Occasional articles - 2008. Reprint of op. ed. published in The Hamilton Spectator, Mar. 26, 2008

Our lawns don't need pesticides; Proposed Ontario ban is popular with health groups and the general public

The Ontario government's pledge to ban lawn and garden pesticides -- made during the fall election campaign and reiterated in the throne speech -- is eliciting extraordinary support from both the general public and the province's health and environment authorities. When Environment Minister John Gerretsen rises to introduce the bill this spring, he will be proposing what should be one of the most popular pieces of legislation in recent memory.

I am writing this with the support of seven involved organizations, which are listed at the end of this article. Fifteen major organizations -- including the Canadian Cancer Society (Ontario Division), the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, and the Ontario Medical Association's Section on Pediatrics -- have signed a statement calling for the law's swift passage.

This comes on top of massive citizen support. The government just completed a 30-day public comment period during which residents were invited to respond to various aspects of the proposed ban. A phenomenal 6,000 people took time to send their thoughts to the Ministry of the Environment -- a staggering number given these public input exercises often generate fewer than 1,000 letters.

Early reports suggest the vast majority of comments were favourable to the legislation. As well, a recent survey by the national research firm Oraclepoll found 71 per cent of Ontarians endorse province-wide pesticide restrictions.

Why such an outpouring of support? Citizens know in their gut that poisonous lawn chemicals and children don't mix -- especially when effective, non-toxic products and methods are now so widely available. Instead of using herbicides, homeowners can leave their grass long, overseed and apply top dressing. If that fails, they can use corn gluten meal, a natural product that prevents weeds from germinating in the first place. If the issue is grubs, homeowners can use nematodes, microscopic organisms that feed on insects but are harmless to humans and the environment.

Citizens are also listening to the scientists. And the latter are saying that people exposed to pesticides -- especially kids -- are at greater risk for a variety of serious medical conditions including cancer, neurological illness and birth defects. A groundbreaking 2004 report by the Ontario College of Family Physicians found that children exposed to pesticides -- "especially insecticides and herbicides used on lawns, fruit trees and gardens" -- were at increased risk for acute leukemia, a form of cancer.

Ontarians are impressed with the government's common-sense approach: the ban will prohibit the "cosmetic" or ornamental use of these chemicals but still make them available where they're needed to protect public health. For example, a pesticide could not be used to kill dandelions -- and for the very good reason that dandelions don't threaten anyone. (If you don't like how dandelions look, you can remove them using a weeding fork or any non-toxic product.) On the other hand, residents and municipalities will still be able to use insecticides to kill West Nile virus mosquitoes or rodenticides to kill rats and mice.

Also popular is the government's intention to ban not only pesticide use, but pesticide sales. Ontarians know that if we're serious about reducing our chemical "body burden," we need to ensure nobody gets their hands on these poisons in the first place. Prohibiting sales means reducing toxic exposures -- it's simple as that. The province of Quebec banned pesticide sales a number of years ago and has seen a dramatic 50 per cent reduction in the number of households using these products, according to Statistics Canada.

In the end, the new legislation will be warmly embraced because it protects what's nearest to our hearts: our beloved family pets, the world of nature and, most important, our young people.

Gideon Forman is executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. This article was also endorsed by Sari Merson, Pesticide Free Ontario; Kathleen Cooper, Canadian Environmental Law Association; Mary Ferguson-Par , Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario; Jan Kasperski, Ontario College of Family Physicians; Lisa Gue, David Suzuki Foundation; and Dr. Hiro Yamashiro, Ontario Medical Association's Section on Pediatrics.