Photo credit: russelljsmith / CC BY 2.0

Getting enough exercise is vital for childrens' health. But kids at play may be exposed to a host of herbicides sprayed on lawns and sports fields. Even outdoors, chemicals can linger for many days before they are broken down by weather and sunlight. So regular spraying combined with a busy schedule of games and practices means children and chemicals will mix. Kids on playing fields are most likely to get pesticides on their hands, shoes and clothes. These residues are then tracked home, where they can circulate throughout the indoor environment. Sheltered from weather and sunlight, they are likely to linger for much longer periods—possibly many months. 

No sport played on a sprayed field is likely to be exposure-free. Tackle sports like football obviously bring kids in steady contact with grass and dirt. But even noncontact sports like soccer result in kids' rolling around on the ground. And golf courses are notoriously pesticide intensive.

Pesticides and herbicides are by their nature poisons. Users are advised to heed the warnings on labels, as many commonly used lawn chemicals can trigger allergic reactions and asthma. Some widely used herbicides, such as 2,4-D, are acutely toxic to humans at low doses, increasing one's risk of cancer, reproductive and developmental harm and neurological disorders. 2,4-D is often blended with fertilizer in "weed and feed" products; as a result, it may be applied even when weeds aren't a problem. It is of such concern that groups including NRDC are urging that it be banned. Children, of course, are especially vulnerable to pesticides. As NRDC senior policy specialist Jonathan Kaplan points out, "The growing body is full of exquisitely delicate biological processes that are susceptible to disruption."

The good news is that not all pesticides are equally toxic, and switching from high-risk chemicals like 2,4-D to safer products is an obvious way to reduce risk. Even better is to abandon chemical sprays altogether. Building up a healthy lawn through good nutrient management and soil care can keep weeds at bay without harmful chemicals. Or you can just let weeds join the game. "A few weeds on an athletic field aren't going to hurt your kids. Mow the weeds and let the kids play," advises Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at NRDC.

What you can do

  • To reduce your family's exposure to herbicides used on playing fields, have your children take off their shoes before entering the house after playing, and make sure they always wash hands before eating. Ask them to remove athletic clothes promptly, and wash them separately from other loads. 
  • Avoid "weed and feed" products. They may contain 2,4-D, a highly toxic herbicide. Buy fertilizers without herbicides added.
  • Learn more about pesticides and how to manage lawns without chemicals at Beyond Pesticides. Consult the Pesticide Action Network for information about safe lawn care. Armed with this knowledge, send a letter to school or city officials and ask them to switch to less toxic pesticides or to implement an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program.
  • Work with your local school system, parks department, or other city agency to manage playing fields without toxic chemicals. Follow the City of San Francisco's example in creating an effective IIPM program. Help get your playing fields certified for IPM. Build up the field's natural defense system against weeds. Don't over-mow, watch soil compaction and balance nutrients. 

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