Why is 2,4-D Allowed on Our Golf Courses?

While enjoying a day on the course, golfers may apply copious amounts of sunscreen to keep them from getting a sunburn and to protect their skin from the harmful cancer-causing UV rays of the sun. But it’s not the sun golfers should be so worried about. The real fear is at their feet.

It’s there in the turf where the real danger lies. Because as lush and green as that grass looks, it’s dangerous. It’s filled with pesticides and herbicides that are meant to kill weeds and bugs; but what the companies applying them don’t want you to know is that it also has the potential to kill humans.

That may sound a bit melodramatic, but it’s true. Herbicides in particular are known for containing the ingredient 2,4-D, an ingredient that was used by the U.S. military when fighting in the Vietnam War.

The strategy was to gas entire acres of forest with the ingredient, taking away the opposition’s hideouts, as well as destroying their crops. The idea was that if they couldn’t find the enemy, at least they could take away their food source. But the effects were so much more than that.

U.S. servicemen started to experience tumors, cancer, rashes, and there was an increase of babies born with birth defects. The Vietnam government also stated that they lost 400,000 people due to the hazardous gassing methods that were used. Now, they were the enemy at the time but even if those numbers are inflated, they’re still alarming nonetheless.

But governments aren’t the only ones to recognize the problem, and they’re certainly not realizing the issues this same ingredient is causing on golf courses. That responsibility fell on the shoulders of environmental filmmaker, Andrew Nisker.

Nisker is the brilliant mind behind the new documentary Dad and the Dandelions, which aired on CBC’s The Nature of Things. In the documentary, Nisker talks about his dad, and how he was not only an avid golfer, but also a health nut. After his father was diagnosed with cancer, Nisker questioned how someone so invested in their own health could ever receive such as diagnosis.

Then he remembered a documentary he had made about Agent Orange, the lethal chemical mixture containing 2,4-D as one of its primary ingredients. Nisker said the answer was ‘staring him right in the face’ and he had to learn more. When he learned that this ingredient isn’t only dangerous, but that it’s still allowed on golf courses, he made it his mission to stop the practice.

He’s still working on that same goal today, and he knows there’s a lot of work to do.

The biggest problem, Nisker says, is that not only are these chemicals dangerous, but the government knows that they’re dangerous. They’ve indicated this by banning the use of them on parks, playing fields, and have even regulated the use of them on lawns (although not all lawn care companies adhere to them). So why has nothing been done about our golf courses?

Because of the evolution of the game, and what golfers expect when they go out on the course. Or what residents expect when they look out over those beautiful greens.

“Golfers expect course to look like they do on TV,” Nisker told CBC. “It’s called the Augusta syndrome, it’s unrealistic expectations. [Augusta] has cooling pipes under the grass, the course is not played on for months before the tournament. It’s unrealistic of what a golf course should look like, and it puts a lot of pressure on people who manage golf courses to use pesticides.”

But Nisker knows that there are things that can be done. Firstly, he says, Canada – or at least Ontario – could put regulations into place to ban the use of pesticides. He points to Denmark as a model that could be used. Over the past ten years, Denmark has reduced the amount of pesticides they use by a whopping 90 percent, and they’re hoping to phase them out completely.

Until that happens though, he says the best way golfers can help themselves is to play on public courses. Without the big budgets of the private clubs, they apply fewer harmful ingredients.