TAMPA — Robert Lawson was working on his patio two years ago when the sweet smell filled his nostrils.
"It didn't smell bad," said Lawson, who lives next to the city's Babe Zaharias Golf Course in north Tampa. But hours later, he felt ill.
"I thought I was having a heart attack," he said.
Lawson learned the next day that the golf course had been treated with Curfew, a pesticide sold by Dow Chemical Co. to keep golf courses green.
Though doctors could not confirm the source of his illness, Lawson complained to the Flor ida Department of Agriculture, and the company that treated the golf course was fined $800 for using the pesticide too close to homes.
Lawson filed another complaint last month after the Tampa Sports Authority, which manages the city's golf courses, again scheduled the annual treatment.
He also took his concerns to the Tampa City Council, which is scheduled to hear from the authority on the matter Thursday. Council member John Dingfelder asked for a report on the process, which is used to control nematodes and mole crickets and reduce watering needs.
"Public health has to come before nematode control," Dingfelder said.
There are about 1,100 homes in the neighborhood association that includes Babe Zaharias Golf Course. Association president Jesse Brown estimates several hundred of those homes are adjacent to the course.
The Tampa Sports Authority says Curfew is a legal pesticide and they use it properly. Certified workers inject it into the soil and post warnings at golf cart path entrances after treatment. The course is closed to golfers for 24 hours. Little flags scattered about the grass mark injection points.
"We don't want anybody to get sick," said Barbara Casey, a spokeswoman for the Tampa Sports Authority.
But neighbors of the Babe Zaharias course say they should be told before the treatments are scheduled. They say the warning signs are hard to see, and people often access the property at unmarked entrances where there are no warnings at all.
"I see people walk their dogs, families walk their children, guys fish balls out of the lake," said Debra McCormack, who lives near the seventh hole. "They use it like a city park."
The active ingredient in Curfew, a soil fumigant, is 1,3-dichloropropene. Curfew's warning label says its vapors can cause kidney, lung and liver damage and death if inhaled. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a probable carcinogen.
Curfew's active ingredient has been sold under another commercial name for use on farms since 1975. Dow won approval to sell Curfew for use on golf courses and sports fields in Florida in 2001. At the time, the label required a 100-foot buffer from homes and other occupied buildings.
Last year, Dow asked for and received approval from the Florida Department of Agriculture to reduce the buffer zone to 30 feet.
"We get these kinds of requests all the time. We look at the science and make the decisions after that," said Charlie Clark, environmental administrator for the Department of Agriculture.
Dow gave state regulators a report from the EPA that said, based on studies provided by Dow, Curfew could be safely used with no buffer at all.
But the research on Curfew and golf courses isn't conclusive. Most studies have focused on agricultural use, where the soil fumigant is applied at significantly higher rates per acre than on golf courses.
Once injected, the soil releases gases that can be carried by wind.
Questioning the risk
In rural areas, the pesticide is injected at least 1 foot underground; on golf courses, the minimum depth is only 5 inches.
That prompted the EPA to conclude in a 2007 health risk assessment that, at least for the people who apply the chemical, "risk resulting from the golf course use is higher than that of agricultural uses."
Curfew also has the potential to contaminate groundwater. It is not sold in northern states because cold temperatures make it more likely to poison drinking water. And it's not sold in Dade County because of concerns about the aquifer.
At the request of the Department of Agriculture, Dow is testing the impact of Curfew on groundwater near a golf course in Polk County.
Karl Tupper, staff scientist for Pesticide Action Network North America, says his organization is fighting the use of all soil fumigants, though 1,3-dichloropropene is one of the less toxic ones.
But he questions data provided by Dow and the EPA showing the chemical has a 1-in-a-million chance of causing cancer.
Tupper said his organization's analysis shows the risk in some conditions is as high as 60 in a million. Tupper says that level of risk might make sense on a farm, where the benefit of healthy crops could outweigh the risk of causing illness.
"But when you look at a golf course, where it's purely being done for cosmetic purposes, is it really worth the risk?" Tupper asked.
McCormack, the Babe Zaharias neighbor, says no.
"I'm completely opposed to this particular pesticide, and I'd like more notification for another kind," she said. "They can find something else."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.