Pesticide Issues are Like Embers in Dry Tender

Death of longtime golf course worker results in lawsuit targeting the industry
by Ron Hall/Editor-in-Chief
5/19/2014

Let's view the issue of pesticide use on homeowners' lawns in a similiar light as a smoldering ember on a California hillside. Yes, I could be stretching an analogy, but not by much. If conditions are right (in the case of the wildfire, dry vegetation and a warm breeze; in the case of a pesticide a misapplication or an allegation of a chemically induced illness) then the single spark bursts into full flame with enormous consequences.

It can spread into a raging wildfire of negative publicity and, ultimately, ill-considered regulations.

Think not?

A matter that at the time seemed hardly more than a local issue to some in the green industry in 1991, the small Quebec community of Hudson banning pesticide use has since changed the entire green industry in Canada. The action by that tiny island suburb of Montreal, backed by court decisions, has since spawned resistrictions on lawn pesticide use in provinces and towns from the Atlantic Maritimes to the Pacific Coast.

The issue of lawn care pesticide use will not go away. It may never go away. It may lay dormant for a while, but, ignited by even the smallest of sparks of negative publicity, it can erupt into a fierce blaze.

Small spark?

Consider the following news report. On Friday, May 16, foxnews.com reported that a Pittsburgh sportscaster Rich Walsh had filed a suit against at least five major pesticide manufacturers as well as John Deere Landscapes, alleging that the chemical products that the companies sold caused his father's cancer and led to his death in February 2009. Walsh said his father worked on Pittsburgh-area golf courses for 38 years, and had kept log books where he recorded every pesticide he had ever used during that time.

The article on foxnews.com is available here. Statements from the chemical manufacturers refuting Walsh's allegations can be viewed at www.wtae.com.

Whether his action becomes more than a passing local news story or whether it erupts into a full-blown media event reminiscent of previous media circuses involving turf pesticides remains to be seen. My best guess is that it won't. It doesn't seem to carry the same "wow" news factor of previous pesticide controversies.

For example, the death in August 1982 of Navy Lt. George Prior received intense news coverage. Prior, a 30-year-old Navy flight officer developed a rash on his back and began suffering flu-like symptoms soon after playing several rounds of golf at the Army Navy Country Club just outside of Washington, D.C. Prior checked himself into Bethesda Naval Hospital and soon thereafter slipped into a coma and died.

A Navy forensic pathologist ruled that Prior died as a result of a severe allergic reaction to the fungicide Daconil that had been sprayed on the golf course where he had played golf. If I recall the controversy correctly, Prior, while he was ill, had made the comment he recalled licking his fingers several times after retreiving his golf ball the day he played the country club course. His widow sued the company that manufactured the fungicide.

But that was hardly the most sensational claim that has been made against pesticide use on turfgrass.

That unfolded in 1984 when a 23-year-old employee of a lawn care company claimed that the effects of exposure to pesticides were responsible for him bludgeoning to death one of his customers at her home. The attorney for David Garabedian claimed that exposure to the lawn care chemicals caused his client to suffer from a bout of temporary insanity resulting in the killing.

The trial received national television and print media coverage. In the end, a jury convicted Garabedian in the woman's death.

Read a fuller account of this strange incident in the May issue of Turf magazine, which is now online at www.turfmagazine.com. The account is written by former green industry editor Jerry Roche who covered the trial in 1984. Here is Roche's article online. After accessing the story online scroll down to read the sidebar "A Most Bizarre Anti-Industry Claim."