It was back on May 1, when John D. Lee first noticed the dead grass in his back yard on Wood Avenue.
The brown and brittle grass circled a 50-year-old maple tree that stands just behind his house.
In the days and week that followed, the dead patch has grown to cover almost his entire back yard and, following a slight slope, spread to his side yard toward the street.
He was puzzled and more than a little concerned.
It looked to him as if someone had intentionally poured or accidentally spilled some type of chemical around the tree. Heavy rains have since spread the substance to the rest of his yard.
“We don’t know what it is. My biggest concern right now is to know whether it is dangerous or not,” he said this week. “We have family who come to visit and grandchildren. I don’t know what killed the grass. I don’t want the kids playing back there.”
Mr. Lee sought some advice.
He contacted arborist Peter M. Childs of Childs Arborists Inc. in Sandwich, who has more than 30 years of experience working in this field.
From his initial telephone conversation, Mr. Childs said he thought Mr. Lee might be exaggerating about the problem.
“I figured it was going to be nothing. But when I got there and saw it, I was astounded,” Mr. Childs said.
“It’s pretty evident that something happened in that area [around the tree]. Something was either spilled or sprayed,” Mr. Childs said.
Sandwich Health Agent David B. Mason, who has also inspected Mr. Lee’s property, agrees with Mr. Childs’s assessment.
“It’s obvious that something was done there. It looks like someone may have put some kind of chemical down,” he said.
Mr. Childs noted that the problem has definitely gotten worse since the first time he visited the site.
“I have seen lawns mistakenly poisoned and that definitely kills the lawn,” he said “But it doesn’t get worse with each rain.”
Mr. Mason said weed killer could have this effect on a lawn. But Mr. Lee said no one to his knowledge has used weed killer in his yard.
Mr. Childs said the soil could be sent to a private lab for testing, but that could get expensive. He explained that when a lab tests a soil sample, the lab wants to know the specific chemical it is testing for. He said since Mr. Lee does not know what chemical may be to blame for this problem, he cannot provide the lab with those specifics.
Mr. Lee turned to the town’s health department, hoping that it could assist with sending the soil out for testing.
But, Mr. Mason said, because this issue concerns private property, the town is not responsible for determining what that chemical is.
“Technically, it is Mr. Lee’s responsibility,” Mr. Mason said.
He said it could cost several thousands of dollars to conduct tests to determine the chemical that is causing the problem.
“We just don’t have that kind of money. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Mr. Mason said.
Mr. Mason empathized with Mr. Lee’s situation and agreed that it is probably not safe to let children or pets play on the lawn until some determination has been made about what may have gotten into the ground.
“Not knowing what the chemical is, I would have to take the path of caution,” Mr. Mason said.
Mr. Lee is now making a public plea to anyone in the community who may have information about anything being poured on his lawn in the days leading up to May 1. He is asking them to provide that information, even anonymously, to him or the police department.
“I just want to know if it is safe for my grandchildren to play on the lawn,” he said.