Could the Golf Course Green be Poisoning You and Your Child?

The Woodlands Country Club (2018)

A house that sits on a golf course has long been the suburban Eden coveted by homeowners. Even people who are not avid golfers find themselves attracted to the country club lifestyle that includes access to golf courses, pools, and social networking. This desire is often reflected in the housing market where prices can vary drastically depending on proximity to the course. For example, in central Dallas, homes near Dallas Country Club, Brook Hollow, Royal Oaks, and Lakewood Country Club routinely sell for over $2 million while the median home value in Dallas is a mere $178,600 (“Golf Course Living,” 2017).

The most referenced downside of golf course living is broken windows from golfers’ poorly aimed shots; however, a new concern arose in the early 1990s when the New York attorney general’s office enlightened the public on the toxicity of golf course maintenance. Two “Toxic Fairways” studies revealed that golf course superintendents are subject to higher mortality rates from specific cancers (Attorney General of New York, 1995). Although course superintendents are exposed to higher levels of chemicals than the average person as an occupational hazard, concerns about pesticide drift affecting nearby residents, particularly children whose developing brains and bodies are extremely susceptible to chemical toxicity, has inspired environmental and health advocacy groups to push for limited pesticide use on courses.

The research linking residential proximity to agricultural sites and carcinogenic, endocrine, and reproductive effects due to chemical exposure is abundant(Semchuk, Wesseling, Eskenazi). However, “Toxic Fairways” calculated that golf courses applied about 50,000 pounds of pesticides in one year, which can be anywhere from four to seven times more than the average amount utilized in agriculture on a pound/acre basis (Feldman).

So, why are people still seeking homes near the eighteenth hole?

What Chemicals?

Pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides are all used to maintain the idyllic, cosmetic appeal of lush greens on golf courses. In these areas, natural grass variants are rarely the most visually appealing, and often these chemicals are applied preventively rather than in response to a specific concern. Not only does this result in excess chemical application which can leach into ground and surface water, but it can also encourage pest and weed tolerance, thereby necessitating greater chemical use.

Whenever people hear “pesticide” today, most immediately recall DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) being dumped on farmland by the gallon from personal planes to bathe crops in the most powerful insecticide known to man. By 1972, the EPA issued a cancellation order for DDT due to its toxic effects on human health and the environment (2,4 D, 2016). However, the replacements of DDT might be equally concerning.

2,4-D (2018) Agent Orange

2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (or 2,4-D) used to be combined with 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,3,5-T) to create Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide and defoliant that is now banned for its toxicity. However, 2,4-D is still in use.

It functions by spurring incessant division of the cells that transport water and nutrients in a plant, thus inducing a cancer-like process that slowly kills the pesky weed (2, 4 D, 2016).

If it intentionally induces a cancer-like process in plants, what does 2,4-D do to humans?

Some claim that studies on 2,4-D predict no “significant endocrine-related toxicity or functional decrements in any species at any environmentally relevant concentrations, or in mammals, at doses below the TSRC that are relevant for human hazard and risk assessment” (Coady et. al., 2014). An extension of this review concludes that 2,4-D lacks the potential to “interact in vitro with the estrogen, androgen, or streoidogenesis pathways”. It might be relevant to note that two (Marty and Coady) of the seven authors are listed as employees of “Toxicology & Environmental Research and Consulting, The Dow Chemical Company” who developed 2,4 D in the 1940s and continues to produce it today. The remaining authors for both documents are listed under scientific consulting company, Exponent ® (Neal, et. al., 2017).


Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide used extensively in the agricultural industry, as well as on golf courses, green houses, and as mosquito adulticide.

The EPA identifies chlorpyrifos as inhibitive, that in high enough doses, it can “overstimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, confusion” — Environmental Protection Agency, 2017.

In 2015, the Obama administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy for the use of chlorpyrifos on food, a policy that has been reversed under Pruitt’s leadership (Ashbrook, 2018). However, Pruitt’s EPA has denied petitions to entirely ban chlorpyrifos pesticides, instead opting for “no-spray buffer zones” around public spaces, recreational areas, and homes. Buffer zones are definitely a step in the right direction towards protecting citizens from unwarranted pesticide exposure. Yet, in states like California, the “buffer zone” is a mere 0.4 km (0.25 miles) (Gunier, 2017). This low bar is problematic because this study measured chlorpyrifos in household dust 0.604 km (0.375 miles) away from the application site (Deziel, 2017).

Roundup ® and Glyphosate

AmazonUK (2017). Roundup Fast Action Weedkiller Spray

Roundup ® is a popular herbicide that can be found at Walmart, Target, Lowes, and Home Depot. Roundup ® is a glyphosate-based, non-selective herbicide, meaning it kills most plants on which it is applied. The studies on glyphosate herbicides have found similar effects to those of 2,4 D such as negative impacts of sperm motility, oxidative stress, and endocrine disruption (Anifandis et. al., 2017; Cattani et. al., 2017; Gasnier, 2009). Furthermore, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization, found glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic.” Their report observed that exposure to glyphosate caused cancer in lab tests on animals, as well as damaged DNA in human cells.

