Are golf courses an environmental hazard? Is it possible to maintain the greenery of the courses without degrading the environment? If pesticides and fertilizers are applied to maintain golf courses, what happens when it rains and the chemicals are washed off? Questions on the environmental implications of keeping golf courses lush are dizzying. While much has been said on the subject, public knowledge on the real environmental impacts of maintaining a golf course is based on emotion rather than scientific knowledge. Debate on the subject is based on information from the mass media, which is shallow and lacks the authority that can only be provided by environmental scientists. Understanding the processes used to maintain golf courses and the chemicals used is key to understanding the environmental impacts of golf course greenery. The alleged dangers posed by golf courses, it turns out, are just that – allegations!
Debate on golf courses has gone full circle. Previously admired for their beauty and greenery in the midst of intense development, golf courses soon lost that admiration once people started viewing them as “toxic waste dumps” (Watscke, Harrison & Hamilton, 1989). Public interest in golf courses is motivated by several factors. One reason for obvious curiosity is the phenomenal growth in the number of golf courses. Than (2005), using statistics obtained from the National Golf Courses Association, estimates that by 2005 there were 16,000 golf courses in the US. Moreover, the annual addition to this number was between 150 and 400 courses. With such a huge number of golf courses being built, the public has reason to be wary of the dangers posed by these recreational grounds. To maintain golf courses, Than (2005) further notes that fertilizer and pesticides are applied on these grounds at concentrations higher than on any other type of land. As a result, should the chemicals applied on the golf courses be harmful, golf courses would pose greater environmental danger than other cultivated land. The dangers could include contamination of the waterways and dangers to wildlife (Than, 2009).
Responding to public concern on the environmental impacts of golf courses, the government, through the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the research section of the United States Department of Agriculture, (USDA), authorized a study on the effects of fertilizer and pesticide use on the environment. Part of this study attempted to measure the effect of pesticide and fertilizer run on golf courses and “other grassy areas such as parks and cemeteries” (Than, 2009). Results from this study indicate that much of public fear about the environmental degradation posed by golf courses could be misplaced. First, the researchers found that golf courses used pesticides with greater precision than farmers do. This happens because pesticides are applied on specific areas of the golf course and not on the entire course. Farmers, on the contrary, apply pesticides on the entire farmland and therefore end up using much more pesticide per acre than the golf courses. In addition, this research found out that pesticide application on golf courses was done in smaller doses than is the case with farmland. This means that the run-off as a result of rainfall after application is lessened for the golf courses (Than, 2009). To counter run off effects, this research also looked at ways that could be used to intercept the chemicals before they reached waterways or golf course neighborhoods. Apart from government research, other stakeholders have been studying the effects of fertilizer and pesticide use on golf courses. One such group is the consultancy firm Environmental and Turf Services (Schmidt, 2007). Quoting Stuart Cohen, the president of the consultancy firm, Schmidt (2009) notes that the construction of a golf course has its own mechanism for preventing run off. According to Cohen, dangers of exposure to chemicals posed by golf courses on the players and the neighborhoods are minimized by the construction of the turf. The turf acts as a filter as it has a thatch underlining which “not only grips pesticides but also prevents them from leaching into groundwater” (Schmidt, 2007). Moreover, the turf is able to degrade pesticides and therefore reduce their effects on the environment. Marshall Clark, professor of entomology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, provides scientific evidence on the risks of chemical exposure posed to players on the golf course. The professor set out to find the effects of golf course pesticides on the players’ body especially the legs, thighs and lower arms. Extensive tests on the urine of players confirmed that the doses of chemicals absorbed by players on the golf course cannot be considered hazardous. The same applies to exposure from hand-mouth activities on the golf course. While hand to mouth activities on the golf course pose a bigger risk, the study found out that such activities are limited and that players observe proper hygiene when on the course (Schmidt, 2007).
