The Activist: Jay Feldman

How Green Is Golf?

May 2008

Jay Feldman, 54, is a co-founder and the director of Beyond Pesticides (, a nonprofit membership organization started in 1981 that "works with allies in protecting public health and the environment to lead the transition to a world free of toxic pesticides." Feldman has been involved in the Golf & the Environment Initiative from the beginning, attending that first meeting at Pebble Beach and every summit since then. I interviewed him in his office in Washington, D.C., a few blocks southeast of the U.S. Capitol. We drank bottled water. Feldman never drinks water from the tap.

Golf Digest: Would you say that golf-course pesticide use in the United States today is not safe?
Jay Feldman:
I would say that, yes.

What in simple terms are the dangers?
Pesticides pose health risks, both acute and chronic, from common coldlike symptoms, nausea, dizziness, headaches, rashes, to birth defects, learning disabilities, infertility, leukemia, various cancers including brain cancer, breast cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Asthma rates in the U.S. have skyrocketed, and there are studies linking asthma to pesticides that are widely used on golf courses. In all cases there are studies that link pesticides to these effects.

And these things can happen to golfers who are exposed directly and to people who live near golf courses?
Right. Through runoff and airborne drift. The problem is, when you spray pesticides, they tend to move off the target site. The U.S. Geological Survey put out a report in 2006 that looked at waters and streams and lakes in the U.S. and found pesticides everywhere they looked. The typical response you get from superintendents is that they're using registered pesticide products, they're using them in compliance with the label, their pesticide applicators are trained and certified, so what's the problem? But there are clear deficiencies in the regulatory process in evaluating the full body of health outcomes that we're concerned about. Endocrine disruption, for instance. We ought to have information on the impact of pesticides on the endocrine system, and yet we don't in the U.S.

What are the consequences of endocrine disruption?
It changes the hormonal balance in the body and can affect disease outcomes later in life, it can affect development, it can affect a range of organ development, developmental systems that have an impact on illness, cancer, reproductive effects, developmental effects, sexual development.

And that's not tested for?
Not tested for. The next generation of chemicals defy classical toxicological models, which say that the dose makes the poison. You'll hear golf-course superintendents say, "We're using such minuscule amounts of these chemicals." But endocrine disruption can happen at really low exposures. We don't even have the testing protocol to assess this low dose. [Note: For more on endocrine disruption, try the chilling, classic book, Our Stolen Future -- details at] With pesticides, we're not just dealing with what we do know, but also what we don't know. The risk-assessment protocol is filled with wrong assumptions. One example is the story of chlorpyrifos, whose trade name is Dursban, which was banned from household use in 2000 because of neurological effects. It had been widely used for insect control indoors and outdoors. But it's still used in golf. And when you as an individual look at the EPA's risk assessment, you might say, "Well, I don't fit in with their assumptions because I golf a lot," for example, or "I'm a kid who plays golf." In its Dursban risk assessment, the EPA assumes that children do not play golf.

It's written right into the risk assessment. It defies logic, and it defies reality. Risk assessment is filled with these assumptions that are just inaccurate and incomplete. It wasn't until the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act that EPA was required to look at exposure to pesticides in combination. Dursban, for instance, has food uses, in agriculture, and non-food uses such as on golf courses, so you have dietary and nondietary exposure. Prior to the adoption of this act, believe it or not, the agency did not add up exposures from different sources. So if a kid was drinking a lot of juice, say, which kids do, and playing a lot of golf, at the end of the day that kid is getting a high toxic load. So OK, now we're adding up exposures to a chemical, but we're still not looking at the synergistic effects of different chemicals in combination. And we know that combinations of chemicals can cause greater risk. We know, for instance, that if you're taking Tagamet, and you're exposed to an organophosphate pesticide, the potency of that organophosphate is going to be higher. And the same thing happens between certain pesticides. And the EPA knows this. We also know that pesticides can break down to other toxic components, and the EPA doesn't evaluate those breakdown products. There are huge, unanswered questions. The bottom line is, the EPA should be the biggest proponent of the precautionary principle. They should be saying, "We're doing the best we can with the resources we have, but there are a lot of deficiencies in our process."

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