March 23, 2008

The Activist: Jay Feldman

How Green Is Golf?

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."

The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America website ( says that pesticides are safe when used correctly, and that on average there are 120 studies at a $50 million cost before approval for a pesticide is granted by the EPA.

That's an outdated statement, and it wasn't even correct at the time it was made. I think the golf-course superintendents feel at some risk -- they're the ones delivering the toxic chemical to the site and are therefore at risk of litigation. They're saying, "Look, we're doing what's legal; we can't be subject to litigation here." Well, there's a Supreme Court case from 2005 called Bates v. Dow, where a bunch of peanut growers in Texas sued Dow Chemical for crop failure. Dow maintained that the farmers were pre-empted by federal and state law that registered pesticides as acceptable. The Supreme Court basically said to Dow Chemical, "Sorry, guys, you don't have protection from the federal regulatory system in the U.S." There's nothing in the world that should preclude litigation against the users or manufacturers of pesticides, because we know full well that the regulatory system can be deficient in so many ways.

So could you ever imagine a golfer developing, say, cancer, and suing the GCSAA, or the golf course where he or she plays?

Oh, yeah, I think any corporate entity is opening itself up to liability when it uses these chemicals. We're exposed from a lot of different sources, however, so it would be difficult to prove. But yes, I think there will be cases in the future. The Bates decision really opens up the liability issue. [Note: Feldman goes on to detail the case of Liza Prior's action against a pesticide manufacturer. Her husband, 30-year-old Naval Flight Officer Lt. George Prior, played golf for three straight days in August 1982, developed flu-like symptoms soon afterward, then suffered a nightmarish rash across his body that essentially stripped away his skin. He suffered kidney failure and, after two weeks of intense pain, slipped into a coma and died. The case was settled out of court.]

I don't want to blame the GCSAA. But one of the problems we've had with them is in fully disclosing that they take money from the chemical companies. The chemical companies always have their hand in the trade associations. So there tends to be this alliance. They walk together in lock step. And because of this, it becomes a pro-pesticide industry. It's because of the money, the flow of funds. Ask them how much money they get from the chemical companies. It's an eye-opener to golfers who just assume that they're representing the interests of golf.

Follow the money?

Follow the money. [Note: The GCSAA, which partners with Golf Digest in the annual Environmental Leaders in Golf awards program, was given the opportunity to respond to Feldman's comments. Greg Lyman, GCSAA director of environmental programs, provided the following statement: "According to a study by University of Florida researchers regarding exposure, they concluded that when used according to the label directions, pesticides approved for use on golf-course turf are believed to NOT post a real health risk to either the workers who apply the chemicals or to others who may come into contact with the chemicals after application, including golfers. One of those Florida researchers, Dr. Chris Borgert, a toxicologist, said, 'Exposure to chemicals on the golf course under normal circumstances is certainly not something I would worry about.'

"GCSAA has never shied away from communicating its relationship with industry partners who produce golf-course-management products. These companies provide funds that help enable us to deliver programs and services to our members and the golf industry. Many of these programs are focused on environmental management. It behooves us to work cooperatively with these manufacturers so that we can gather and distribute reliable and accurate information to our members. We believe we have a healthy and appropriate relationship that does not impact the impartiality or objectivity of our efforts to distribute accurate information about pesticides to our members.

"GCSAA, through its philanthropic arm, The Environmental Institute for Golf, is focused on ensuring golf's compatibility with the environment. Whether it is through funding scientific research, delivering environmentally based education, communicating best-management practices, conducting environmental studies or developing environmentally directed programs and services, the association is a leader in the golf industry. In addition, GCSAA has developed strong relationships with state and federal environmental agencies to ensure that golf courses are operated as community assets, especially from an environmental perspective."]

But golfers want to play courses in good condition. What alternatives do superintendents have to pesticides? What should they be doing?

The easy answer is, organic practices. Organic is still evolving in terms of lawns and landscapes. In agriculture, it's far ahead. The growth of the organic agricultural sector in the last 10 years has been phenomenal. You're looking at a $20 billion-plus industry, and we could see the same transition in non-agricultural land management such as home lawn and garden and golf-course management.

Pesticides have come a long way, however.

