In the News
By Linda Weltner/ Special to the Reporter
Thursday, March 31, 2005 Swampscott and Marblehead Reporters
How big is one little person? Can a group of ordinary citizens fight a corporation and actually win? Here's an encouraging success story from HealthLink, a local group of volunteers committed to protecting human health from toxic substances in the environment.
It begins with Martha Dansdill of Swampscott, HealthLink's executive director, learning that a Wellesley child had come home from soccer practice with a note urging his parents to use TruGreen ChemLawn, a lawn-care company that depends upon the lavish use of dangerous pesticides to keep suburban grass green. Her research revealed that ChemLawn had recently paired up with the U.S. Youth Soccer Association in a corporate partnership agreement. In return for a percentage of the profit from every purchase of ChemLawn by a soccer parent, USYSA would supply the names of 3.2 million soccer families to the company's marketing division. In addition, the USYSA logo would adorn ChemLawn promotional materials and trucks.
The problem with this arrangement, however profitable to both parties, is that children and pesticides don't mix. The lethal effects of cancer-causing chemicals have been linked to the age of those exposed; there are critical periods in human development when exposure to a toxin can permanently alter the way an individual's biological system operates.
When young, children have a faster metabolism and process more chemicals for their size than adults. In puberty, teens experience rapid reproductive-cell development and are at far higher risk of later breast, testicular and ovarian cancer than those who are exposed as adults.
When ChemLawn announced that its partnership with USYSA exemplified a "natural fit," they could have been describing those synthetic chemicals in pesticides, which upset healthy reproductive development by mimicking natural hormones, and their perfect fit with the short-time window of highest vulnerability in adolescence.
A statement in a letter from the Youth Soccer Association's president - "Kids who play soccer on lawns and a lawn company - it's a perfect match!" - was dead on. There could be no more perfectly "deadly" time for children to handle a ball covered with pesticides, or roll in the pesticide residues which persist for a month or more on lawns and playing fields, than during those years they are growing rapidly.
HealthLink, with Dansdill leading the charge, in the fall of 2003 nominated ChemLawn to receive a Dirty Dozen Award, given annually by Boston's Toxics Action Center. The "award" was announced at a press event at the ChemLawn headquarters in North Andover, with soccer moms and their children holding signs saying, "TruGreen, Truly Toxic"; "Please Don't Poison My Pets" and "Kids and Lawn Chems Don't Mix!"
HealthLink launched a full campaign to end what it called "the unholy alliance between Youth Soccer and the company." Its Web site urged Youth Soccer to "Give ChemLawn the Boot," and they called high-profile environmental groups, such as Clean Water Action, Environment and Human Health Inc., the Children's Health Environmental Coalition, to inform them and enlist their support.
HealthLink sent information packets on the dangers of pesticides to USYSA officials and worked with the Judge Baker Center for Children to help lodge over 675 complaints to USYSA about their contract with ChemLawn. They made phone calls, sent letters, e-mailed, gave presentations, informed the public and waited.
In March 2005, Dansdill got word through an e-mail forwarded in the environmental community that the U.S. Youth Soccer Association had ended its partnership with ChemLawn. There was no public announcement, and when she called the Soccer Association's headquarters, they declined to comment on the decision to sever the connection.
(Editor's note: The Reporter placed additional calls to the ChemLawn and the Youth Soccer Association, which were not returned.)
How much influence can citizens have? Enough. What was the straw that broke the camel's back? Which word was it that tipped the scales against ChemLawn at USYSA's headquarters? One can never know for sure, but in the beginning, HealthLink stood alone, and at the end, ChemLawn was sent packing.