America…. It is also a story of the rich and super rich, the epidemic that is pesticide ridden landscaping that has taken over and destroying our health, our water and our planet!



 Ahhhh Needham.....For those of you who are unfamiliar with my natal village, we are celebrating our 300th year of New England quaintness with steepled churches, including a Unitarian that dates to revolutionary pewter and stark whiteness.  Modern Needham is brick public buildings including the recently refurbished public library.  N.C. Wyeth, talented 19th century illustrator of Civil Wars and 'Indian raids' was born and raised in Needham. He is scion to the Wyeth legacy, Andrew and Jamie.  Our library's front parlor houses numerous original N.C. Wyeth oil paintings, always wondering about value and adequate insurance.



Three Saturday’s ago (May 15th), I was at the Needham Public Library putting in hours at the computer terminal.  Cameron and I were adding the finishing touches on The Maine Report, 60 pages of studies on the dangers of children’s health from pesticide exposures. It was sent to the Maine Legislature to support a bill restricting the use of pesticides on Maine school properties.  Ironically, we were at the library rather than doing planned yard work because one of my neighbors was blasting his cherry tree with pesticides.  Most homeowners think that a little is good so a lot is better, which is certainly not true. 

 Over the years, I have suffered pesticide poisoning numerous times with headaches, chemical pneumonias, a heart rate so rapid I can’t lie down, shooting pains in the heart, wheezing, intense coughing, loss of muscle coordination, shaking from nerve damage and vast damage to my endocrine and reproductive systems.  I am now considered chemically injured, one who suffers from environmental sensitivities; a benign term for such a debilitating condition. 

My pesticide poisonings have their origins in my twenty plus years as a resident of Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, where a disreputable property management company, Stone Property Management contracted with ChemLawn, then Turf Pro, to apply a chemical soup of pesticides and herbicides on all 30 condo complexes, hotels and private homes in town.  Effectively the entire community was sprayed and pelletized with embedded herbicides four to six times a summer for more than twenty years.  In turn, each company used 2,4-D, glyphosate, pendamethalin, MCPP, MCPA, cloropyrifos, triclopyr, dicamba, Dursban  for a period of approximately twenty years.  As a condo resident, I had no legal recourse to get them to stop until we brought a town-wide non-binding referendum and the threat of a lot of negative publicity.  I used to come down to Needham to visit my mom in the summers until the pesticide spraying there became unbearable as well.   

So after that first week, I was a couch zombie with blurry vision that I am still experiencing, total exhaustion and a hacking cough so severe, Cameron was really concerned.  I wanted to visit an emergency room or doctor in town, however most doctors' offices are housed in buildings that spray herbicides for the "perfect lawn"; the same applies to most hospitals!

Eventually, I packed the car to go back to Waterville after holding my breath each time I went out to the car to load it up while covering my face with a scarf to avoid breathing in more of Needham's ever present pesticides... 

But first, I called Stone Property Management in Waterville to make sure they were abiding by the town voluntary ordinance of no pesticides and to tell them how sick I was and how important it was that I not be near any pesticides. Actually I called them three times. For those of you who have never been to Waterville Valley, it is a company town, one company owns it, another manages almost all the properties.  Sean Stone, his co-working wife Courtney and dad Bill Stone run a virtual mafia of property management. I called the first two and their ground crew boss, Will, on three separate occasions to guarantee that they were living up to their promise... all three guaranteed me that they absolutely wouldn't be spraying any pesticides in Waterville Valley and they would be organic just like last year. 

What was really happening, according to the applicator Dan Harris of Real Green Organic lawn care who felt uncomfortable spraying pesticides in the face of this agreement, was negligent subterfuge and collusion between Stone Property Management, Dan and the NH State Pesticide Control Division. The Division was called by the applicator to make sure they could break the good faith agreement they had with me and the town of Waterville Valley without warning.

