Intervenor: vol. 27, no. 3 - 4, July - December 2002

Ban on Cosmetic Pesticides is Overdue

A huge public rally for a pesticide by-law, letters, buttons, and mud-slinging on talk radio: the show has begun. Public meetings on how Ottawa will reduce use of cosmetic pesticides in landscaping activities start tomorrow evening.

The options are: status quo namely continuing a public education and awareness campaign to reduce pesticide use, or expanding the ppesticidesublic education program to include paid staff; and either letting the landscaping industry regulate itself(!) in voluntarily complying with pesticide reduction protocols; or passing a by-law dictating that will be used to protect public health, but not for normal maintenance of lawns and gardens.

Turfing landscaping pesticides in favour of healthier people and a cleaner environment makes abundant sense to people like CHEO's top doctors Joe Reisman (head of paediatrics) and Alex MacKenzie (director of the Research Institute). They are treating escalating numbers of children with asthma and diabetes.

Environmental toxins and pesticides in particular have been linked to cancer, diabetes, immune dysfunction and allergies, and motor and behavioural problems. The doctors are with the Coalition for a Healthy Ottawa, seeking a by-law to ban cosmetic pesticides. The doctors debuted at the Coalition's rally, but may be wondering what they got into, as they are harangued by rude talk-show hosts twisting their words.

Meanwhile, the pesticide application industry, under the Orwellian guise of various "Environmental Coalitions" is working with Tactix Government Consulting Inc. in lobbying Ottawa councillors and to green-wash pesticides in the public eye (to whitewash their effects by suggesting they are green). In the 1990s, Ontario corporate money flowed to Halifax to fight their city's pesticide by-law, where pesticide applicators packed public meetings. With the nation's capital debating pesticide restrictions, the stakes are high. Watch for imported performers.

Tactix and friends are also tackling our doctors, armed with industry-funded information from the "2,4-D Industry Task Force." The Task Force is dedicated to discrediting every scientific study suggesting the popular herbicide ingredient is harmful. Reisman and MacKenzie had barely been uttered their support when reports landed on their desks, purportedly proving the safety of 2,4-D.

Why defend a single chemical when in reality it is mixed with untested "inert" ingredients and other pesticides? The 2,4-D family of herbicides is contaminated with dioxins. An off-the-shelf 2,4-D herbicide mix was shown to impair mammal reproduction at levels far below what is allowed in drinking water. Although
2,4-D is said to dissipate rapidly, studies show it is everywhere, even in human semen.

Who protects public health? The federal government allocates limited resources to simply register pesticides, based on limited testing information provided by industry. Some common pesticides pre-date thalidomide, to a time after the Second World War when we had little concept of the potential for harm of a range of consumer chemicals. The huge number of formulations makes it impossible to test all products, even if comprehensive testing was required, or methods existed.

Last year the Supreme Court ruled that municipalities could ban cosmetic pesticides. More than 35 Quebec municipalities have by-laws, with the number climbing quickly. Quebec is considering a province-wide ban. Halifax has a by-law. Municipalities across the country are following suit.

Patients suffering from environmental illness urgently need a pesticide by-law. "Better living through modern chemistry" has become a nightmare for those who suffer pain, difficulty breathing, weakness and confusion when pesticides drift into their homes from neighbouring lawns. They are now fighting to live without being poisoned by their neighbours. Breathing through filter masks, leaning on sticks, these brave folks will have their say.

The pesticide-free movement is not new. Moms and tots hand-crafting pesticide-free signs in Crystal Beach convinced their community, where streets are lined with beautiful yards, without pesticides. Some of Ottawa's most spectacular gardens flourish without toxic chemicals.

It may be obvious to non-golfers that the risk vastly outweighs the benefit of lawn and garden chemicals. Golf, however, is a big industry. Canada boasts a couple of "organic" courses, but this concept is foreign to local greens-keepers, who think they cannot do without fish-killing fungicides and bird-killing insecticides. Is it just a myth that golf started long before chemically maintained turf?

Those who suffer from environmental illness and cancer have long suspected that pesticides contributed to their problems, and this picture is becoming clearer. Of course, when we landscape without toxic chemicals people will still get sick -- but some illness will be avoided. At least victims and families will not be cursed with the anger and worry of something as frivolous as cosmetic pesticides contributing to their ills.

A pesticide by-law is one relatively easy step towards a healthier Ottawa. In the words of Dr. Alex MacKenzie, "This is a no-brainer. It should be done yesterday."

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Meg Sears has a PhD in biochemical engineering. She is a member of the Coalition for a Healthy Ottawa. Public meetings on cosmetic use of pesticides were held in Ottawa in October 2002.

This article originally appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on the October 8th, 2002.