Intensity and types of pesticides used on golf courses
Many stakeholders have shown their concern about the effects of pesticides on the environment. These stakeholders include the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the USGA. These associations concern is shown by measures they have carried out in the past in pursuit of environmental stewardship (Davis, 2008). These associations have tried to address concerns by the public and especially members of organizations opposed to pesticide use. Concerns about pesticide effects on the environment have been raised by the National Campaign Against the Misuse of Pesticide. The Executive Director of this campaign, Jay Feldman has noted that pesticides constitute a danger to the people and the environment as a result of runoff. In addition, Feldman argues that pesticides applied in breezy conditions end up drifting to the neighborhoods and in this way affect the people and wildlife (Davis, 2008). Pesticides that have been used in the past have contributed much to the disparaged image of golf courses. Stuart Cohen singles out the use of organophosphates in the past (Davis, 2008). Organophosphates are neurotoxins which were used as pesticides extensively in the 1970s and 1980s and are believed to have caused severe environmental damage in addition to killing birds and fish. Organophosphates are no longer used according to Cohen. Moreover, golf course development has benefited from advances in weather forecasts, which helps owners decide the days on which to apply fertilizer and pesticides without harming the environment. Golf course owners therefore refrain from applying fertilizer and pesticides on days forecast to be rainy. With today’s technology, weather patterns can be predicted with more precision than was the case in the past. In earlier times, fertilizer would be applied on days forecast to be sunny. When it rained on such days, much of the chemical was washed off thereby affecting the neighborhood of the golf course. In addition to making better use of the weather, golf course owners have been trying to find out how they could take care of the courses without using pesticides. This is motivated by financial considerations. As pesticides cost money, failure to use them would mean fewer expenses for the golf course owners (Davis, 2008). As for the pesticides used, the trend has been to use less and less pesticide. This comes in the form of reduced-risk compounds a few grams of which can be used to spray an acre of land. Owners of golf courses are aware that using fewer pesticides creates ecologically friendly grounds (Davis, 2008).
One institution that has studied the effects of fertilizers and pesticides on the environment is the University of Pennsylvania (Watschke, Harrison & Hamilton, 1989). To study the effects of pesticide application on golf courses, the following pesticides were studied: pendimethalin, 2,4-D, 2, 4-DP, dicamba and dursban (Watschke, 1989). Part of the study set out to determine the level and effect of runoff after application of the pesticides. The study, which was carried out in 1986, concluded that properly managed turfgrass has a positive impact on water quality. Moreover, the study found that dense and high-quality grass stands, in spite of the method of establishment used. (Watschke, 1989).
The golf course industry, according to Cohen (Schmidt 2007) uses about 50 pesticide active ingredients. The number of active ingredients used varies from one golf course to another depending on where the golf course is located. Some of the most commonly used pesticides include “carbaryl, a carbamate insecticide and chlorothalonil, an organochlorine fungicide” (Schmidt, 2007).
Why the public thinks golf courses degrade the environment
Watschke (1989) attributes much of the negative information about golf courses to both psychological as well as sociological issues rather than scientific evidence. Moreover, opposition to use of pesticides has mainly been fuelled by media stories which tend to report the sensational and are mainly one-sided. Watschke (1989) gives the example of a former navy officer whose death was blamed on pesticide exposure and the sensational stories that followed in the press. To show how one-sided press stories on pesticides are, Watschke (1989) notes that the press dropped the story later and never clarified to the public that the theory of pesticide exposure as the cause of death had been rejected during the court hearing. Not only was the court dissatisfied with the allegations of pesticide exposure, the man’s widow was also convinced that that was not the cause. The trouble with press reports on pesticides is that they lack the depth of scientific research. Press reports like these lead to the creation of a shallow and uneducated public whose understanding of the effects of pesticides on the environment is mainly uninformed (Watschke, 1989). Had the press been more active in digging for the facts, it would correct wrong perceptions by the public which Watschke (1989) says are guided by two ignorant assumptions. One of these assumptions is that when application of pesticides must lead to runoff. The other ignorant assumption is that the pesticide contaminates groundwater (Watschke, 1989). Dismissing these assumptions as shallow, Watschke (1989), notes that other factors could actually reduce the assumed negative effects of the pesticides. Public perception of pesticides could be improved if people were aware of ultra-violet light dilapidation, soil, volatility as well as organic matter attenuation and microbial degradation” (Watschke, 1989).
