Canadians Against Pesticides
With growing evidence of the dangers of pesticides, and a largely ineffective regulation regime, a grassroots movement has taken up the cause against the non-essential use of agriculture chemicals.
Tragic circumstances prompted Sarah Dredge Cross of Corner Brook to get involved with the banning of non-essential pesticides in her community. Her grandson, who died of leukemia, worked directly with pesticides with a lawn maintenance company. "He’d come home with his socks soaking wet with them," she recalls. "He was never given protective gear to wear."
Although she has no proof, she adamantly believes that the pesticides were absorbed into his bloodstream and were the cause of his death.
Three years ago George Thorne got a nasty shock that made him change his behaviour. He had just applied a common herbicide to his Corner Brook lawn when he noticed his then seven-year-old granddaughter was playing nearby. Soon after taking her off the lawn, "she developed a rash, her eyes were watery and she was breathing hard," recalls Thorne.
Her symptoms eventually subsided, but for Thorne the evidence was there. "Like tobacco, I have no proof," he says, "but there’s too much of a correlation for it not to be." "I gave up using pesticides after that." Although Thorne admits he doesn’t know a lot about gardening, he tore up some of his sods and planted shrubs, trees and flowers and now maintains them organically.
In neighbourhoods across Canada people and their pets are getting sick and are pointing to the over-exposure to pesticides as the culprit.
At least 50 million kilos of pesticides are applied each year in Canada. A large portion are sprayed on agricultural crops for pests and for cosmetic reasons (such as producing blemish-free apples). Still, Canadians apply hundreds of thousands of kilos of pesticides annually to their lawns.
"It’s a growth industry," says Julia Langer, director of Wildlife Toxicology with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), citing industry data on home and garden pesticides.
So why do we drench our lawns with pesticides? Perhaps the reasons are several: the quest for a perfect green lawn, the belief that these products are safe, and a lack of information on alternatives.
What are pesticides? They are poisons designed to kills weeds (herbicides), insects (insecticides), and fungus or mould (fungicides). One problem with these chemicals is that only a small percentage reaches the target. The rest gets into our streams, rain, even our drinking water. And when one lawn is sprayed, aerial drift can contaminate at least 40 others in the neighbourhood.
"There’s a growing number of scientific studies showing the risks of pesticides," says Langer. Pesticides have been linked to leukemia, breast cancer, brain cancer, non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma, birth defects, learning disabilities, asthma, liver and kidney dysfunctions and other ailments, in humans and their pets.
More recently, disturbing information has emerged on the ability of some pesticides to mimic hormones in people and wildlife. In other words, they can disrupt reproductive and immune systems.
Children - because of their smaller size, developing systems and behaviour (such as playing on the ground and putting things in their mouths) - are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pesticides. A National Cancer Institute study in the U.S. says that children whose parents use pesticides in their homes and gardens are six times more likely to get leukemia.
Even family pets are not immune. "Dogs from homes with lawns that have been sprayed with pesticides have a higher than average rate of the canine equivalent of lymphoma. Cancer is now the No.1 cause of death in dogs," notes the Sierra Club of Canada website.
Pesticides in Canada are registered under the federal Pest Control Products Act (PCPA). Many organizations, including WWF, are calling for pesticide reform. They point to the 30-year-old act, claiming is out of sync with the significant changes that have occurred in the scientific understanding of pesticides and their effects on health.
"Once a pesticide is registered - perhaps decades ago - there’s no regular process to re-evaluate or de-register it," says Langer, who claims that our regulatory system has not kept up with all the 6,000 plus pesticide products.
"We require a very comprehensive data package for any product proposed for registration," contends Dr. Diana Somers, Acting Director, Health Evaluations Division with Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), the branch of Health Canada that administers PCPA.
Mary Mitchell, of PMRA’s Occupational and Bystander Exposure Section, says that special risks to children, for example, are noted in the pesticide evaluation.
"We consider their exposure for all possible sources and all routes," she says.
That doesn’t convince people like Lori Stahlbrand, WWF’s Pesticide Reduction Outreach Coordinator.
"Testing is very inadequate in my understanding. For one, testing is done one chemical at a time and doesn’t take into account the synergistic effects," she says referring to combined exposures that can magnify the toxic effect.
