Editor’s Note: He Loved His Lawn

When Dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer, I couldn't help but wonder if the 50 years of pesticides he sprayed on our grass had something to do with it.

Editors Letter Liz SeptemberSteve Vaccariello for Reader's Digest

When my father was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, our family was desperate to track down why. The Ludlows didn’t get cancer. We had zero family history. And besides, we’d all expected an affliction of the lung to do him in. He smoked two packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day for 40-plus years.

His oncologist said Dad perfectly matched the profile of the typical stomach cancer patient: 71 years old, male, A positive blood type. The Mayo Clinic website fingered his diet, which was high in salty, smoked, and pickled foods and relatively low in fresh produce. But something else gnawed at me.

It was our lawn. As a longtime health journalist, I questioned the 50 years of pesticides Dad had sprayed on our suburban grass. I can picture it still, the rolling fertilizer dispenser tossing white pellets to and fro, pellets my dad marched through, then tracked all over our house. In the ’70s, Dad would become an early ChemLawn enthusiast. He was the first on our block to install timed sprinklers. A carpet-like lawn gave my father great satisfaction.

To make matters worse, he spent his Sundays clomping around a perfectly manicured golf course, often licking the grass stains off his Titleists.

The evidence on pesticide dangers has mounted, and many cities and towns have restricted its use for cosmetic purposes. But suburban America still wants lawns that look like putting greens. I shuddered to read McKay Jenkins’s moving story about the price we pay.

Steve and I keep our New Jersey lawn neatly trimmed but let it grow “wild.” I walk Milo far from any little white lawn flags signifying a recent spray, and I’ve taught my daughters to leave their outside shoes at the front door.

A combination of factors—especially his smoking—caused Dad’s cancer. But personally, I’ll always hold the poisons on grass partially responsible.

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