Whereas press reporting on the effects of pesticides is mainly ignorant and sensational, there have been cases in the past where pesticide use resulted in fatalities and loss and which could be shaping public debate on pesticides and golf courses. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has banned the use of some pesticides because of their harmful effects (Schmidt, 2007). One of the most commonly used pesticides in the past was Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate which the EPA banned later. In 1990, the EPA also banned the use of another organophosphate, Diazinon, on golf courses. In 2005, the ban was extended to all residential uses. These pesticides were banned after being found harmful. Diazinon was banned after it poisoned Canadian geese “on the Seaway Harbor fairways in Hampstead, New York” (Schmidt, 2007). Other organophosphates have been blamed for causing the death of fish after being washed off golf courses. One such pesticide is Fenamiphos which is said to have caused the death of fish in Florida. Following the fish deaths, Fenamiphos was banned in Florida in 2005 and was to be banned countrywide by 2007 (Schmidt, 2007). Statistics such as those raised above have shaped public opinion on the issue of pesticides and led to the negative feelings that the public harbors against golf courses.
When all is said and done, the real question really should be whether pesticides such as those that are used on golf courses are as lethal as people perceive them to be. The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America sheds light on this thorny issue through a FAQ on its website (“Golf course pesticides FAQs”, 2007). The first reason that should allay public fear of golf course pesticides should be the fact that these products are not any different from the products that people use in their own homes. Even more importantly, people skeptical of golf course pesticides need to know that production of pesticides is thoroughly regulated by the EPA. Part of the process that a pesticide has to undergo before being registered includes tests to find out the product’s effects on human beings and the environment. The process can be rigorous and can take as many as 10 years (“Golf course pesticides FAQs”, 2007). Watschke (1989), who also notes the high level of education and training that golf course superintendents go through, emphasizes this point. Most superintendents hold college degrees in areas such as agronomy and horticulture and therefore perform their work with the knowledge of professionals. In addition, the superintendents benefit from continuous training which a number of universities offer. The umbrella body of golf course superintendents, GCSAA, also offers frequent training (“Golf course pesticides FAQs”, 2007). Another misconception that Watschke (1989) corrects is the view held by the majority of the public that golf courses overuse pesticides in a bid to improve the quality of the grounds. Such perceptions are misplaced as the control of pests on many courses is a fairly straightforward exercise that sometimes needs chronological chemical applications at certain intervals putting into consideration the pest in question (Watschke, 1989).
Golf courses are important recreational facilities that in addition help improve the environment by filtering air pollutants to create fresh oxygen. In some places, a golf course is the only place where plant life in the form of grass, trees and flowers will be found. While research on the real effects of golf course pesticides on the environment goes on, evidence available today shows that most of the fears voiced are based on misinformation or plain ignorance.
Davis, B. (May 27, 2008). Finding a chemical balance; Golf industry now more responsible in use of pesticides. The Washington times. C01.
“Golf course pesticides FAQs” (2007). GCSAA. Retrieved April 9, 2009 from http://www.gcsaa.org/cm/contentm/modules/display_dynamic.ahtml?params=MSw2NDgsMDAwMDguMDAwMDMuMDAwMTQ=
Schmidt, C.W. (2007). Putting the earth in play: Environmental awareness and sports. Environmental health perspectives, 114(5) 286+
Than, K. (2005). Scientists measure pesticide runoff from golf courses. Live science. Retrieved April 9, 2009 from http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/050909_golf_pesticides.html
Watschke, T.L., Harrison, S & Hamilton, G.W. (1989). Does fertilizer/pesticide use on golf course put water resources imperil? USGA. Retrieved April 9, 2009 from http://www.usga.org/turf/articles/environment/pesticides/does_fertilizer.html