At Town Meeting, we had twice voted in a non-binding referendum to ban the use of chemical synthetic pesticides. Dan Harris of Real Green Organic Lawn Care knew about voluntary law, so did Stone and so did the New Hampshire Pesticide Control Division: the latter effectively gave permission to spray a round of 2,4-D, dicamba, tricopyr and MCPA, MCPP all over town. And all of them know how sick I get when these products are used; my file is two inches thick in their office, I have given hours of testimony in front of the Agriculture and Environment Committee when all are present and I have spoken numerous times at condo meetings, written letters and editorials in our local paper…

Our policy in Waterville, calling for a ban on synthetic chemical lawn pesticides, is a good faith agreement; unfortunately, it cannot be binding because there is a state RSA, similar to other RSAs across New England, that prevents any municipality in New Hampshire from creating pesticide legislation stronger than the state statutes. This law was heavily lobbied into state law books in 42 states by the pesticide lobby in the early nineties after the famous Supreme Court case in Canada that upheld the town ban of lawn pesticides in Hudson, Quebec. 

Hudson is a wealthy community like a Needham or Dover or Wellesley and has lots of very green lawns. It is a 30 minute drive from Montreal, the only big difference is that Robby Ftorek former Bruins phenom and coach lived in Needham and a bunch of Montreal Canadians live in Hudson.  The only REAL difference is that Hudson has a fabulous protective measure in hand to protect children, humans, pets and water from cancer causing substances: a BAN on cosmetic lawn pesticides.

Friends in Quebec look at me like I come from barbarian land when I tell them how much pest/herbicide spraying goes on in the suburban America—every third house contracts with a ChemLawn, TruGreen or Scott's, the others often buy excessive ammounts of do-it-yourself pesticides and then there are the 'tree protectors' who spray toxic pesticides that alter the plants' hormones and destroy bees and send toxic chemical drift all over neighborhoods in suburban and even 'rural' America. 

Let's not forget the pest/herbicide applications at strip malls, doctor's offices, maternity clothing stores, holistic dentist offices, libraries, school playing fields, The White Mountain National Forest, urban parks, hospital grounds, along highways, under power lines, at the post office and of course, AGRICULTURE.  I have personally witnessed pesticides applied in all of these places and of course the private homes of suburban America—some of the gated communities even force people to sign contracts with chemical lawn care companies.  And did I mention my favorite, the conservationists who applaud the use of what they assume to be a non-toxic Roundup on invasive species.  Sure it kills the invasive species, but it kills the ecosystem as well—birds, insects, plants, never mind what it does to water quality and human health.  





So…on Saturday, May 15th I left the library at 5:00 and I could smell pesticides in the air while I observed a man engaged in what one could call “power-washing” the lawn with a pale milky white liquid.  In not the most proper English, I asked him what he was spraying and he flippantly answered, “Fertilizer.”  Running for the car I read Cambridge Pesticide Company on the truck door.  Called the company, surprisingly received a reasonably truthful answer after only a couple of evasive answers like “crabgrass with weed control”.  Upon further questioning: product names Dimension and Confront were divulged.  Troubling response: he didn`t know the active ingredient in Dimension (it's dithiopyr), but admitted, Confont contains clopyralid and triclopyr. 

Cameron and I researched clopyralid: it is banned for residential use in every state and is banned for all use except on golf courses in the states of Washington, Oregon, California and New York.  Chip Osborne of Osborne Organics, the nation’s premier organic turf management expert and a board member of Beyond Pesticidesaired these concerns: a) if this product is not legal to spray on the above mentioned properties, why are we applying it in an area where children congregate, b) No warning was put out per legal requirements and c) poor practice of applying this product when rain was forecast for the entire week.  Clopyralid is highly water soluble and persistent in the soil, holding its form in water, yet not degrading through sunlight or hydrolysis. By Dow AgroSciences own admission, it persists in soil for more than one year. 

Symptoms of acute poisoning include diarrhea, lethargy, and severe eye damage.  Let’s just say since Saturday, I have experienced most of these.  I have been suffering with what is often termed a chemical pneumonia, let's just call it the herbicide wheeze which is emitted from my chest like a half groaning wheezing laugh.  Sometimes it racks pain through my chest and I cough up for hours at a time... To quote my Canadian friends... pleasant...EH?

According to an EPA review, laboratory tests have demonstrated that exposure to clopyralid results in “substantial” toxicity to fetuses.  Studies addressed in this review show clopyralid can, in early development, cause skeletal abnormalities and even hydrocephaly, the swelling of the brain cavity leading to a diminished brain size and an increase in skull size.  Long term studies have shown detrimental effects to the blood, brain, stomach, liver, and body weight at even some of the lowest studied doses. 

