The commercials say it all -- Eugene Yuppie lounging in his lawn chair on the greenest, rollingest stretch of lawn imaginable while his neighbor is choking in dandelions, crabgrass and all sorts of stinging, buzzing, biting pests.

Let this or that lawn servicing company zap the varmints and the weeds and the bugs, the ads urge, and all this emerald green grass, fit for an English country house, is yours.

Of course once the bugs are gone, the birds won't want to stick around, but they're not part of the yuppie life style anyway, even though the Rachel Carson Council and the Audubon Society note in one of their brochures that "healthy robins and earthworms indicate an unpoisoned lawn."

Even clover is targeted for extinction, four leaves as well as three, by the folks who bring you purity of grass blades.

And whether you'll have healthy neighbors or pets or kids and whether their health has anything to do with your greener grass -- all that is a matter of a continuing controversy.

The problem, of course, is pesticides, a term that comprises some 60 other "cides," the suffix meaning "killer," including insecticides (bugs), rodenticides (rats, mice, moles), fungicides (mushrooms and other fungi), nematodicides (worms) and herbicides (weeds).

Lawn care companies are not the worst offenders in their use, but the proliferation of these companies in suburbia has brought the problem close to home.

On July 1, Maryland became the fifth state to have a law on the books requiring that lawn care companies post signs when they spray lawns, listing what they are using. The law will have no practical effect until spring, partly because the spraying season is about over, and partly because the state, the lawn care industry and other interested parties must thrash out the specific regulations. But the very existence of this "right to know" legislation is testimony to the growing public concern.

Stephen A. Hardymon, manager of public and environmental affairs for ChemLawn, the nation's (probably the world's) biggest lawn care company, says that amounts in their sprays are so diluted that "even if it were the most toxic material known to man, in the solution we use it, it would be harmless."

The ChemLawn formula is typically 92 percent water, about 7 percent fertilizer and less than 0.5 percent pesticide, and the pesticide is used only twice a year, Hardymon said. "People just misunderstand what we're putting on the lawn."

Still, Dr. Aaron Blair, head of the occupational studies section, environmental epidemiology branch of the National Cancer Institute, says: "Clearly, the acute effects of pesticides are well-known. After all, they are toxic chemicals, and they are constructed to be that way. People are poisoned by them all the time."

Most people poisoned that way in urban areas, says Blair, are homeowners who buy the chemicals in plant and hardware stores and administer them themselves, often with little sense of their potential toxicity and only casual attention to proper protection. Whether this aspect of potential trouble will be addressed by the Maryland law remains a matter for the regulations, according to David Shriver of Maryland's Department of Agriculture.

However, there is another group of people who appear to be particularly sensitive to even the small quantities of toxins sprayed by the lawn care companies. They demonstrate a variety of acute symptoms -- respiratory problems, swellings, rashes and neurological problems -- that seem to occur in conjunction with neighborhood sprayings. Spokesmen and toxicologists for the lawn care industry are adamant that these problems cannot be medically linked to their products and say these cases are "anecdotal," but enough incidents have been alleged in various parts of the country that public officials are beginning to respond. A class action suit against ChemLawn is pending in Pennsylvania, claiming a variety of damages for about a dozen specific alleged victims.

NCI's Blair, who has been conducting studies linking long-term pesticide use by farmers to the subsequent development of cancer, says that current studies -- including one going on now in Nebraska -- will attempt to get some information on medical problems associated with lawn and garden care chemicals but that "I must admit I'm not real optimistic about doing this because the exposure levels are much, much lower, and therefore the risk is lower and it takes a much larger study to detect an effect."

Last year, Blair and colleagues published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggesting a strong link between use of the popular herbicide 2,4-D and the development of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in a group of Kansas farmers. The researchers found a better than sixfold risk of developing the cancer in farmers who used products containing 2,4-D over a period of about 20 years.

ChemLawn's Hardymon called the study "inconclusive" but noted that the company had stopped using 2,4-D -- not, he emphasized, because of any threat to customers "but because the Kansas study raised some question about people who are exposed to the concentrated mixture. So we did not suspend use out of concern for our customers or the public but only for our employes. It cost us $3 million to suspend use of 2,4-D."

The chemical, which is found in more than 1,000 weed killers, has been suspended for use in ChemLawn treatments until three more studies now under way are completed.

Blair has also conducted a study of lawn and garden care workers in Florida who use 2,4-D and other products and found about a threefold increased risk of lung cancer. He is beginning a study of ChemLawn employes, sponsored by the company.

Additional tests and reports have suggested that other pesticides may be implicated in harmful effects, both in farming and with residues on farm products.

Blair says: "I am convinced that at least certain pesticides, either herbicides or insecticides, are probably causing some cancers. The important task we have is to find out which ones."

Joan Pitkin, the Prince George's County delegate to the Maryland General Assembly who sponsored the Maryland law, still hopes that even stronger local ordinances can be passed to control pesticide use. "The onus has been put on the citizen to prove that {the spraying} is harmful," she said, "when it should be just the opposite" -- the companies should have to prove their safety.

Meanwhile, says Sandra Marquardt, spokeswoman for the National Coalition against the Misuse of Pesticides, a clearinghouse of health and environmental groups, there is a new proliferation, "a sprouting up, if you will, of nontoxic lawn and garden care services." One she cited is Biological Urban Gardening Services, or "BUGS."

More Information

Information on nontoxic garden services, National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, 530 Seventh St. SE, Washington D.C. 20003. For booklet, send $5.

Booklets and other information: Rachel Carson Council Inc., 8940 Jones Mill Rd., Chevy Chase, Md. 20815.