Can We Live With A Few More Dandelions On The Golf Course?

Was my dad's lymphoma linked to exposure to pesticides on the golf course — a sport he loved and played nearly every day? Andrew Nisker, Filmmaker

Growing up, my father handed out health advice to anybody who would listen — “father knew best”. We all marvelled at how it seemed the older he got, the more he moved. In his retirement, winters were spent as a ski guide and summers playing golf — a sport he had played six days a week for over 40 years of his life. We always joked he spent more time on the golf course than at home or at the office.

In reality, I was glad he played a sport that allowed him to spend time outdoors, enjoying nature, the sun, and the fresh air. Most of all, it was an activity that we were able to share, as my brothers and I practically grew up on the golf course with Dad.

So when he got sick with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and slowed down, I had lots of questions. How could a person who lived a healthy, active lifestyle get a blood cancer? I had barely even heard of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the time. The documentary, Dad And The Dandelions is constructed around my initial need to find out the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of this disease.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: "Is playing in the great outdoors on treated fields of grass as healthy as my dad and I thought?"

My journey revealed much to me about how little we know about the complex causes of cancers and how to assess risk factors for such diseases. My father never had an organ transplant and wasn't HIV positive: two risk factors for lymphoma. I soon discovered his type of cancer might be linked to pesticide exposure — but how might that have happened? He didn’t work with chemicals and never lived on or near a farm. I had to know more; I had so many questions.

My search, to my surprise, took me back into the world of golf. In this world of pearl white bunkers and putting greens that look and feel like velvet, I discovered that these “green spaces” are usually anything but. ‘Championship’ perfection requires the use of pesticides. 

Even though I am an environmental filmmaker, I still thought of golf courses as green spaces and that their manicured perfection was just reflecting the gold standard of turf we see on TV. Now that I know more about golf’s war on weeds, those perfectly manicured, blemish-free lawns and golf courses make me suspicious. Where are the dandelions?

Cancer usually develops over many years and I learned how difficult it is to say precisely why an individual person gets a certain cancer. That leaves all of us to decide: which ‘side’ of risk do we want to be on? Author Rachel Carson mused, while writing her seminal book Silent Spring over fifty years ago, that the world is divided into two groups: those who accept risks and those who err on the side of caution.

“So can golfers learn to tolerate a few more weeds? Can they learn to kick the chemical habit?”

We're not eating grass. So can golfers learn to tolerate a few more weeds? Can they learn to kick the chemical habit? Massive industries, such as the pesticide and golf industries, can’t change overnight. It often comes down to the consumers influencing change with their wallets. Moving forward,  I will play on public courses that tend to use less chemicals, and courses that are trying to encourage players to be more brown spot and weed tolerant.  If enough fellow golfers (and the next generation of them) decide to make this choice as well, then the industries will no doubt have to make a shift.

Watch Dad and the Dandelions

Like my father, I'm health conscious. But while my father took supplements and vitamins, he but didn't give a thought to the risk the environment could present. As a father to young children, I make sure we eat organic when possible, use safer cleaning products, and try to be conscious of what we’re exposed to in general. Why should the way we enjoy our sports and pastimes be any different?   

Today, I am firmly on the ‘side’ of risk where I err on the side of caution.

Dad And The Dandelions is the story of how I got here.

Available on CBC Gem

Dad and the Dandelions

Nature of Things