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

<span>Photograph: Cappi Thompson/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Cappi Thompson/Getty Images

Harold Nisker spent roughly 50 years of his life playing golf in his Toronto suburb. He visited the course at his country club nearly every day, teeing up to play on the miles of pristine grass.

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

Nisker obtained records showing what kind of pesticides were used to treat the golf course where his father regularly played, finding among the chemicals listed an 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.

“My father was a health nut,” 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, on school grounds, in parks and backyard gardens. They are also used – often in large quantities – on golf courses. But many, such as 2,4-D, have been linked to human health problems, including cancers, and several researchers and public health advocates are increasingly questioning whether an idyllic golf green is worth the risk.

In October, the family of a former golf course groundskeeper who died of leukemia is scheduled to go to trial in Pennsylvania against some of the world’s largest pesticide companies, alleging exposure to the chemicals applied at the course caused his disease. A similar lawsuit was filed in September 2020 in California by Gary Lindeblad, who sprayed the weed killer Roundup for decades while working at golf clubs.

Recently, the US 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 $84bn industry have been shown to be harmful to human health and the environment. In the case of 2,4-D, for instance, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared the herbicide a possible human carcinogen, though the EPA says there is not sufficient data to classify it as such.

The push to remove pesticides from golf courses is part of a larger 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 an environmental justice issue. Black and brown neighborhoods are disproportionately sprayed with glyphosate, a 2020 report found.

“When we decide to use a pesticide, at every point in the chain of production, transport, disposal, it is having a disproportionate impact on people of color,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of the non-profit Beyond Pesticides, which advocates against pesticide use.

Last year, New York city banned the use of synthetic pesticides in city property, for instance, though the measure excluded golf courses. In June, the governor of Connecticut signed a bill that prohibits golf courses from using an insecticide called chlorpyrifos starting 1 January 2023.

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

But the moves to limit pesticides are drawing strong opposition. More than 350 organizations, including agricultural groups and golfing associations, sent a letter to Congress in opposition to the bill, which is called Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act. Among those opposing the bill: the Golf Course Superintendent Association of America and CropLife America, which represents pesticide manufacturers.

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

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

‘Like Botox for your lawn’

Flawless lawns on golf courses have been an industry standard in the US for over a century.

The sport of golf came to North America in the 1700s, with the first US golf club established in South Carolina in 1786. During the second world war, research into chemical warfare resulted in the development of synthetic pesticides. After seeing how effectively these chemicals killed insects and wiped out weeds, the golf industry incorporated many into their groundskeeping routine.

A 1991 report found that more than 50,000lb of pesticides were being used on golf courses then, almost four to seven times of what was used in agriculture on a pound per acre basis. The report was part of a New York attorney general examination of groundwater contamination from golf course pesticide use.

“It’s like Botox for your lawn,” Nisker said regarding the use of pesticide in golf courses. “They should embrace the natural habitat instead of bringing in vegetation that’s not local and requires more chemicals and water to keep it alive.”

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

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

Searching for answers

Nisker still plays golf, something he and his father used to share. But now he sees green spaces differently, and he seeks out lawns not treated with pesticides.

Fueled by a quest for answers to what caused his father’s illness and death, Nisker produced a 2018 documentary film called Ground War, exploring his father’s development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and Nisker’s ultimate determination that despite no clear proof, pesticides were to blame for his death.

Nisker lives in Toronto with his wife and their three sons, aged seven, nine and 18. In the course of making the film, Nisker started worrying what might be sprayed on fields where his children play soccer and baseball.

“Before 2009, they were treating those areas the same way they were treating golf courses, which is sort of horrifying considering that kids are rolling around on playing fields,” Nisker said.

In 2009, Ontario enacted a cosmetic pesticides ban, prohibiting the sale and use of pesticides on lawns, gardens, parks and schoolyards.

“My kids don’t come home after playing soccer and say it was terrible out there, that there’s too many weeds,” Nisker said. “They don’t care and neither should you.”