Saving Babe Zaharias: The fight against Curfew at one Tampa muni golf course

The Babe Zaharias Golf Course is nestled in the Forest Hills neighborhood, owned by the city of Tampa and managed by the Tampa Sports Authority (TSA). For the past few years, Dow AgroSciences' Curfew — active ingredient 1,3-dichlropropene — has been applied to the course as a means to kill nematodes.

Just after the 2006 application of the pesticide, which is banned in Europe, numerous Forest Hills residents became sick.

Robert Lawson was one of them. He was on his back porch with his son when the two smelled a sweet marijuana-like odor. Within the hour, Lawson was ill.

"I thought it was a heart attack," Lawson recalled. "The symptoms were so strange and they came out of nowhere…. So I went to about 10 houses on this side of the street and out of the 10 houses, there were six people sick."

A year later in Dunedin, Melissa Cassidy saw a heartbreaking connection between the pesticide and illness. On July 25, 2007, the soccer fields at Jerry Lake Park (right behind Cassidy's house) were treated with Curfew. Remnants of the soil fumigant traveled onto Cassidy's property. Soon after, her Basset Hound, Dharma, fell ill. Dharma contracted lymphoma and mast cell tumors and died in May 2008. Cassidy spent months compiling research linking pesticide chemicals to canine cancer, the end product a 1,200-page book. Cassidy dropped off six copies of the book for the mayor of Dunedin and city commissioners at Dunedin Assistant City Manager Harry Gross' office. When the officials failed to respond, she teamed up with Gross and Superintendent of Parks Art Finn. Their first meeting turned everything around; Curfew was unofficially banned from the city golf course and hasn't been used since.

In Tampa, Debra McCormack, who is an ardent advocate for the fight against cancer, joined the anti-pesticide battle after the 2008 application of Curfew at the Babe. McCormack, who looks after her father, became extremely concerned when chemical clouds drifted onto her property.

In mid-2008, Lawson, Cassidy and McCormack joined forces to prevent the 2009 application of Curfew at the Babe Zaharias Golf Course. Their fight became a full-time job, as they worked seven days a week from morning until night. The three contacted government officials on all levels asking for help: they shared their testimonies with people from the TSA; they compiled a massive amount of research to determine all of the reasons why Curfew should be banned from the Babe; they tried to find a lawyer who would fight for their cause (to no avail); and they did their best to inform other residents of Forest Hills about the dangers of Curfew.

According to The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry Web site, 1,3-dichloropropene has been declared a possible and even probable human carcinogen by the Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the EPA. The EPA's definition of a "probable" human carcinogen is: "....agents for which the weight of evidence of human carcinogenicity based on epidemiologic studies is 'limited' and also includes agents for which the weight of evidence of carcinogenicity based on animal studies is 'sufficient.'"

Still, after classifying Curfew as a probable human carcinogen, the EPA granted Florida the right to apply the chemical to kill nematodes. Dow's Curfew product page says " a superior liquid soil fumigant...With Curfew turf managers will notice healthier, enhanced root development and fewer predator problems."

But Lawson, Cassidy and McCormack didn't care about the turf; they cared about the people. Their message was simple: Let's work together to prevent the use of probable carcinogenic chemicals.

"I don't think it's a side issue," Lawson said. "I think it's a basic human health issue, and how the hell could you not be on our side?"

This message didn't seem to affect government officials, the Sports Authority or Dow, so the activists tried using their gathered data to make a point. On the Curfew label it says, "It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling." Further down the label it says, "Do not apply in areas overlying karst geology." With some help, the activists figured out that the Babe is located over karst geology (unstable ground, a common characteristic of Florida terrain), and the injection of Curfew into the ground would be a violation of federal law. The response from the government? Nada.

July 22, 2009 was the scheduled date for an injection of the chemical at the Babe, and the outlook wasn't good. As far as anyone could tell, "D-Day" would go on as planned. There had been newspaper articles and endless appeals to the Sports Authority, Mayor Pam Iorio and other elected officials, all without success. The Sports Authority seemed dead set on applying Curfew.

But several days before the scheduled date, Dow AgroSciences backed out due to the residents' loud voices and to avoid "unfounded allegations...or potential litigation," said a Dow spokesman. The residents were ecstatic. McCormack sent a mass e-mail saying "In Memory of My Dear Friends, Andrea Ravinett Martin and Margie Wynn. This win is for you and to help keep people safe from what you endured." (Martin and Wynn were friends of McCormack who died of cancer; their deaths were unrelated to Curfew.)

The neighborhood activists won kudos from two Tampa City Council members.

"The neighborhood gets the credit," said Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena, "[for] bringing the issue both to the council and to the press, which was the catalyst in Dow's decision to pull out."

Councilman John Dingfelder said he was thrilled with the result and that he would work hand in hand with Saul-Sena for a better solution.

Barbara Casey, a spokeswoman for for the Sports Authority, said it is looking at all of the possible options to treat the golf course and that it did not expect Dow to make the decision that they did.

Meanwhile, the residents forge ahead.

"We intend to start a non-profit to disseminate information, and it will not be limited to pesticides," McCormack said in an e-mail. "We are against carcinogenic chemicals. We plan to hold politicians accountable for their actions or inaction if that be the case."

And Cassidy continues to work on improving her website, which you can visit at

Injection of pesticide at the Babe Zaharias Golf Course in Tampa attracted the attention of neighborhood activists, who worried it was making them sick. (photo courtesy of Debra McCormack)

Tucked away in a northern Tampa neighborhood is a golf course named after the greatest figure in women's golf history, Mildred Ella Didrikson Zaharias, better known as Babe. The champion golfer died of colon cancer in 1956, so it seems fitting that, when the turf of her namesake course was being injected with a pesticide believed to be a human carcinogen, three activists fought passionately, persistently and (ultimately) successfully to stop it.

It took years to win. This is how they did it.

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