Having a pretty lawn is great, but it can lead to some potentially serious health issues
Last year, the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center of Norton Children’s Hospital managed more than 1,100 calls concerning pesticides, which contain chemical products that are designed to kill weeds, insects and plant diseases. The most common pesticides pose minimal risk to humans when used appropriately, but too much exposure can be dangerous.
“Freshly treated and sprayed lawns may pose a danger to kids, pets and even adults, although the risk and symptoms will vary based on the type of product used, as well as when and how the individual was exposed,” said Ashley Webb, clinical toxicologist and director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center.
According to Webb, the most common exposure involves insecticides (bug killers). The main ingredients in these treatments — called pyrethroids — are designed to only affect the nervous systems of insects. However, children and pets can be affected if their skin comes in contact with the lawn while it is still wet. This is also true of DEET, a common insecticide used to repel ticks.
In most cases, reaction is limited to redness and itching. With more severe exposure, generally through ingestion, the nervous system can be affected, producing symptoms that range from twitching to possible seizures.
Here are some additional treatments to keep an eye on this summer:
- Other insecticides: Some contain chemicals called organophosphates and carbamates, which are easily absorbed through the skin. Exposure may cause symptoms such as small pupils, sweating, salivating, teary eyes, vomiting and diarrhea. More severe cases may lead to trouble breathing, slow heart rate and seizures.
- Herbicides (weed killers): The most commonly used herbicides in the U.S. are glyphosate and chlorphenoxy compounds. The most likely symptoms include skin irritation and mild rash, although nausea and vomiting may result from ingestion. Large exposures may cause muscle weakness to renal failure. Many weed killers additionally contain the chemical diquat. Large exposures pose a risk of nausea and vomiting and may lead to kidney damage.
- Fertilizers (lawn food): These treatments typically contain chemicals called nitrates and nitrites. Too much exposure can damage red blood cells. Early symptoms include a blue or dusky color to skin, especially around the mouth and fingers/toes. With more significant exposures, symptoms become more severe and range from headache to coma.
If you treat your lawn yourself, or if you hire a company to do so, it is important to know what pesticides are being applied. Webb has some other recommendations.
“It is important to keep these products up and away from children, as ingesting them can be fatal,” she said. “When applying the products, use protective equipment and do not stand downwind from the spray to avoid skin exposure and inhaling the product. Afterward, remove your clothing and wash it separately.”