Published on Monday, February 25, 2002 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
We're Poisoning Our Children
Today's produce is full of toxic residue and our children are most at risk.
We need a new pesticide law
by Raffi Cavoukian
Some people might wonder why a children's troubadour would be writing about pesticides. The short answer is, "everything grows.
From the beginnings of life in the womb, it is our very young, with their developing brains and bodies, who face the greatest threat from these chemicals, toxic by design and indiscriminately harmful.
We have a duty, in our globalized village, to recognize the early years as the foundation of lifetime health, and to keep our children from harm. Yet these innocent bystanders are casualties of a society that uses toxic chemicals to tend its crops and keep its lawns and golf courses green.
For children, environmental protection is a human-rights issue. That's why my Troubadour Institute for Child Honouring endorses the World Wildlife Fund's call for legislation to replace our outdated regulations, and for the reduction and eventual phasing out of harmful pesticides.
It can be jarring at times, reading about toxic residues in our food or about endangered beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River, and then singing Baby Beluga with my fans in a concert. This folk singer has learned a lot about environmental health over the years, and the recent news is quite serious.
Many pesticides include persistent toxic pollutants that are spread by wind, air and water, and through the food chain, to every part of the globe. Some of these have accumulated in our blood and in our flesh to the point where breast milk worldwide is known to contain highly toxic compounds.
At least 40 pesticides, many still in use, interfere with hormones that are responsible for development of reproductive organs, the brain and the immune system. Only 1 per cent of a pesticide actually reaches the targeted pest, so there is plenty of opportunity for exposure. And the young of all species -- from baby belugas to ducklings to human infants -- are vulnerable to the most minute doses of some of these toxic chemicals.
The growing child is the human face of this ecology. Compared to adults, children eat three times more food per body weight, proportionately taking in more pesticides. A large part of a child's diet is fresh fruit and juices made from highly sprayed crops.
Children absorb still more pesticides while rolling on lawns, playing on the ground, and crawling on floors and carpets -- all of which may contain pesticide residues. You don't have to look far. Pesticides are in many places, some obvious and some unexpected.
We're all familiar with pesticides being sprayed from tractors and planes onto crops. More surprising is that commercial aircraft are sometimes sprayed with pesticides. Pesticides are used in schools, daycares and public swimming pools. They are mixed into insect repellents applied to human skin. Even the wood preservatives on our patio decks, playgrounds, bridges and railway ties contain them.
Widespread use of synthetic chemical pesticides skyrocketed after the Second World War. Since then, each generation of children has grown up with a new generation of pesticides, as well as exposure to an environment still poisoned by persistent old ones, like DDT (dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane).
The World Wildlife Fund has calculated that at least 50 million kilograms of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are used in Canada each year. Yet accurate data are not available because manufacturers, distributors and users are not required by the government to make them public.
Parents, school boards, municipalities, farmers and gardeners need better information -- not only about the extent of pesticide use, but also on the practical alternatives that exist, including integrated pest management and organic agriculture. It's time these alternatives received full societal support.
In Canada, only the federal government can register or ban pesticides. But our Pest Controls Product Act has not been significantly amended since 1969. This outdated act allows old and highly toxic pesticides to remain in the marketplace, and fails to encourage benign alternatives.
Research has progressed a great deal in the last three decades. We have enough science. What we urgently need is new legislation, such as the World Wildlife Fund and other groups are calling for.
The medical ethical principle, "First, do no harm," should be fully enshrined in this legislation by embracing the precautionary principle. In other words, the onus should be on pesticide manufacturers to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that their products will not harm people or wildlife -- before those products are approved for use.
An economy that doesn't consider the health effects on our youngest citizens is unsustainable and dangerous. There is no wisdom in this form of neglect. Instead, we would do well to regard the child as a lens through which to evaluate all of our societal actions.
Former health minister Allan Rock promised to table a new pesticide law last fall. That didn't happen, but the bill is apparently ready to go. Let's not delay any longer. If children had a say, this would have been done by now.
Raffi Cavoukian, a member of the Order of Canada and an internationally known singer, composer and author, founded the Troubadour Institute for Child Honouring in 2000 to support initiatives that promote children's well-being.
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