The NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation says Suffolk County leads the state in pesticide use. NewsdayTV's Meredith Garofalo reports.  Credit: Newsday Staff

Suffolk County, with less than 10% of the state’s farmland, poured around three times more insect-killing chemicals onto lawns, golf courses, crops and turf farms in 2021 than any one of upstate’s four biggest farming counties, according to state officials. 

It's a downstate New York problem and mostly Suffolk’s, where far too much pesticide is poured to attain lawns that could be mistaken for putting greens, with far too little concern for the environment, experts say.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation's latest annual survey of the chemicals, for 2021, ranks Suffolk first — as it has since at least 2010 — among New York counties both in the types of pesticides and amount applied, in pounds, by commercial users and sellers of restricted products.

All those insecticides imperil Long Island’s drinking water and favorite seaside pastimes. A primary culprit, according to experts, is homeowners seeking pristine lawns, especially on the East End. 

Suffolk’s total of more than 6.5 million pounds of pesticides in 2021, the DEC said, easily topped Nassau’s almost 1.6 million pounds. Nassau's total ranked sixth in the state. Westchester came in second, with about 2.9 million pounds, followed by Monroe at 2.5 million and Erie with 2.2 million, the DEC said. 

East End estates are often singled out by experts. These “are the areas where you tend to have those neighborhoods with, again, large homes, new homes, very well-manicured lawns, and that is where we tend to see a lot of these lawn chemicals going in,” said Robert J. Johnston, director of the George Perkins Marsh Institute and an economics professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“If your neighborhood has a lot of really nice lawns, there can be an informal social pressure to keep your lawn nice as well,” Johnston said. “Those pressures are real." 

The experts fear more pesticides will pollute the groundwater. Long Island's drinking water is at risk because it relies on just one aquifer. 

There also are concerns that more-intense rainstorms, as the planet heats, are worsening the decades-old runoff already contaminating New York's waters.

"Rain or melted snow can carry products such as fertilizer, pesticides, or leaking motor oil from driveways, streets, and lawns into local streams or storm sewer systems," the nonprofit Long Island Sound Study says. "Eventually, these harmful chemicals get flushed into the Sound."

Pesticide spills kill fish, and researchers say even diluted pesticides are a threat.

"The severity of the effects caused by the exposure to a mixture of pesticides can differ among species," according to a 2021 study of salmon published by the National Institutes of Health that examined "transient exposure" to sublethal concentrations.

"The potential impairment of predator-prey relationships is a relevant effect that pesticide pollution can cause and it should be considered for the risk assessment of such contaminants," it said.

Jason Burton, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Service, said it found 53 pesticides “in Long Island shallow groundwater” in 2020, though the vast majority were in very small amounts. Nitrogen and nitrate pollution, likely from fertilizers, “were also correlated” with those chemicals. Excess nitrogen is a key driver of the harmful algae blooms that appear most summers, choking flora and fauna.

As developers still find places to build on the Island, even owners of modest homes prize green, lush lawns.

“We have an inordinate amount of emphasis on our tiny little properties, and we want them all to look airbrushed,” said Tamson Yeh, pest management-turf specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

Yeh's alternative solutions include persuading lawn-lovers to replant parts of their yards with shrubs and trees, which outperform grass in absorbing stormwater, and adding buffers and borders with native species already adapted to the climate and local pests.

"Actually, it's incredibly important that insects eat plants. They are the ones that support all the creatures we have in the ecosystem," said Jonathan Lehrer, associate professor and chair of Farmingdale State College's Department of Urban Horticulture and Design. 

Lehrer continued: "From more of a landscaping and beautification perspective, often the first inclination of the homeowner is to go to the store and buy an insect killer." Yet that usually isn't the remedy. "In the vast majority of circumstances, insect damage you see on your landscape is inconsequential and relatively benign." 

To those who view rolling emerald carpets of grass as a necessary, elegant way of suggesting prosperity, a variety of experts urge a rethink.

"Maybe people get a little too crazed about eliminating every dandelion from the face of the Earth," said Andrew Wilson, director of agronomy of Bethpage State Park, which has worked with Cornell to slice its pesticide use on its five golf courses for nearly 25 years and planted natives around its ponds for what he calls the 24/7 residents, the wildlife.

Some progress has been made. Modern pesticides have less-active ingredients — though they may have to be sprayed more often — and with more advanced equipment. Sprayers outfitted with GPS to reduce over-spraying long used by farms now are sold to golf courses, he said.

"People have cut 15% of their use just by using GPS sprayers," Wilson said. 

Suffolk’s professional landscapers use strong stuff: The county has the “second-highest amount of active ingredients” in the professional category, the DEC says, and “is in the top 10 counties in terms of active ingredient quantities applied per square mile.”

But some homeowners don't know when they're not supposed to use pesticides. 

Nearly 40% of almost 2,000 residents of Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester — the three counties surrounding Long Island Sound — were "not at all aware" of Suffolk's ban on applying fertilizer between Nov. 1 and April 1, or expert lawn care advice, a 2021 study by Clark University and partners found.

All too often, the experts said, homeowners figure they may as well use up the bag instead of storing it, or they apply it just before it rains. And they don't realize it's spilling into the street.

Lehrer said: "People overreact to any sign of damage on their plants and the first thing is to kind of wage war: 'I'm going to spray all of my plants and get rid of those insects.' " 

Suffolk County, with less than 10% of the state’s farmland, poured around three times more insect-killing chemicals onto lawns, golf courses, crops and turf farms in 2021 than any one of upstate’s four biggest farming counties, according to state officials. 

