Mom, Social Worker Starts “Pesticide-Free Ann Arbor” Group

Alana DeRiggi is a trained social worker and full-time mom for her 2-year-old daughter, and thought it was vital to begin “Pesticide-Free Ann Arbor” in August.

“I started the organization Pesticide-Free Ann Arbor to raise awareness about the dangers of using pesticides and herbicides on lawns, gardens, and public spaces,” recalled DeRiggi. “Luckily, the City of Ann Arbor already uses pesticides very sparingly, often only to combat invasive species. However, many homeowners and property management companies use large amounts of pesticides and herbicides in close proximity to where children live and play, as does the University of Michigan.”

There was also a specific event that contributed to starting the group.

“We started around the time people in the county were protesting the Washtenaw County Roads Commission’s plan to spray powerful herbicides on county roads,” DeRiggi described. “Due to the concerns and negative reaction from residents, the WCRC agreed not to spray. We were inspired by that success and wanted to build on the momentum against toxic pesticides.” 

DeRiggi stated there are important health concerns to be aware about for ourselves and other creatures.

“In addition to the risks to health, these chemicals are horribly destructive to bee, butterfly, and even firefly populations,” stated DeRiggi. “We rely on these critical pollinators for food production and a healthy ecosystem that supports native plant and animal species in our region. Many people who care about the environment and the health of their communities may not be aware of the risks of commonly used pesticides, so we are trying to talk to neighbors, landlords, and business owners about this issue.”

She also described how she learned more about the use of pesticides.

“I have been aware of the dangers of pesticides on crops and farmland for a long time, but only recently learned how widely they are used on lawns, parks, playing fields and schools,” she described. “As I walk the neighborhood with my young daughter I often see those little green signs on lawns warning that pesticides have been sprayed. This is a huge concern for me because studies show that these chemicals can drift on the wind onto neighboring lawns, can be absorbed into the groundwater, or run off into rivers.” 

Pesticides in our water supply and in our environment are reported to be harmful to all, but especially the young. DeRiggi clarified that the way children are exposed is often through the air (being near a spray area), or through food that has been sprayed on cropland. Harmful chemicals can also get into the water supply, but not only the water.

“Children are more vulnerable to absorbing pesticides into their bodies, and because they are smaller than adults and their brains are still developing, pesticides are more dangerous to them,” she explained. “According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a child in a home using home and garden pesticides is 6.5 times more likely to develop leukemia than one in a home that does not. Other studies out of UCLA have shown a link between pesticides and Autism Spectrum Disorders. And yet lawn care companies routinely assure their customers that these chemicals are safe, which is completely untrue.”

DeRiggi hopes to bring awareness to the general public about all the health dangers of pesticides.

“Pesticides have been linked to cancer, Autism, cognitive impairment, pre-term birth, and endocrine disorders. They are also responsible for the massive decline in bee and pollinator populations,” she explained. “In the U.S. we have an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ policy when it comes to chemicals like pesticides. Environmental organizations must prove that a chemical is harmful before it can be banned, rather than a chemical company being required to prove that a chemical is safe. For example, researchers at UM have found links between pesticides and Lou Gehrig’s disease (or ALS), and Michigan has one of the highest rates of ALS in the country, most likely because of  pesticides used by our agriculture industry. Some of the chemicals linked to ALS, like DDT, were eventually banned, but only after enough people got sick to force the EPA to act.”

DeRiggi cites some success stories of the group thus far.

“With the help of Ari Weinzweig, we have convinced the landlord of Zingerman’s Roadhouse not to spray the grass near the Roadhouse outdoor tables,” she reported. “We have also started a postcard campaign to raise awareness about pesticides with our neighbors. And we are in conversation with officials at UM about how they can continue to reduce their use of pesticides on campus. We are just getting started and we need the help of our neighbors and community members to get involved in this issue.”

She added that a general concern about the chemicals that we use is critical.

“There are a lot of toxic chemicals being sold to us in many forms, (from household cleaners to lawn care chemicals to the plastics that leech into our food and water) and the government has not done a good job of protecting citizens from their harmful effects,” she detailed. “From calling attention to the lead and PFAS crises to understanding the effects of pesticides, it is left up to concerned citizens to learn about these chemicals and work to protect our communities from their harmful health and environmental effects.”

The group also wants people to know that there are natural, healthy ways to grow a green lawn using a mix of different types of grasses and clover. They added that one can still have a great lawn and beautiful flowers without dangerous chemicals.