In fact, a study released just last month demonstrated that combinations of toxic pesticides are far more damaging than any single one acting on its own.
Stahlbrand also questions the testing methods with regards to hormone-mimicking pesticides, saying that "the effects on our bodies may not show up until later in life or in the next generation, so how do you test for that?" Commercial pesticide application and signage is under provincial jurisdiction. More stringent signage requirements now include the pesticide name and a government contact.
So, armed with this information, can a homeowner find detailed information about pesticides applied to their, or to a neighbour’s lawn?
The pickings are slim from our provincial regulators. According to the Pollution Prevention Division’s Web site, two common pesticides known by the trade names Roundup and Ambush are "very safe to humans". But recent studies have shown the former to be linked to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the latter is considered to have hormone-disrupting effects. This lack of data on pesticides may mirror a problem at the federal level.
"We’re very restricted at present," admits the PMRA’s Somers about the agency’s inability to divulge information on pesticide ingredients and relevant studies that reveal adverse effects. "It’s confidential...we require the registrant’s approval to give out information about their products."
According to Stahlbrand, frustration with the federal regulation process - from the lack of a regular pesticide review process to a lack of access to information - has forced people to turn increasingly to their municipal governments.
About 75 municipalities across Canada now have bylaws, or draft bylaws dealing with the cosmetic use of pesticides on public and/or private property.
A proposed bylaw to phase out lawn and garden chemicals over a four-year period in Halifax could make that city a model for other concerned Canadian communities.
"Many have come to the issue because they have developed environmental illnesses, or their child [has become ill], or their pet died and they believe it to be a result of pesticide poisoning," says Stahlbrand.
Certainly that goes for Dredge Cross and Thorne who volunteer with the Community Free of Pesticides Committee. Lobbying by this local organization got the City of Corner Brook to change its policy on pesticide use.
"It’s not in written policy - not a ban. Rather than indiscriminately using pesticides, we stay away from them," says Gerry Cole, Corner Brook’s recreation liaison. "I’ve been working closely with the environmental group here to get alternatives...we’re working on changing attitudes not policy."
Cole says that this will be the third year his department - responsible for open spaces, parks, sports fields - will not be using chemical pesticides.
"To fill the environment with chemicals just for an aesthetic, because we don’t like something, in my mind is just not an option," says Cole.
A similar trend is happening in St. John’s.
"At one time we’d spray to control weeds on sports fields. Now we tolerate them," says Jim Clarke of the city’s Public Works. "It’s a risk management, liability issue. How do you stop young kids and pets from getting in (on sprayed areas)? It’s not worth the risk."
"There’s been no hue and cry. A few weeds don’t hurt the sports fields."
A battle cry has been sounded from a growing crop of national health and environmental organizations calling for a moratorium on the cosmetic use of pesticides.
"There’s enough of a concern that we should take some precautionary action," says WWF’s Julia Langer. "Science never gives an answer, but information. There is enough evidence here that we should do something about it - especially because we can do something about it."
SIDEBAR: Points on Pesticides
The following is a short list of common lawn pesticides and some the adverse health effects linked to their use:
2,4-D: This widely used herbicide, and one of the components of the defoliant Agent Orange used in Vietnam, has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), a group of cancers that is rapidly increasing in the industrialized world. It has the potential to harm human fertility, reproduction and the development of offspring and is a probable human carcinogen. Damage to the nervous system may be irreversible when 2,4-D is absorbed through the skin. Existing medical conditions such as asthma may be aggravated. Available in about 1,500 lawn-care products in Canada, 2,4-D is banned in Sweden.
Glyphosate: Sold under the trade name Roundup, new studies link this chemical to NHL, as well as gene mutations and chromosomal aberrations.
Chlorpyrifos (Dursban) and diazinon: These are organophosphates, a type of insecticide that affects the central nervous system. Chlorpyrifos has been linked to brain cancers in children. Diazinon (such as Bug-B-Gon) is particularly toxic to unborn children and infants.
Sources: Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture - Forest Service, Sierra Club of Canada, Cornell University Cooperative Extension Offices, and Toronto Environmental Alliance.
Freelance writer Alison Dyer lives in St. John’s