It's a downstate New York problem and mostly Suffolk’s, where far too much pesticide is poured to attain lawns that could be mistaken for putting greens, with far too little concern for the environment, experts say.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation's latest annual survey of the chemicals, for 2021, ranks Suffolk first — as it has since at least 2010 — among New York counties both in the types of pesticides and amount applied, in pounds, by commercial users and sellers of restricted products.

All those insecticides imperil Long Island’s drinking water and favorite seaside pastimes. A primary culprit, according to experts, is homeowners seeking pristine lawns, especially on the East End. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The state Department of Environmental Conservation's annual survey of the chemicals ranked Suffolk first — as it has since at least 2010 — among New York counties both in the types of pesticides and amount applied.
  • Suffolk’s total of more than 6.5 million pounds of pesticides easily topped Nassau’s almost 1.6 million pounds, the DEC said. 
  • Experts say homeowners often misuse pesticides instead of using more natural gardening methods to keep pests at bay.

Suffolk’s total of more than 6.5 million pounds of pesticides in 2021, the DEC said, easily topped Nassau’s almost 1.6 million pounds. Nassau's total ranked sixth in the state. Westchester came in second, with about 2.9 million pounds, followed by Monroe at 2.5 million and Erie with 2.2 million, the DEC said. 

Maintaining those beautiful lawns

East End estates are often singled out by experts. These “are the areas where you tend to have those neighborhoods with, again, large homes, new homes, very well-manicured lawns, and that is where we tend to see a lot of these lawn chemicals going in,” said Robert J. Johnston, director of the George Perkins Marsh Institute and an economics professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“If your neighborhood has a lot of really nice lawns, there can be an informal social pressure to keep your lawn nice as well,” Johnston said. “Those pressures are real." 

The experts fear more pesticides will pollute the groundwater. Long Island's drinking water is at risk because it relies on just one aquifer. 

There also are concerns that more-intense rainstorms, as the planet heats, are worsening the decades-old runoff already contaminating New York's waters.

"Rain or melted snow can carry products such as fertilizer, pesticides, or leaking motor oil from driveways, streets, and lawns into local streams or storm sewer systems," the nonprofit Long Island Sound Study says. "Eventually, these harmful chemicals get flushed into the Sound."

Pesticide spills kill fish, and researchers say even diluted pesticides are a threat.

"The severity of the effects caused by the exposure to a mixture of pesticides can differ among species," according to a 2021 study of salmon published by the National Institutes of Health that examined "transient exposure" to sublethal concentrations.

"The potential impairment of predator-prey relationships is a relevant effect that pesticide pollution can cause and it should be considered for the risk assessment of such contaminants," it said.

Jason Burton, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Service, said it found 53 pesticides “in Long Island shallow groundwater” in 2020, though the vast majority were in very small amounts. Nitrogen and nitrate pollution, likely from fertilizers, “were also correlated” with those chemicals. Excess nitrogen is a key driver of the harmful algae blooms that appear most summers, choking flora and fauna.

As developers still find places to build on the Island, even owners of modest homes prize green, lush lawns.

“We have an inordinate amount of emphasis on our tiny little properties, and we want them all to look airbrushed,” said Tamson Yeh, pest management-turf specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

Yeh's alternative solutions include persuading lawn-lovers to replant parts of their yards with shrubs and trees, which outperform grass in absorbing stormwater, and adding buffers and borders with native species already adapted to the climate and local pests.

"Actually, it's incredibly important that insects eat plants. They are the ones that support all the creatures we have in the ecosystem," said Jonathan Lehrer, associate professor and chair of Farmingdale State College's Department of Urban Horticulture and Design. 

Lehrer continued: "From more of a landscaping and beautification perspective, often the first inclination of the homeowner is to go to the store and buy an insect killer." Yet that usually isn't the remedy. "In the vast majority of circumstances, insect damage you see on your landscape is inconsequential and relatively benign." 

Rethinking pesticide use

To those who view rolling emerald carpets of grass as a necessary, elegant way of suggesting prosperity, a variety of experts urge a rethink.

"Maybe people get a little too crazed about eliminating every dandelion from the face of the Earth," said Andrew Wilson, director of agronomy of Bethpage State Park, which has worked with Cornell to slice its pesticide use on its five golf courses for nearly 25 years and planted natives around its ponds for what he calls the 24/7 residents, the wildlife.

Some progress has been made. Modern pesticides have less-active ingredients — though they may have to be sprayed more often — and with more advanced equipment. Sprayers outfitted with GPS to reduce over-spraying long used by farms now are sold to golf courses, he said.

"People have cut 15% of their use just by using GPS sprayers," Wilson said. 

Suffolk’s professional landscapers use strong stuff: The county has the “second-highest amount of active ingredients” in the professional category, the DEC says, and “is in the top 10 counties in terms of active ingredient quantities applied per square mile.”

But some homeowners don't know when they're not supposed to use pesticides. 

Nearly 40% of almost 2,000 residents of Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester — the three counties surrounding Long Island Sound — were "not at all aware" of Suffolk's ban on applying fertilizer between Nov. 1 and April 1, or expert lawn care advice, a 2021 study by Clark University and partners found.

All too often, the experts said, homeowners figure they may as well use up the bag instead of storing it, or they apply it just before it rains. And they don't realize it's spilling into the street.

Lehrer said: "People overreact to any sign of damage on their plants and the first thing is to kind of wage war: 'I'm going to spray all of my plants and get rid of those insects.' " 

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