Environmental law enforcement - Environmental law in the news :  URBAN PESTICIDE CONTAMINATION

The Hamilton Spectator April 26/2003

Dreams of Green by Eric McGuinness

On one side you have Dow, Monsanto, Dupont, Bayer and BASF -- all big boys of the international chemical world, producers and distributors of weed killers, insect killers and other pesticides.

Lined up opposite are Christine Brown, Laurel Harrison and Allison Healing of Hamilton's Coalition on Pesticide Issues -- as well as women like them who lead neighbourhood and community groups trying to limit the use of poisons they say threaten their children and grandchildren.

Anti-pesticide forces are not all female, but women tend to be the local spark plugs of an expanding drive to convince municipalities to follow the lead of Hudson, Que., which passed Canada's first bylaw banning the use of most pesticides on home lawns and gardens.

Brown, an Ancaster resident who's been campaigning against lawn and garden pesticides for a decade isn't sure why women are so often in the forefront. "Maybe there's a stronger connection between women and their children," she says. "Perhaps they're more closely connected with their neighbours. Maybe they feel closer to food production."

Citing lawn pride, she also thinks, "the look of their property is more important to men."

At the same time, she believes that everyone is becoming more aware of the issue and that many are becoming more cautious about what they buy and use around their homes.

While Brown is concerned with human health in general, she said she is especially sensitive to some chemical sprays.

"I suffer when spring comes around. I've been nauseated, felt dizzy, had headaches, flu-like symptoms and difficulty concentrating.

"I resent the idea that I should have to shut down, close my windows and stay indoors so others can enjoy the freedom to do what they want. And I wonder if the elected officials are listening, the ones who have the power to react on our behalf."

Both sides have allies. The manufacturers are backed by lawn-care companies, government agencies that license pesticides and experts who argue the chemicals are safe if used according to directions on the labels.

Those who want to limit cosmetic use of pesticides are supported by the Ontario College of Family Physicians, Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, Humane Society of Canada, Breast Cancer Prevention Coalition, United Steelworkers of America, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and a raft of environmental organizations.

At issue isn't what happens on farms, although that is also often the subject of controversy. It's what happens around city and suburban homes, about what you put on your front lawn to keep it green and weed-free, about the sprays to kill insects that chew leaves and roots, and about the powders used to combat fungus diseases. It's also about the companies people pay to do the work around single-family homes and almost all townhouses, apartments and business buildings.

While some people believe they should be free to do what they want on their own properties, others complain that widespread outdoor use of pesticides affects neighbours and passers-by who breathe the vapours, children and pets romping on treated grass, birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Activists treat it much like the issue of second-hand tobacco smoke.

Local governments for years maintained they had no power to legislate, but that changed two years ago when the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Hudson's bylaw. The court ruled municipalities have the power to prohibit homeowners from using chemical lawn sprays, as a means of protecting public health.

Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé said that purpose "falls squarely" within health powers given to municipalities under a Quebec law similar to those in Ontario and other provinces. The court dismissed an appeal by Chemlawn Canada and Spray-Tech Inc., which had fought the ban for 10 years.

Halifax and dozens of other Canadian cities have since followed Hudson's lead. Others are under public pressure to act. Toronto's board of health is asking council to pass a bylaw banning most pesticide use on private properties by June 2005.

Hamilton plans to appoint an advisory committee to report next year, after this fall's civic election. Burlington council has decided to concentrate on educating homeowners about pesticide use. Council in neighbouring Oakville has directed staff to draft a bylaw by early 2004.

In the meantime, Hamilton, Burlington and most other nearby municipalities have stopped routine use of pesticides in parks but continue to use them on golf courses, bowling greens and cemeteries. Hamilton continues to use pesticides on traffic islands and to control broadleaf weeds on some sports fields. Burlington reserves the right to control insect infestations and pests such as poison ivy. Oakville says it uses chemicals only on an emergency basis.

The Royal Botanical Gardens, which sees itself as both an educational and environmental organization, says it sometimes has to use fungicides, herbicides and insecticides to protect ornamental plant collections, but tries to use as few as possible.

The RBG calls its approach integrated pest management or IPM, one that seems to say "chemicals if necessary, but only when necessary." It also sprays its lawns once a year to keep down dandelions.

IPM is a growing trend. Advocates say good turf management creates hardy lawns that shade out weeds, withstand drought, resist minor insect infestations and need little if any added fertilizer.

With IPM, you wouldn't automatically put a weed 'n' feed product on your lawn each spring or use insecticide as a preventive measure. Instead, you'd aerate, set your mower blade higher, top dress with compost, mulch the cuttings and water deeply but not too often. That way your lawn ought to be able to fend for itself.

Pesticides would be a last resort.

Burlington council wants staff to consider requiring lawn-care companies to be IPM-accredited, but there's some concern that the IPM approach lacks standards. For instance, Lynn Robichaud, the city's environmental co-ordinator, says lawns may be able to withstand a certain number of grubs per square metre, but there's no agreement on the threshold for calling in chemical weapons.

Lorne Hepworth is a veterinarian who heads CropLife Canada, a trade association for the multinational chemical producers that also operates as the Urban Pest Management Council of Canada. He says his members want to make sure public health and the environment are not endangered.

