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(Yes. Can a lawn grow without drugs?) North Shore activists are allying with towns to limit chemicalson lawns, but find resistance from old-school weed fighters

Grass-roots campaigns to squeeze out pesticides and go organic are gaining ground along Boston's North Shore, joining a big-bucks battle over the greening of America's lawns.

Local leaders from Newburyport and Newbury recently teamed up to offer a workshop on chemical-free lawn care. The city of Gloucester sponsored a free ''Protect Your Family From Toxins" forum with medical and organic experts. Manchester-by-the-Sea's annual town report, mailed to all residents in March, included a pamphlet detailing ''Simple Ways To Grow a Healthy, Organic Lawn."

Environmentalists equate their mission to the campaign that stamped out cigarettes in most public places.

''When local boards of health got together to do local smoking bans, and there was enough momentum, we got our statewide smoking ban last year," said Dr. Lawrence Block, an activist and cardiologist who chairs Swampscott's Board of Health and who spoke at Gloucester's recent toxins forum.

''That kind of grass-roots effort," Block added, ''gives me great optimism we can do this with pesticides, too."

Swampscott and Marblehead are among a handful of communities statewide that prohibit most pesticide use on public lands. The movement is growing locally, nationwide, and in Canada, with some governments extending the restriction to private property.

At least 65 municipalities across Canada have restricted pesticides. Toronto'sbylaw, for instance, applies to public lands as well as homeowners.

In the United States, a coalition of 20 consumer and environmental groups launched a campaign in April that urges two of the largest home and garden retailers, Home Depot and Lowe's Home Improvement, to carry more organic lawn care products and to ''reconsider" the sale of weed and feed products to ''protect the health of children, families, pets, and the environment."

That has fueled a high-stakes counterattack from the multibillion dollar pesticide industry.

Citing increased ''activist threats" and recent pesticide bans in Canada and the United States, a nationwide coalition of pesticide manufacturers, suppliers, and lawn care companies recently launched a $1 million ad campaign to ''educate consumers" about pesticides, according to a press release from the group, called Project EverGreen.

''We believe the misinformation from some activists are blanket statements that all pesticides are bad and have potential to harm humans and others," Den Gardner, Project EverGreen's executive director, said in an interview.

''Our approach is, as a consumer, you should have the choice to use the products to help maintain a green space," he said. ''And those chemicals have gone through years and years of testing and approval by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]."

Environmentalists disagree, saying adequate testing has not been done on the vast majority of chemicals and that health problems for humans, birds, and fish have been linked to lawn products.

As the debate continues, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection this spring stepped up its free seminars on chemical-free lawn care, which are offered to residents. Ann McGovern, who coordinates the DEP program, said the aim is to reduce the amount of toxic waste ending up in the state's landfills and waterways.

''Some organic materials you purchase may be more expensive than the synthetic ones, but once you get that healthy soil, it's not expensive," she said. ''It may take two or three years to develop, but it goes on forever and keeps the water clean."

Chip Osborne, a Marblehead florist and North Shore guru in the organic movement, has traveled from Maine to Maryland in the past five years teaching homeowners how to wean themselves off lawn chemicals. He also maintains a ''demonstration" organic lawn on park property which, he said, has attracted visitors and calls from as far away as California.

''No one denies, in some way, shape and form, chemicals have aided our life. But we are bombarded with lawn chemicals, house-cleaning chemicals, and there are some ways we can minimize this exposure," Osborne said. ''There is no need to dump this cocktail on the grass."

The latest statistics from the EPA show an increasing number of homeowners have turned to such cocktails. In 2001, homeowners used 102 million pounds of pesticides, more than a 10 percent jump from the previous year. While commercial and industrial users account for a slightly higher overall pesticide use, homeowners are outpacing them when it comes to pesticides that kill weeds, the numbers show.

''There's still a lot of old school, 'I want my lawn to look good,'" said David Knodel, organic lawn care manager for Leahy Landscaping Inc. in Lynn.

Knodel said the company, which has clients throughout the North Shore, phased out chemical lawn care service seven years ago and now only offers organic. While chemical-free popularity is growing among the company's homeowning clients, commercial accounts -- especially cash-strapped communities -- have been slow to follow, he said, because Leahy's labor intensive organic service can be more expensive. Experts need to more closely monitor the soils, he said, instead of applying one or two doses of traditional weed-and-feed products and walking away.

Some communities, such as Newburyport, have been going pesticide-free on public lands by default.

''We don't put anything down, any fertilizer or weed killers on public parks because we don't have the money for it," said Kay Halloran, Newburyport's recycling coordinator. ''We don't have an ordinance that says it, but we don't have the money to do that."

In other towns with tight budgets, where big money was spent creating athletic fields, officials sometimes opt to use non-organic fertilizers to help the grass grow, but draw the line at weed-killing pesticides, Knodel said.

''A lot of athletic fields cost millions to install. You don't want to lose them," he said. ''They are doing the minimum maintenance so the fields are kept playable and safe for the students. But there is a financial factor, and to go organic may triple that cost."

Since 2000, state law has required that parents, staff, and children be notified when pesticides are used at schools and day-care centers. And since 1987, Massachusetts has required licensed professionals to post flags when they apply pesticides to commercial or private property. But homeowners who use the chemicals are not required to follow those rules, according to the state's Pesticide Bureau.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com

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