Pesticides: Acceptable or unacceptable risk?

Bob Diamond
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Stephenville -

Charlene Johnson, the provincial environment minister, in response to a call for a provincial ban on the use and sale of pesticides has stated that pesticides are federally registered for use and that they pose "minimal health risk."

Health Canada and the federal Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency in fact recognizes that pesticides are toxic substances designed to kill "target species" and registers and approves their use on the basis of what they consider to be an "acceptable risk" to the health of Canadians.

The governments of Quebec and Ontario which have passed legislation banning the use and sale of pesticides for cosmetic purposes, the numerous municipalities who have passed bylaws banning pesticides, and the many health and environmental organizations across Canada obviously recognize that Canada's national pesticide regulatory system, does not adequately protect us.

The federal regulatory system puts at "unacceptable risk" our more vulnerable population - small children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Some of the more commonly expressed limitations of the federal government's pesticide registration and regulation system include:

- The Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency is careful to warn users that pesticides are toxic., which is their essence, substances created to kill target species. The problem is it is not possible to confine their effects to target species.

- The regulatory agency decides that the risk to human health is acceptable, based on data submitted by the registering company. It depends upon companies submitting all relevant data.

- The lab tests are done on small numbers of animals, making it difficult to predict effects in large exposed populations.

- Each pesticide is tested by itself, which means that the interaction effects with the many other pollutants in the environment, as well as the combined effect of all, are not considered.

- Ethics prevent testing from being done on humans, so lab tests are done on animals that are imperfect models for humans, particularly for humans at formative and vulnerable stages of their lives.

- The "acceptable risk" determination made by the pesticide agency assumes that users closely follow all the instructions and procedures to reduce risk. Many users are unaware of or routinely disregard these requirements: they do not wear adequate protection when applying pesticides, they do not use correct concentrations or volumes, they apply at the wrong time (and frequency) and in the wrong weather (e.g., worsening the drift problem by spraying in high winds), they do not stop people and animals from entering sprayed areas at the highest risk times, and they do not safely store pesticides.

Regarding the provincial environment minister's concerns about the economic impact of a ban on the lawn and garden care industry, experience shows that where there have been bans on the sale and use of cosmetic pesticides (e.g. Halifax) that far from hurting the lawn care industry, employment and the number of businesses and people employed actually increases.

The government of Newfoundland and Labrador, Department of Health and Community Services has stated in reports and policy documents that the "key to achieving good health is the prevention of disease" and "that improving the overall health of our population is a priority of government."

It is about time that, as is the case in Quebec and Ontario, protecting the public from unnecessary exposure to pesticides became part of our government's public wellness and prevention policy.

We have seen a response in the media from the environment minister regarding this matter. We have heard nothing from the health minister in this regard. What is Mr. Wiseman's position on this important health issue?

Organizations: Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency, Health Canada, Halifax Department of Health and Community

Geographic location: Quebec, Ontario, Canada Newfoundland and Labrador

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