A note about the author: Audrey Tran Lam, MPH is the Environmental Health Program Manager at the Center for Energy & Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa.
There’s something about being in the public health field that makes you want to talk to everybody about smoking. Inevitably, I will have at least one conversation about smoking cessation campaigns with every new public health practitioner I meet (either that or cholera, but that’s another story for another time…). And why wouldn’t we love talking about smoking? It’s been one of our field’s greatest success stories!
Smoking was a bad cultural habit that permeated our society. You could smoke at work, on the bus, on an airplane -- in restaurants! -- and no one would bat an eye. It was seen as totally normal. Fast forward to 2019: if you lit up in a restaurant in Iowa today, people would look at you like you were crazy. You’d be asked to leave. Talk about doing a 180! Talk about progress.
In my last blog post for Iowa Farm to Early Care & Education, I wrote about the impact of pesticides on child development (spoiler, they’re not great). Lately, I’ve been thinking about the obsession we seem to have with lawns, and how this obsession drives our reliance on chemicals in lawn care. In late spring in Iowa, it’s hard to ignore the sounds of mowers and leaf-blowers on the weekends, and the sweet smell of cut grass...or of RoundUp.
We’ve been told for years that to be a good neighbor -- a good American, even -- you had to grow a beautiful lawn. “Beautiful” in this case, means full, lush, and green turf grass. Nevermind why (I’ve got to keep this blog post short, afterall), that’s just what we’ve been told. With this social context in place, I can admit that I feel like the delinquent neighbor on my street sometimes; I let my grass grow high and wait for the blooms of dandelions, violets, and clover to die back before giving my lawn the once-over with my reel mower (health tip: if you love exercising, but hate the gym, buy a reel mower).
Public health practitioners are trained to zoom out and see the bigger picture. We try to think about systems that impact health negatively, and ways we can intervene in these systems to affect positive change. In my experience, thinking about systems and cultural change necessitates finding historical analogies to current health issues; asking ourselves “how were similar issues in the past changed?” Can we use the case of smoking as an analogy to the urban pesticide issues we face?
This isn’t a trick question. Of course we can! Smoking was once seen as totally normal. Public policy banning smoking in public places lagged behind the science which told us that smoking was bad for our health and the health of our children. The research was clear, and was screaming for the public to change their ways. But it’s tough to listen to scientists, doctors, and surgeon generals who tell you to quit doing something you’ve been told is safe by nearly everyone else.
The analogy is nearly perfect. The body of evidence on common lawn chemicals is clear--they’re harmful (and unnecessary!), especially to children, urban water quality, and pollinator habitat. And, just like with smoking, public policy is lagging behind the evidence. Now that we know how the story of smoking went, we can write the same ending for lawn pesticides. We don’t have to wait for the surgeon general to speak up, or for laws to be passed restricting herbicide use in public spaces. We know better. So let’s do better.
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Audrey Tran Lam, MPH
Environmental Health Program Manager
Center for Energy & Environmental Education
University of Northern Iowa