When Fields of Greens are Not Fields of Dreams
by Fran Silverman
Andrew Nisker’s father, Harold, was always the picture of health. He embraced good nutrition, exercise and fresh air, and especially enjoyed golfing at the course near his home.
When he fell ill and was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, his family was heartbroken and perplexed—and then alarmed at what they learned next.
“I really just felt like because of his lifestyle and the way he took care of himself—his diet, sports and exercise—were all working in his favor,’’ said Andrew Nisker.
“For this disease, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, to appear in him really kind of raised a lot of alarm bells for me because when I researched the disease itself, one of the strong possibilities was pesticide exposure as being a marker to contracting the disease.”
The only place where Harold could have been exposed to large amounts of pesticides, Andrew said, was on the golf course.
Nisker, a Toronto-based film maker specializing in environmental issues whose previous movies include “Orange Witness,” about the use of Agent Orange chemical 2,4-D, and “Garbage! The Revolution Starts at Home,” began digging deeper and what he found is revealed in his newest documentary.
The film, “GroundWar: When Playing Fields become Battlefields,” takes viewers on Nisker’s journey as he talks with health experts, golf industry representatives, environmental advocates and family members of cancer victims in an effort to raise awareness about the overuse of pesticides and their dangers.
Friends of Animals has been working to support bills in several states and municipalities—including New York City’s Intro 1524—which restrict the use of toxic pesticides that can harm wildlife, ecosystems and waterways as well as humans.
FoA President Priscilla Feral has also started an effort to raise awareness about pesticides on golf courses, public parks and playing fields in Darien, Connecticut, where FoA headquarters are located. So, we were particularly interested in talking with Nisker about his work.
In a recent Q&A with Action Line, he discussed his film, what he learned about pesticides on playing fields and how he is promoting advocacy efforts to alert the public about what they can do to take action.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for space and clarity.
WHAT LED YOU TO INVESTIGATE PESTICIDE USE ON GOLF COURSES AND PLAYING FIELDS?
I became aware of the use of Agent Orange for domestic purposes that’s extensively used but not really spoken about, and I started to think about chemicals we use to treat our lawns and our gardens. When my dad got sick, I had some questions about what was being used on his golf course. And where I live here in Toronto, I was able to get answers because there was an act passed about 10 years ago that requires golf courses to report the types of chemicals they use.
My father was a member of a private golf course, so when I printed out what the chemicals used were on the golf course, 2,4-D (a component of Agent Orange) was the first one that showed up. My jaw dropped because I knew the chemical through making “Orange Witness” and that’s when I started thinking maybe there is a connection here.
I never told my dad. He was on his deathbed and I can’t make a definitive connection. Scientifically it’s impossible to make a connection like that. There are cases going on now with Roundup. So, what we are faced with really is, Why are we using these things? That’s the question. When you get down to the answers, there really is no good answer to take any type of risk for eliminating weeds or sculpting a garden.
There are alternatives.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT THE USE OF PESTICIDES WHEN MAKING THE FILM?
How unnecessary they are to create, maintain and enjoy playing fields and golf courses. And the second thing is how in the dark the public is. My father would be walking through these fields of green, but he had no idea how those fields were kept and what was being sprayed. I don’t think many people think about that when they look at a beautiful green park or landscape. I used to think well, that’s the way it should look, but now that’s totally turned on its head.
WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD GOLF PLAYERS AT PUBLIC AND PRIVATE COURSES BE ASKING REGARDING PESTICIDE USE?
I would ask for reports, find out what they are spraying, when they are spraying, how much they are spraying. Demand transparency and that will give you a better picture of what’s happening. It’s not just golf courses.
Dewayne Johnson (a groundskeeper who contracted Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and successfully sued Monsanto, which made Roundup before Bayer acquired it) used to spray chemicals on playgrounds and around playgrounds and he was told to go early in the morning before the parents arrived. So, as a parent you’d have no idea. Ask your school board what are they putting on playgrounds? What are they putting on that playing field? And then put some pressure on them to change it if it’s alarming you.
But without that information we are all in the dark. That’s why our website, groundwar.org, has an incredible tool on it where you can track and see what is being sprayed in your community. And if your community isn’t on the website, find out what is being sprayed in your community and add that information to the list. We are trying to map pesticide use throughout communities.
WHAT STEPS CAN GOLFERS AND COMMUNITY MEMBERS TAKE TO MAKE GOLF COURSES IN THEIR TOWNS SAFER?
• Demand transparency in the chemicals being used.
• Work with the management of the golf course to try to figure out ways to reduce the chemicals used.
• Work with local legislators to insure environmental laws are strengthened to protect waterways, animals and human health.
• Hold people who are using these chemicals accountable.
• Host a community showing of “Ground War.”
WHAT IS MAKING YOU HOPEFUL ABOUT CURTAILING THE USE OF PESTICIDES AT GOLF COURSES?
In the old days, they would probably spray most of the golf course property including the rocks, the gardens, the lawns and every place you don’t play to keep it up to standard. Now you go to a lot of golf courses where they only spray playable areas and let everything else kind of go wild. So that’s one thing that is a positive step… And the other thing is that they are even getting down to when they spray in those areas. On the fairways or the greens, they are not carpet spraying them but spot spraying and that really reduces the amount of pesticides. And of course, the turf science has become more advanced where they are figuring out ways to build golf courses using natural elements, natural vegetation, as opposed to bringing in invasive species that don’t really belong, which has really been the way a lot of golf courses have been built.
When you bring in invasive species, it means they need to be heavily watered and need chemicals to keep them alive. The Vineyard on Martha’s Vineyard is a very good example, where they’ve tried to use all-natural landscapes and use what they had on the island in order to build and maintain that golf course.
WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE MOST TO TAKE FROM YOUR FILMS?
To become aware about what is being used around them, ask questions, demand transparency and to put some pressure on legislators and organizations to eliminate as much unnecessary pesticide use in your community as you can.