Landmark UNI study examines pesticide use in Iowa communities

UNI NEWS SERVICES –In a recently released study, the University of Northern Iowa has for the first time estimated the amount of lawn pesticides applied in four Eastern Iowa communities as part of a larger effort to reduce the amount of harmful pesticides applied to urban landscapes.

UNI Prairie

The study estimated that about 37,000 pounds of weed-killing products were applied to residential lawns in Cedar Falls and Waterloo in 2018, a troubling figure due to the link between pesticides and a number of adverse health outcomes, particularly in children, such as prenatal and childhood cancers, chronic illnesses, neurodevelopmental delays and behavioral disorders.

“The study revealed that we’re bringing highly hazardous chemicals into our community,” said Kamyar Enshayan, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education (CEEE) at UNI. “The evidence is overwhelming that weed killers harm child development.”

The chemicals have also been shown to pollute local water supplies, pose a danger to pets and undermine bees and other pollinators by reducing biodiversity.

Moreover, the study highlighted the fact that most pesticides are applied for purely cosmetic reasons, making it a both unnecessary and preventable issue.

The study did not include golf courses, parks, schools, businesses and industrial parks, but Enshayan hopes that it will bring attention to the issue and point public and private institutions with larger swaths of lawn towards the programs UNI offers to alleviate pesticide application.   

One new program the center is offering is called Turf to Prairie, which targets institutions that have to manage large tracts of turf, such as schools and parks. The idea is to replace parts of these areas with native prairie.

“There are so many ecological benefits to prairie,” said Audrey Tran Lam, environmental health program manager for the CEEE. “It can enhance the aesthetics of parks and schools, provide habitat, improve water quality and requires less maintenance than turf.”

The center has put together information, with the help of UNI students and research from the Tallgrass Prairie Center, to help landowners understand how replacing turf with prairie can provide environmental and economic benefits. The center can then help connect the landowner with the resources needed to establish native prairie.

Mowing and managing turf costs an estimated $350 per acre every year, according to the Tallgrass Prairie Center. After the initial cost of installing the prairie, annual maintenance on those lands shrinks to around $50 or less. And while turf’s benefits don’t extend much beyond recreation, the prairie is increasing storm water infiltration, creating habitat to support pollinators and wildlife, and improving soil retention and health, all while storing more carbon than turf and reducing carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.

The CEEE also estimated pesticide use in Dubuque (18,500 pounds applied) and Iowa City (22,500 pounds applied).

For more information about the CEEE and the Turf to Prairie program, visit


Kamyar Enshayan, director, Center for Energy and Environmental Education,, 319-273-7575

Audrey Tran Lam, environmental health program manager, Center for Energy and Environmental Education,, 319-273-7150

Office of University Relations, 319-273-2761