LOWELL– While picture-perfect green lawns are generally not a timely discussion item in January, that trend was bucked on Tuesday at the Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) of University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
The topic was raised by several environmentally-conscious residents of Ayer, who were invited to the institute to learn more about TURI and the Healthy Lawns for Healthy Families program it helped launch last year.
Healthy Lawns is an educational program to curtail the use of toxic pesticides that can contaminate ponds and groundwater. The program was launched by the Westford Water Department and underwritten by a grant from TURI.
Now in its second year, it has expanded to include nine towns in the region including Ayer, Harvard and Groton.
“I strongly support this program, and I’m thrilled that it’s going to be part of Ayer,” said resident Laurie Nehring.
Founded by the state in 1989, TURI has a broad mandate of making Massachusetts a safer place to live by reducing the presence of both commercial and residential toxins.
Its activities include researching non-toxic solutions to help companies reduce their dependence on toxic components and educating the public about toxins.
Healthy Lawns is an example of the latter. Its programming includes the distribution of informative materials alongside a variety of outreach and informative sessions for businesses and the public.
While it is educational in nature, TURI Director Michael Ellenbecker said a mix of information and collaboration can do much to point communities in the right direction.
“We have a lot of good data that shows these programs work,” he said.
“There are a lot of really great programs going on that you could model after in your communities,” she said.
Among the resources that TURI makes available are chemical fact sheets, an environmental library and an electronic newsletter at www.turi.org.
As a member of the environmental watchdog group, People of Ayer Concerned about the Environment (PACE), Nehring called TURI a valuable resource in getting the word out on what’s in consumer products.
“We see TURI as a very important resource and source of information for us,” she said. “People take for granted that, just because they can buy something in the store, it’s safe for their family and pets.”
That statement is appropriate in describing lawn-care products, said Community Organizer Paul Schramski.
Schramski works for the Toxic Action Center (TAC), an advocacy group with goals similar to TURI. The risks with lawncare products are the reason TAC will take aim against one of America’s leading pesticide companies in the coming year, he said.
Fifty-three percent of products from that producer contain substances that are considered carcinogens by the federal government, said Schramski.
He also argued against the need for such products. The demand for lawn treatment chemicals is based on consumers wanting better lawns, he said, and while they can deliver results, he compared that dynamic to drug addiction among humans.
There are better alternatives out there, he said.
“We’ve seen time and again that lawns can be healthy under organic treatment,” he said. “The problem is that companies make a lot of money by keeping lawns dependent on chemicals.”
“Massachusetts is doing its citizens a favor with programs such as this,” he said.
Marblehead recently became the first community in the commonwealth to pass bylaws requiring that all pesticides be organic, Schramski said, and it is a step in the right direction.
TURI’s work can have a broad impact, but its small size means it must work collaboratively with a number of partners. With only 17 staff members to meet a state-wide mandate, a large part of its mission involves networking with businesses, citizen’s groups, and the public-at-large to pass along information conducive to their goals.
That spirit was at work on Tuesday when TURI hosted visitors from across the state.
Alongside three members of PACE were state Representative James Eldridge, D-Acton; attorney Jan Schlichtmann and Woburn resident Donna Robbins. Schlichtmann and Robbins were principals in the Woburn water contamination case chronicled in the book, “A Civil Action.”
During the conversation, Schlichtmann voiced support for TURI.
“I’m very interested in the concept of this program. I think it’s vital for the health and safety of communities…” he said.
In return, Harriman credited Schlichtmann with setting a lot of precedents as TAC was formed in the wake of the Schlichtmann’s landmark Woburn case.
Eldridge offered similar praise for the program afterward.
“I think the Toxic Use Reduction Institute’s approach of educating both communities and industries about using less toxic chemicals is critical not only to people’s health, but also to the costs associated with these chemicals,” he said.