Chemicals on the surface have gotten less toxic as a general rule. We've gone to fewer bioaccumulative materials. When pesticides were first introduced, the presumption was that there would be no secondary effects. The theory was that we could eliminate pests, increase food production, fight diseases, and that after they had performed their positive function the pesticides would dissipate and degrade in the environment. But these assumptions proved false. It became obvious that the chemicals could bioaccumulate. They showed up in the food supply, they can be responsible for long-term chronic disease, they impact endangered species, and so on. The chemicals were not tested for these effects prior to their marketing. And that's been the pattern ever since. Every time a new chemical is introduced, we say, "Oh my God, we're finding residues of this stuff in the environment; it's showing up in mothers' milk -- we didn't expect that." And then we move on to the next chemical family. So the heavy metals were replaced by the organochlorines, which were replaced by the organ-ophosphates, and every time the same claim is made: These are even better, they won't show up anywhere, they don't bioaccumulate in the environ-ment. But lo and behold, these chemicals are showing up in water. All the assumptions once again turn out not to be true. We're constantly playing catch-up. So here we are now in this realm of having newer and newer chemicals, and as new studies come out, we realize that we've introduced new levels of danger, new complexities, and a whole host of effects that the EPA isn't even looking for.

If you don't know what the danger is, you can't test for it before you approve it.


You have no confidence in the EPA's regulation of pesticide use?

None at all. You can go to the Government Accountability Office website ( and type in "pesticides," and you can see the history of the failure of the EPA. It's all very well documented. Their program is poorly thought through, and it's also politicized. The agency might be told, for instance, "We need an outcome that allows Dursban to be used on golf courses, so work backward from that." Even William Ruckelshaus, the first head of the EPA, said risk assessment is like a captured spy: You can get it to say whatever you want it to say.

Has it become worse under the current administration?

Yes. The EPA could use its discretion to improve protection, but at every turn, under this administration, it has used its discretion to implement the minimum amount of protection.

Why is that?

Because there's tremendous pressure from chemical companies to maintain the registrations of these products. It's a very costly proposition to develop these chemicals. After a company has invested in the development of a product, it's going to invest a tremendous amount of money in lobbying for the allowance of that product. A while back we tracked the number of former EPA officials now working for the industry and its consulting firms in this town, and it's fascinating. If you look at any chemical that's being used on a golf course, and you look back to see who's lobbying that chemical for its registration and its re-registration, you'll find it's some former EPA official. It's so lucrative -- it's like the brain drain where people leave Third World countries to go to work in the West. The EPA's pesticide program is like a Third World country. They all jump to the chemical companies. And when a chemical company sits across the table from the EPA, it's a body of knowledge that so far surpasses what is known within the agency that there is a fear on the part of the agency that it will be sued and will be incapable of defending itself against a lawsuit. So there's a tremendous avoidance behavior going on here, and in so doing the agency is compromising public health and safety. It's a horrible phenomenon. It's just set up for failure.

[Note: Debra Edwards, Ph.D., director of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, wrote in an e-mail to say that after reading Feldman's comments, she was "dismayed to find so many inaccuracies and misleading statements." She provided a lengthy rebuttal to his various criticisms: click here to read her comments.]

If the status quo is as dire as you portray it, how will things change?

What we're seeing now, what's driving decision-making, is public concern. People are concerned about the environment, public health, global warming. They're saying, "Look, we don't want just strict compliance with the law. We want to go beyond that." And that's what they're doing with their homes and their lawns, that's what's happening in school buildings and playing fields where their children are going to school. People are going down to their golf course and saying, "Hey, what are we doing here?" If we're asking golf-course superintendents to drive this process in golf, we're putting them in an unfair position. I find a lot of golf-course superintendents are extremely receptive to these issues and want to be creative in solving these problems and want to adopt better practices. But if the greens committee is putting a lot of pressure on the superintendent to create an Augusta-like look, what's he going to do? He's an employee. His job is always on the line. Until we get the golfers themselves to engage on this issue, we cannot expect the right thing to happen. We have to start talking about this. We have to start realizing what the trade-offs are. Do people want to eliminate this unknown hazard, for their health, their kids, their family, their community? The answer is yes. The general organic movement is very large and growing, and it's going to be more and more consumer-driven. The marketplace is shifting so much more quickly than the regulatory side. This is where the optimism comes in.