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Environment commissioner hammers Canada’s pesticide management regime

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Federal inaction exposes Canadians, environment to unacceptable risks, report says

The Federal Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development (the “Commissioner”) released an audit Tuesday morning of the management of pesticides by Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (“PMRA”) under the Pest Control Products Act (“PCPA”). The audit shows the PMRA is failing in myriad ways to protect Canadians and our environment from the risks of pesticide use.

Last week, perhaps in anticipation of a critical audit from the Commissioner, the PMRA announced it will stop issuing new conditional registrations, and for the first time published a list of all current conditionally-registered pesticide products — 76 in total. As with previous audits in 2003 and 2008, the Commissioner criticized the PMRA for using lengthy conditional registrations that permit pesticides to be used in Canada without confirming one or more aspects of the risk or value of the pesticide, potentially allowing users to become dependent on a pesticide that may ultimately be found to be unsafe. This practice is the opposite of a precautionary approach.

The Commissioner also found that eight of nine pesticide products conditionally registered for more than a decade are neonicotinoids “now used extensively in Canada and widely suspected of being a risk to bees, other pollinators and the broader ecosystem.” In other words, the PMRA has opened Pandora’s Box. Widespread use of neonicotinoids is now the norm in Canadian agriculture but we don’t fully know the pesticides’ risks and value. Ecojustice and CELA formally objected to the renewal of the conditional registration of Clothianidin, a neonicotinoid, in 2013.

In a submission to a parliament committee last February, Ecojustice lawyers recommended that the sections of the PCPA regulation on conditional registrations be repealed because they undermine Canadians’ right to meaningful consultation on decisions that may adversely affect Canadians and their environment.

The Commissioner’s report also examined the Agency’s approach to special reviews, noting that it took court proceedings, which were launched by Ecojustice on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation and Équiterre, to get the Agency to initiate 23 special reviews in 2013 for active ingredients used in hundreds of pesticide products banned in Europe for health or environmental reasons. The Commissioner further noted that 15 of the 23 special reviews were previously requested in 2006 and wrongly denied.

The Commissioner’s report is further critical of the PMRA for not promptly cancelling the registration of some pesticides when it determined that they pose an unacceptable risk to Canadians or their environment, finding it took the PMRA between four and 11 years to get the pesticides off the market, exposing workers, the public and the environment to years of unacceptable risks.

What’s next?

Ecojustice continues to focus our energy toward efforts to reduce the unacceptable risks of pesticide use. We are currently preparing submissions to the PMRA requesting changes to the law that would ensure the permanent phase-out of conditional registrations and measures to quickly address the list of 76 conditionally-registered pesticides — many of which are neonicotinoids widely known to impact bees and other wild pollinators.

In addition, we continue to advise our clients on each pesticide special review, such as the proposed special review of the endocrine-disrupting herbicide Atrazine. Canadians have until Feb. 12 to submit written comments on this matter (consultation document:REV2015-11).

Even low levels of Atrazine exposure are shown to cause the demasculinization of male fish, amphibians, and reptiles to partial or complete feminization. Effects on reproductive and menstrual cycles, puberty, pre-term birth and even breast cancer have been linked to Atrazine exposure in humans. Atrazine was banned in Europe in 2004 due to groundwater contamination concerns, but it is still used on corn crops in Canada, where it has been frequently detected in surface and groundwater — and in some cases, even in treated drinking water.

When it comes to pesticides, our position is simple. Regulators must take a precautionary approach that ensures we have a full understanding of the potential impacts a pesticide could have on our health and our environment before we allow it to be sold for use. And in situations where we later learn that a pesticide does pose unacceptable risks, regulators must take swift action to get it off our shelves and out of our food, homes, and gardens.