In 2016, Yolanda Mendoza and 30 others sued or were planning to sue Monsanto, the agricultural conglomerate that discovered Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, for its carcinogenic effects (CBS News, 2016). However, the United States EPA claims that glyphosate does not pose carcinogenic risk to humans.

Who is at Risk?

These chemicals affect everyone, regardless of occupation, diet, or socioeconomic status. How it affects us is largely based on level of exposure and age of exposure; a cohort that is extremely susceptible to the dangers of pesticides is pregnant women and their children. While the research assessing the impacts of pesticide exposure on men and residents near agricultural areas is relatively well versed, the research covering the impacts on pregnant women and fetal development, as well as that of golf course residents, is scarce.

Two experiments observed a correlation between 2,4 D exposure and low semen fertility in males (Tan, 2016; Swan et. al., 2003). Another experiment that exposed pregnant mice to low doses of a 2,4 D based herbicide saw significant reductions in live births (Cavieres et. al., 2002).

Additionally, exposure to 2,4 D is associated with inducing oxidative stress which limits the body’s ability to detoxify and contributes to the development of pathological conditions and diseases, such as cancer, neurological disorders, hypertension, etc (Birben, 2012). This effect has been observed in several studies on pre- and postnatal exposed rats (Pochettino, 2013; Troudi, 2012).

Historically, it was believed that the placental barrier filtered out toxins and chemicals inhaled or ingested by a pregnant woman before reaching the developing fetus. However, recent evidence suggests, organochlorine pesticides, like 2,4 D, are able to cross the placental barrier and reach a balanced state between the mother and the developing fetus (Waliszewski, 2000).

In regards to Chlorpyrifos, an assessment of 254 children measured significant levels of chlorpyrifos in maternal blood and found higher levels to be associated with delays in psychomotor, mental, attention, and pervasive development (Rauh, 2006). A study in New York concluded a highly significant correlation between low birth weight and length, and cord plasma rates of diazinon and chlorpyrifos in newborns (Wyatt, 2004).

Repetitive, daily exposure to organophosphates, including Chlorpyrifos, have had negative impacts on the female reproductive system, namely lower fertility, spontaneous abortion and stillbirths, and developmental defects (Bretveld, 2006). Thus, the American Academy of Pediatrics defines the risk to infant and children’s health and development from exposure to Chlorpyrifos as “unambiguous” (Cama, 2017).

Dr. Kongtip (2017) Glyphosate and Paraquat Discovered in Maternal and Fetal Blood Serum in Thai Women

Furthermore, glyphosate is also seen to have endocrine-disruptive potential, even at exposure levels considered to be nontoxic. Glyphosate-based herbicides damage DNA and have carcinogenic, mutagenic, and reprotoxic effects on human cells and in vivo (Gasnier, 2009). Experiments conducted to assess the effects of Roundup on human embryonic and placental cells illustrated that a dose of Roundup ® as small as 0.01% resulted in a reduction of 19% of estrogen production, a necessary process for normal fetal development (Benachour, 2007).

Though these studies might sound banal or overtly-scientific, they make evident that there is no shortage of literature illuminating the correlation between exposure to these chemicals and adverse developmental impacts. While many of the observed effects were from experiments on lab rats, it would be shortsighted and egocentric to conclude that chemicals capable of inducing significant developmental delays in rat fetuses would have no impact on humans.

How Are We Exposed?

One of the most common routes of exposure to these toxic chemicals is a process known as pesticide drift. Drift can occur during or after application, whereby pesticide particles and/or vapors become airborne and leave the application site, landing on a non-target surface. These surfaces include exterior walls, outdoor furniture, doors, windows, and residential lawns that citizens continually come into contact with and track inside the home.

USGA (2016) Turf Grass Fertilization

To illustrate, household dust was measured to contain amounts of chlorpyrifos over half of a kilometer away from the application site in agricultural areas as a result of pesticide drift. This dust builds up on interior surfaces such as furnitures, fans, and toys, resulting in chronic low-dose exposure which can be potentially neurotoxic to a developing fetus or infant if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed via the skin by the mother (Deziel, 2017). As stated previously, golf course chemical application can be greater than those of agricultural sites (Feldman). Additionally, golf course homes tend to be located less than 100 yards away from the application site, further increasing potential for constant exposure. Therefore, whether it is small scale residential application or industrial use, pesticide drift can occur, transporting the chemicals far from their intended areas.

One of the ways these chemicals invades the home is a process that Deziel refers to as the “Para-Occupational Pathway”. After a golf course is sprayed with pesticides, golfers can accumulate residue on their clothing and skin, which can be absorbed by the body and/or transferred into the home. Healthy adults engaging in 30 minutes of exercise on chlorpyrifos treated turf absorbed 1.1 µg (+/− 0.5/kg/day), which is, technically, a small amount (Bernard, 2001). However, studies on dermal absorption of chlorpyrifos found that the body did not remove the chemical within 120 hours, suggesting that it is retained by the skin and accumulates in the body (Meuling, 2005). This absorption and retention is detrimental to fetal development because these chemicals are known to bypass the placental barrier.

