Diag safe from unfriendly fertilizers and pesticides

Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 27, 2004

Students lounging or playing on the Diag’s lush green
grass may wonder whether herbicides and pesticides used on
University grounds expose them to health risks. A team of
University groundskeepers said students will not experience harmful
effects from lawn chemicals.

Although chemicals are used to maintain grass, plants and trees
at the University, precautions are in place to protect students and
the environment, said Grounds and Waste Management Director John
Lawter. He said non chemical methods of caring for plants and trees
are also emphasized.

Safety precautions include placing flags around recently treated
areas, posting groundskeeping personnel to redirect foot traffic
and using only highly diluted forms of all chemicals.
Groundskeeping chemicals are applied as early as 2 a.m. and often
on weekends to have time to dry before students and area residents
use University grounds.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, prolonged
exposure to pesticides can cause birth defects, nerve damage or
cancer. However, Lawter explained that most health risks require
exposure to concentrated forms rather than to the diluted spray
used by the University. Also, the chemicals are generally not
harmful when dry.

“We fully understand the hazards associated with these
chemicals. It’s not something to take lightly,” he
said. “Sometimes we’re forced to use things like
fertilizer (and pesticides), and we go about it in the least
harmful way possible.”

Rob Doletsky, who supervises the University’s turf crew,
said chemicals are used primarily to control noxious weeds like
poison ivy, ragweed and purple nightshade, which all can cause skin
irritation or illness if students touch or eat them.

“We had a real rash —no pun intended — of
poison ivy on the Diag (this year), coming right up through the
grass,” he said. “We try to get rid of that.”
Poison ivy regularly sprouts on the Diag, he added, usually spread
by crows that eat and distribute the plant’s seeds.

Pesticides and fertilizers are applied about once a year. To
minimize chemical use, Doletsky said, grass is maintained by
watering, aeration and mowing at the proper height.

Pest-resistant plants and trees are also usually chosen for
University grounds, Diag horticulturist Alex Salzer added. The
plants are spaced so that disease and pest outbreaks don’t
spread easily from plant to plant.

The University is currently experimenting with organic
fertilizers, such as a soybean fertilizer now used around all
University child-care facilities.

“It’s grown locally — you can eat it,”
Doletsky said. “We are always looking for alternatives that
are 100 percent organic.”

Some University students and faculty suggested additional
efforts that could improve groundskeeping methods at the

Carolyn Hwang, chair of the student activism group Public
Interest Research Group in Michigan, said information about
pesticides and herbicides should be made more readily available to
the public.

“If they had the information online, it would be great
because most people who use the Diag aren’t going to take the
time to look up what pesticides are used on the Diag,” she

Nichols Arboretum and Matthaei Botanical Garden Director Bob
Grese said although current University grounds management practices
are responsible, he would like to see more native plants on
University grounds.

“You reduce the need for controlling insect pests and
diseases by using plants that are adapted to soil
conditions,” he said.

SNRE Prof. Jim Diana explained that pesticides are most harmful
when they enter waterways and affect aquatic wildlife.

“Pesticides have improved a lot over the last 20 years
… but they still have those effects,” he said.

By replacing grass with native plants, especially on North
Campus, Diana said the University could further reduce pesticide
use. However, he said some grass cover will always be necessary for
student and public use on campus.

“(Grounds management) certainly has a big
challenge,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of people
on little bit of land, and that doesn’t make it easy to


Turf Talk

The University says it takes many precautions when using plant
chemicals on the Diag.

All products used on the Diag can be purchased at local

Only licensed staffers apply products.

Flower beds, trees and turf are specifically selected to be
resistent to pests and insects in order to reduce the need for