The “inert” ingredients in Confront include triethylamine, shown to cause chemical pneumonia and digestive tract irritation.  Clopyralid is damaging to compost; it does not easily break down, and 10 parts per billion is enough to damage plants like tomatoes and potatoes.  In lab test, the active ingredient in Dimension causes liver enlargement and is slightly mutagenic.  Triclopyr has also been shown to effect fetal development and reproductive health.  Also, all three have been shown to be highly toxic to certain types of fish and with the proximity of Rosemary Lake and the forecast of a week of rain, this issue is of particular concern to water quality as well.  

 The MA Pesticide Control Division eventually rolled into action about four days after I called them, missing the opportunity to investigate the site of application and the failure to place warning flags.  Luckily, I filmed the entire site, sans flag, on Monday morning, with little toddlers in pink and red outfits sauntering into the library. I was practically in tears as I saw these little kids being exposed to such dangerous toxins without any warning. 

Massachusetts has passed an Integrated Pest Management law and, flawed as it is, states that pesticides cannot be the first option at schools in the Commonwealth.  Needham has implemented an organic program on 75% of its school playing fields. While no sprayed herbicides or pesticides are used, we do use synthetic fertilizer on the remaining 25%.  

We all know that children, from toddlers to high school students, use public libraries for a variety of reasons.  When I talked to the head of the library, she was shocked that these chemicals were being used on the library grounds.  When I drove past 15 minutes later, I saw a young woman sitting on the bench right next to the grass where they sprayed and was very concerned for her health.  Do we really want to expose our children and ourselves to these toxics?   To me this is not acceptable. 

I called the Board of Health, who directed me to the Needham facilities manager, Chip Laffey.  He promised me, “This company will not be spraying at the library again—not on my watch.”  But Needham needs more than that that.  All towns need to do more than that.

Towns need to train facilities managers who have undergone the NOFA five-day intensive organic lawn course or at least Grass Roots Environmental Education`s one or two day course to manage all our schools, day cares, senior centers, town playgrounds, municipal parks and our town greens. 

Honest organic lawn care includes ABSOLUTELY NO synthetic chemical herbicides or pesticides! It also means improving the soil quality with effective microorganisms, compost tea, aeration, over-seeding with a slow growth grass. It also includes cultural practices like adjusting cutting heights to three inches, minimal watering, and no pesticide laden mulches or planting ground covers instead. 

Three weeks out and my symptoms still persist. I have this omnipresent somewhat wheezy, sexy pesticide cough... And when it really gets going my ribs and back muscles hurt like hell.  I am doing a pesticide detox in Canada, one of many I have had to do over the years.  People look at me when the hacking gets going and when I explain what has happened their mouths drop open.  “You mean you still use pesticide down there,” my friend Lucie exclaimed, “I thought Americans were so much more advanced than we are,” Sadly, we are not...

My lawyer is still making a valiant effort daily to reach the Stone Property Management Companyin New Hampshire to help them make better decisions than being on the receiving end of a lawsuit. The town manager and the selectmen in Waterville have been very helpful in setting up a best practices lawn care manual that I will write, although Stone Property Management still refuses to go organic, even though I have asked them four times. My dreams of converting my condo garden into a permaculture community-wide project on how to go from toxic spraying to organic permaculture cultivating food is on permanent hold. I am formulating a plan to get into my condo to pack it up, so I can sell it if they start spraying again.  I am wondering how I can fix up my mom's old place as a rental property in the dream that Needham residents and homeowners will see the light...

 My work, university academic pursuits and life are all on hold, yet I am healthier and healthier each day up here now that I am away from the incessant spray of the deadly toxins that has ambushed the American people.  OH CANADA! Thank You for your common sense laws protecting your citizenry from cancer causing lawn herbicides and pesticides.

Here's to a much healthier June and if you just tell one person about the dangers of lawn herb/pesticides and how we can follow the example of our neighbors to the North, and stop using cosmetic lawn herbicides then it will be a better June for all of us!


Ellen Fine
The LEAH Collective
The LEAH Advocacy Group




The LEAH Advocacy Group, with its sister organization, the LEAH Collective, educates on the dangers of pesticides and herbicides and on the benefits of organics and permaculture.  For more information on our reports, The Health Children Report (NH) and The Maine Report, please see our website,