"We've all got kids, neighbours, dogs and other pets. But we have to speak out about arguments that are not scientific." The council says pesticides "contribute to the health and safety of all Canadians," and asserts that pesticides are more rigorously tested for environmental impact than prescription drugs.

Hepworth argues the proposed Toronto bylaw and others already in place are not based on sound science, and he's right that there's a shortage of clear-cut, smoking-gun evidence against many of the chemicals sold for household use. People don't keel over and die from lawn sprays.

But a House of Commons committee that studied the issue three years ago reported that: "Pesticides are known to play, or are suspected of playing, a role in a myriad of diseases and developmental abnormalities, including: cancer... childhood leukemia, reduced fertility, damage to the thyroid and pituitary glands, lowered immunity, developmental abnormalities and behavioural problems."

Janet Kasperski, a registered nurse who is executive director of the Ontario College of Family Physicians and a founding member of the Partnership for Pesticide Bylaws, says: "Pesticides are known to be endocrine disruptors, neurotoxicants and carcinogens. Children are ... vulnerable to the health impact of pesticides associated with developmental delays and increased motor dysfunction in children."

Kasperski worries about the combined effects of pesticide residues on food and our exposure to lawn and garden chemicals, especially on the elderly, people with chronic illness or asthma, on medications, with allergies or with kidney and liver problems that prevent breakdown and excretion of toxic substances.

"We believe that the use of cosmetic pesticides which have potential adverse health effects is not justified, and contradicts the precautionary principle. This human experiment, without consent, must stop. Everyone has a right to clean air, food, water and living environment. This basic human violation defies the universal code of ethics for respect of life."

She says the environmental health committee of the family doctors' association "feels the only way to phase out pesticides and protect public health is through a bylaw, coupled with vigorous public education initiatives on alternatives to chemical pesticides. Voluntary measures will not suffice to adequately protect our children from the harm of pesticides."

Look under Lawn Maintenance in the Hamilton-area Yellow Pages and you'll see most of the companies are reacting to consumer concern about chemicals. Almost all offer a choice of traditional treatment or organic programs.

Some, such as Perfectly Natural, advertise that they use no chemicals. But check Chemlawn's Web site and the emphasis is on the company's three-tier bronze, silver and gold programs in which the more precious metals offer the most chemical applications. There's no mention of looking for grubs and chinch bugs before putting down insecticide, as IPM dictates.

Critics also note that pesticides are tested singly, not in combination, and that the active ingredients are tested separately from the carrier or formulant with which they're mixed -- often 98 per cent of the product. They go on to note those formulants are considered trade secrets and not identified.

Hepworth insists the formulants are safe. He says the industry supports a system in which individuals would be allowed to examine safety data but not copy or write down the information.

Toronto Public Health surveyed city residents and found 45 per cent of lawns had been treated with pesticides in the previous year. Slightly more than half were applied by householders, 29 per cent by lawn-care companies and 18 per cent by both. There are no similar statistics for Hamilton.

Environment Canada scientists, led by John Struger of Hamilton, reported last year that nine pesticides and one pesticide breakdown pro- duct were found in the Don and Humber rivers, in one instance at levels considered dangerous to aquatic life.

Levels of the insecticide diazinon -- which will be taken off the market at the end of this year -- were twice as high at the mouth of the Don as upstream, indicating the chemical was washing off city lawns, into the river and on into Lake Ontario.

The Toronto health department researched the health effects of the seven lawn and garden pesticides most commonly used in Canada.

They are the insecticides diazinon, carbaryl and malathion and the herbicides 2,4-D, mecoprop, dicamba and MCPA. It concluded, "while the data do not support definitive statements about the risks associated with pesticides, the data do support the position that precaution is warranted.

This means that it is advisable that pesticide use be avoided, especially where vulnerable populations may be exposed."

Dr. Sheela Basrur, medical officer of health, reported that a growing body of research suggests even low levels of pesticides can have a negative effect on human health and that U.S. studies show widespread presence of pesticide breakdown products in people's urine, indicating that large portions of the population are routinely exposed.

Health Canada's Pesticide Regulatory Management Agency advocates a Health Lawn Strategy for all Canadians, one based on IPM principles. It emphasizes pest prevention, the use of reduced-risk substances and application of pesticides only when necessary. It's also embarked on a re-evaluation of the most common chemicals in lawn-care pesticides.

Bev Puskas of Ancaster thinks she has a better idea. Do without a lawn altogether. Her suburban lot is filled with greenery, flowers and shrubs, all thriving without added fertilizer or pesticides.

"I'm not an expert on any of this, but I call it an example of what you can do if you don't do. All I've ever used is a little dish detergent in water on aphids. I had one plant covered with insects last year and I said, 'I'll leave you, I won't chase you off.' That plant didn't look too good, but the rest were fine."

She and her son David took the same approach to Fieldcote Museum a few years ago and are now applying it to the Ancaster Seniors' Centre, relying largely on native plants adapted to survive here.

Their efforts have earned a series of Garden With Nature awards and several Trillium awards.

Those who want to avoid pesticides will have help from Fortinos this year. Following through on a promise made in 2001, outdoor garden centres at Fortinos and other stores in the Loblaw group will go pesticide-free this spring.

They will not sell fertilizers combined with weedkiller and will stock only organic products for insect control.

A member of the Waterkeeper Alliance