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The Great Pesticide Debate

Calgary committee to vote on the phasing out of cosmetic pesticides on Wednesday

by Emma Gilchrist

It's a battle that's been raging in this country for more than 15 years, with skirmishes fought in town council rooms, the House of Commons, the Supreme Court of Canada and on the letters pages of this newspaper.

But the use of pesticides for purely esthetic purposes -- such as killing dandelions -- has likely never been a hotter topic than it is today.

The push for a cosmetic pesticide ban in Calgary comes at a time when citizens have started questioning the safety of the food they eat, the toys they buy and the chemicals they're exposed to.

That public awareness has seen the movement for a pesticide ban pick up speed in Calgary, says Robin McLeod, spokeswoman for the Coalition for a Healthy Calgary.

A Canadian Cancer Society survey released in May found 87 per cent of Albertans support community bylaws banning the cosmetic use of pesticides.

"Environmental concerns are becoming a bigger issue for Canadians as a whole," McLeod says.

If passed, Calgary would be the first major municipality west of Ontario to implement a pesticide ban. In February, three aldermen brought forward a proposal for Calgary to phase out the use of pesticides -- including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides -- for cosmetic purposes by the end of 2010. The proposal called for city crews to stop using the chemicals by December 2009, with the ban to include private property by December 2010.

After two hours of debate, the issue was referred to an environmental advisory board to study and come back with recommendations.

That brings us to this Wednesday, when an implementation plan goes before a standing committee of seven aldermen. If they approve the plan, it will then be voted on by city council on July 14th.

More than 135 communities across Canada, including Halifax and Toronto, have already enacted pesticide-free bylaws. Ontario recently introduced legislation to ban the use and sale of cosmetic pesticides and Quebec has already enacted similar laws.

In 2007, Calgary city crews used 3,880 kilograms of pesticides, an amount that has been steadily increasing in recent years, according to Ward 11 Ald. Brian Pincott -- one of the aldermen who proposed a pesticide ban.

The Canadian Cancer Society has called on Calgary to move ahead with a ban, arguing that exposure to chemicals in the products are linked with leukemia and several other cancers. Children may be at the greatest risk because they often crawl and play on grass.

Even Home Depot announced in April that it will voluntarily stop selling traditional pesticides in Canada by the end of 2008 and will increase its selection of environmentally friendly alternatives.

However, on May 16, Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency released a reevaluation of 2,4-D, the leading pesticide in use in Canada, saying it is safe when used as directed.

"There is reasonable certainty that no harm to human health, future generations or the environment will result from use or exposure to this product," the agency reports.

What are we to make of all of this?

Advocates for a pesticide ban raise concerns with the methodology of the Pest Management Regulatory Agency's report and point to countless other studies that link pesticide exposure with health concerns, while opponents -- many from the lawn care and chemical industries -- say environmentalists are fear-mongering.

Pincott, one of three aldermen who brought forward the proposal for a ban, questions the credibility of the Pest Management Regulatory Agency.

"They didn't retest the chemicals; they just did a literature review," Pincott says, pointing to a 2003 federal auditor general's report that raised concerns about the regulatory agency. Among the concerns: the agency relies on industry to supply data on its own products and only evaluates chemicals on a one by one basis -- the cumulative effects of chemicals aren't taken into account.

The agency confirms that it does not test the products itself, but says test guidelines set by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development are in place to prevent data from being manipulated.

As for cumulative effects, however, the agency says there are only a few chemical groups that are well enough understood to allow estimation of cumulative risk. But the agency does take into consideration the effects of life-time exposure to any single pesticide.

The combined effect of chemicals in the environment is a growing environmental theme, often called the "chemical soup" concept. It maintains that we simply don't know the effect all of these combined substances on our health -- and that if we don't know, we should err on the side of caution.

"They are not needed. They are not protecting our health and they are not protecting the environment. It's a no-brainer," McLeod says. "If we can achieve the same things by natural means, then why aren't we doing it?"

She says that by planting more appropriate species and using eco-friendly techniques on lawns, such as top-dressing and aerating, the need for pesticides to kill dandelions can be greatly reduced.

Pincott says municipal governments need to take the lead on this issue.

"Any province that has implemented a ban, or is looking at it, has followed the lead of its cities," Pincott says. "We have to show that leadership."

He says a pesticide ban is about public health and safety.

"It's really simple: to remove needless exposure to poisons. It's something people are asking me to do."

Lawn care companies, however, take issue with a ban, arguing they must still be allowed to spot spray areas where there are weeds and pests.

Nutri-Lawn, which advertises "ecology friendly lawn care," is in favour of stronger restrictions on pesticides, but not a full-out ban.

Marketing manager Ryan Nix says Nutri-Lawn would like to see pesticides available, but only to people who are licensed to apply them.

"They are safe if applied by the label instructions . . . but there is no control as to whether they are followed."

About 25 per cent of Nutri-Lawn customers pay roughly 20 per cent more for an organic lawn care program.

"That is the side of the business that is growing most quickly," Nix says. "They (organic products) work a lot better over the long term."

Nevertheless, a pesticide ban doesn't sit well with Nix, who says certain situations require them, such as infestations of sports fields or trees.

Pincott says companies have a misplaced fear about a pesticide ban hurting their businesses.

"If we take a look at what has happened in other jurisdictions, the landscaping industry has boomed," Pincott says, pointing to Halifax.

McLeod says a ban gives companies the opportunity to capitalize on organic lawn care.

But Pincott concedes the public will have to adjust.

"There will be some dandelions on sports fields," he says. "But that has never hurt anybody."

Ultimately, where you stand on the great pesticide debate depends on how much you trust the Pest Management Regulatory Agency review and how you feel about erring on the side of caution -- oh, and how high your tolerance is for dandelions.

--Emma Gilchrist

© The Calgary Herald 2008

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