Examples of Good Practice

BeyondPesticides offers a list of methods to maintain turf in ways that can discourage weeds and fungal disease, lowering the need for herbicide and fungicide application. Testing the pH levels of the soil, mowing above 1.75 inches, and making sure that turf is not too compacted but properly aerated are among the first suggestions to keep weeds at bay. An alternative to adding excess chemical fertilizers is compost, which acts as a soil conditioner by adding organic nutrients to the soil, or fertilizers that are certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute (Feldman).

Vineyard Golf Club (2018) Additional Golf Course Photos

The Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Massachusetts utilizes these composted fertilizers and does not adhere to the tradition of unnaturally picturesque landscaping. Instead, the environmentally sensitive landscape blends naturally with the surrounding topography (“Vineyard Golf,” 2017).

In this Arcadia, all 18 holes are maintained without a single synthetic pesticide, herbicide, fertilizer, or other artificial chemical, making Vineyard Golf Club one of the only 100% organic golf courses in America.

Though it requires extensive research and investment into the climate and soil quality, golf courses across the country should be held to this standard whereby members and neighbors are not unduly exposed to leaching chemicals. Golf club members, country club members, and nearby residents should use their influence as a consumer to demand courses adopt non-toxic methods of maintenance. The benefits to human health and the environment are too vast to be rejected in favor of artificial greens.

Because residents cannot simply move their home farther away from the course to increase the buffer zone, individuals living on golf courses with habits of heavy chemical use can reduce exposure by planting tall hedges along their fence lines to act like a shield against chemical drift. Hedges help prevent pesticides from accumulating on exterior surfaces of the house and patio. Though they cannot entirely mitigate all chemical residue incurred from drift, hedges and physical barriers can help decrease the amounts drastically. During spray hours, nearby residents should be sure to close all windows and turn off heating and cooling vents to limit the infiltration of freshly sprayed chemicals into the home (Umbra, 2016).

Additionally, a ‘no shoes’ policy in the house vastly lowers the amount of chemicals that are tracked into the house. This is especially important for households with young children who spend much, if not all, of their time crawling on the floor where they can come into contact with residues that can remain in carpeting and on floor surfaces for years. Likewise, removing clothing that has come into contact with treated turf can help prevent residual accumulation on household surfaces (Seaman, 2010).

Concluding Thoughts

The evidence linking low-dose, long-term gestational exposure to pesticides, as an effect of residential location, and neurodevelopment disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorders, low IQ, birth defects, and developmental delays are abundant and overwhelming (Shelton, 2014; Rappazzo, 2016). In spite of the research suggesting adverse impacts on maternal and child health, the continued use of these chemicals is permitted, reflecting an important characteristic in American society and government.

Rather than the precautionary approach implemented by countries like Germany and Denmark, where products are required to be proven safe before approval, the United States uses an evidence-based approach. With this reasoning, products can remain on the market, even if exposure is likely to pose a threat to human health. Until it a direct, causal link can be determined between a chemical and negative consequences for human health, citizens are continually and unknowingly exposed to toxic chemicals.

It would be easy to assume that green spaces are natural and healthy, however, the use of organochlorines and organophosphates on golf courses poses a serious threat to the health of a pregnant mother and her child. The majority of studies and legislation addressing pesticide use and exposure overlook golf course and recreational areas, instead focusing on agricultural and industrial use. Yet, I argue that the use density of and unfiltered exposure to golf course pesticides warrants further attention. Furthermore, the vulnerability and high risk of pregnant mothers and their developing child deserve more protection from these toxins that have an array of known and unknown adverse effects. Until the mentality adopted at Vineyard Golf Course is more widely implemented in American golf courses, the best way for individuals to reduce exposure is to protect their skin from dermal exposure and protect their residential interiors and exteriors from unnecessary residual chemical accumulation.

The problem facing Americans today is the lack of knowledge regarding the potential effects that exposure to these chemicals can have. As mentioned before, previously it was thought that the placenta filtered out toxins before delivering nutrients to the growing fetus, and many people still believe this is the case. The best solution to the epidemic of unwarranted chemical exposure is increased knowledge and awareness of the associated impacts of long-term, low dose contact with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on human health and fetal development. In addition, it is imperative to push politicians, authorities, and corporations to increase regulations of these chemicals until it is scientifically proven that they do not cause harm to human health and development. If chemicals continue to be utilized and introduced without cautious regulation, we could unknowingly create the fateful calamity of the human species.

“What if the greatest chemical disaster of our time didn’t involve oil spills or nuclear meltdowns? Instead, it was much lower levels of exposure, inflicted over several generations and affecting several generations.”

— The Human Experiment (2013)


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