Anne Murray: Death and dandelions—are cosmetic pesticides worth the risk?
How bothered are you by dandelions on neighbourhood lawns? Do you prefer perfectly manicured grass, or are you okay with a smattering of weeds and a more natural look? Would it make a difference to your decision if you knew the Canadian Cancer Society considers some herbicides, chemicals that kill unwanted plants, to be a serious risk to children’s health? Should such products be sold in B.C. stores?
These questions are popping up at candidates’ meetings in the run-up to the provincial election. Over the last few years, prominent health advocacy groups, such as the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), have joined forces with environmentalists and community groups to push for a B.C.-wide ban on the sale of all cosmetic pesticides. “Cosmetic pesticides” are herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides used for the purpose of keeping yards, gardens, and parks artificially “clean” and weed- and insect-free.
Most other Canadian provinces have already voted for controls on cosmetic pesticides, with Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Alberta having provincewide bans. British Columbians, in general, also favour tougher laws. According to a 2010 poll, more than 70 percent support provincial legislation. Some school boards have restricted pesticide use in school yards, and the Union of B.C. Municipalities has twice voted in favour of a ban on cosmetic pesticide sale and use. Pesticide bylaws have been enacted in 40 B.C. municipalities, including many around the Lower Mainland. The problem is enforcement. Pesticides are readily available for purchase and only the provincial government can legislate a ban on sales. Initial provincial consultations on legislation in 2012 resulted in thousands of letters of support, but the government did not follow through with action. That is why the coalition of concerned groups’ is actively raising the question now.
There was a great enthusiasm for chemical control of our environment following the Second World War, and pesticide use was rampant. Scientists soon started to see a link between pesticides and ecological health, yet it was Rachel Carson, birdwatcher, marine biologist, and conservationist, who is credited with turning the spotlight on the dire effects of DDT, once the most ubiquitous of insecticides. In her 1962 book, Silent Spring, she documented the fatal effects of DDT on songbirds—“it was a spring without voices”—and thereby launched the North American environmental movement.
DDT was banned in North America in 1972, but its effects are taking years to work their way out of the ecosystem. Now concerns are arising about other pesticides and their impacts, not only on birds and the overall environment but on human health. Epidemiologic studies are revealing clear links between cancer and exposure to pesticides. Epidemiologic studies are important because they look at the statistical risks across populations rather than just individual causes of disease. Direct experiments are impossible to do on humans. It would be highly unethical to dose half a study group of people with pesticides and the rest with a placebo. Instead, industry and academic studies use laboratory rats and other animals, none of which are the same as a human. The gestation period of a rat is a few weeks, compared with nine months for a child, a very vulnerable time for the fetus. Also, infants and young children are particularly susceptible to inhalation of toxins in a way that rodents are not.
Health Canada is standing by its position that common home and garden pesticides are safe for public use. Other experts disagree. A 2010 University of Ottawa study found positive associations between childhood leukemia and residential pesticide exposure. Two continent-wide studies, the Cross Canada Study of Pesticides and Health, and the U.S. Agricultural Health Study, showed significant associations between exposure to pesticides and cancers, especially non-Hodgkin lymphoma, childhood and adult leukemia, and prostate, lung, colon, and brain cancer. The Canadian Institute of Child Health says there is “no question that pesticide exposure ought to be a cause for concern” and that “the majority of children’s exposure comes from home, lawn and garden use of pesticides”. Even where studies failed to find direct causality, the scientists urge a precautionary stance. The Canadian Cancer Society believes the balance of evidence has tipped sufficiently to warrant not only a tight control on all registered pesticide use, but also a ban on unnecessary, cosmetic pesticides.
It should be a slam dunk for an outright ban on sales. Why use life-threatening chemicals to kill a few weeds or spiders? However, nothing is ever simple. The counter-arguers claim that the science is still inconclusive. The cause of illnesses like cancer are notoriously difficult to pinpoint on an individual basis, so proof of an adverse effect can only come after statistically significant numbers fall ill. They suggest that strengthening the law to only permit licensed users would be sufficien, and would prefer business as usual to a precautionary approach.
Yet, just like with smoking, people will make up their own minds once they know the facts. A ban would help educate people to the risks they are taking. More public information on the dangers associated with casual pesticide use, and the proper process for disposing of chemicals once they are no longer needed, would be helpful. In exploring this topic, I found some useful sources, including how to find the active ingredients in different brand name pesticides (Health Canada), the health risks posed by different substances (Canadian Cancer Society), and disposal sites for pesticide containers (B.C. Ministry of Environment). These are links that should be on all municipal websites.
B.C. politicians should be told we want to live in a healthy environment. I am supporting the ban on cosmetic pesticides, avoiding toxic chemicals, and growing a garden organically. It may take a bit more work or look a bit messier, but that’s often nature’s way. There is greater beauty in healthy children, bird song, and butterflies. Rachel Carson knew that. She died of cancer, age 56.