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Two reports on pesticide risks

May 30, 2012

When a politician says that his report is about the science, and not about the politics, it’s probably wise to take that claim with a grain of salt.  That’s made crystal clear by two studies released in the last month about the risks of pesticides – one written by politicians, and the other by scientists. 

On the one hand, we have the report of the BC Legislature’s Special Committee on Cosmetic Pesticides.  The Committee received more submissions on this issue than had ever been received by a Committee of the Legislature, and a substantial majority of the submissions favoured a ban.  Notwithstanding the public support for a ban, the Committee report dismissed the idea of a ban, which the Committee felt was unscientific, and characterized as “disagreeing with the findings of the [Federal Government’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency’s] comprehensive pesticide testing and re-evaluations”.  Committee Chair, Bill Bennett, put this still more clearly in his statements to the media:

From our perspective, the scientific evidence does not warrant preventing British Columbians from buying and using approved domestic-class pesticides. … What possible political advantage could there be to us making this announcement?  I think that there is almost a chemo-phobia in society. There is a lack of scientific literacy.

The suggestion that opponents of cosmetic pesticide use are unscientific and hysterical riled medical doctor, Dr. Warren Bell, who uses the verbs used by the Committee report to demonstrate the report’s bias.  

On the other hand, the Ontario College of Family Physicians released its own review of scientific studies examining the risks of pesticide exposure just a couple of weeks after the Committee released its report.  Here we have a review of the science written not by politicians but by trained medical professionals examining actual scientific reports, rather than simply accepting assurances of a witness from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA). 

The OCFP’s 2012 Systematic Review of Pesticide Health Effectsis an update of a similar review conducted in 2004.  The authors of the new review found links between pesticide exposure and various health effects:

  • Reproductive health – “[T]he results of this study would indicate that there are benefits to reducing exposure of pregnant women to commonly used pesticides.  In 2004, the birth weights of infants born after rather than before a household ban on two frequently used insecticides were found to be significantly higher in New York City, illustrating the possible benefit of pesticide bands within a few years of implementation.”
  • Neurodevelopmental/behavioural health outcomes in children. “Taken as a whole, the results of the systematic review … suggests that children are experiencing neurodevelopmental problems throughout childhood that are associated with prenatal and childhood pesticide exposure.  This suggests that vigilance is required to minimize the pesticide exposures of pregnant women and children from all potential sources …”
  • Respiratory health outcomes – “The sum of the evidence would indicate that reducing or eliminating exposure to all pesticide types … would be prudent in both occupational and domestic settings with respect to preventing negative respiratory health consequences.”

The OCFP’s Systematic Review was not focused on cosmetic pesticides, but their findings obviously contradict the Committee’s assurances that there is no basis for British Columbians to be concerned.  There may be some things that are worth taking risks over, but a perfect lawn is not one of them. 

Comments on science

The suggestion that one side has all the science on this issue is neither truthful nor helpful.  We acknowledge that there are scientists who are comfortable with wide-spread use of pesticides, even for cosmetic purposes.  At the same time, other scientists are finding troubling correlations between the use of pesticides and impacts on human health and our natural environment, and suggesting that a more cautious approach is needed. 

To put the science on pesticides and potential harm to human health into perspective, it took 30 years for the link between tobacco – a single substance – and cancer in humans to be conclusively established. 

The PMRA is required to evaluate the impacts of literally hundreds of different chemicals, and thousands of different products – each of which is, by definition, a powerful enough agent to be used to disrupt the life process of some “pest” organism or group of organisms.  For each of these substances, potential impacts are not “only” acute toxicity and cancer, but possibly more subtle impacts on nerve function, reproductive systems, hormone systems, human development, DNA, respiratory system, etc. – and that’s just a few of the human health impacts (there’s still all the environmental impacts to be evaluated).  And, as the PMRA explained to the Committee, examining the different ways that each chemical might interact with other chemicals in the environment, is “challenging.”

We’ve said before that we think that there are problems with how the PMRA carries out pesticide approvals.  But even giving the agency the benefit of the doubt, based on the tobacco example, we may be waiting for many years for fully elaborated scientific understanding of the precise nature of the impacts of many pesticides on ourselves and the environment.  That's reality and not, as Bennett has suggested, a conspiracy theory

To the extent that we already have warning signals from scientific studies about human exposure to pesticides, does it not make sense to weigh the risks in light of what is at stake, and act accordingly? Convenience and lawn maintenance versus possible neurodevelopmental problems for our children, for example?

Next steps

Despite the position taken by the BC Liberal MLAs sitting on the Special Committee, both the Premier and the leader of the opposition have committed to banning cosmetic pesticide use in BC. 

In the wake of the release of the Special Committee Report, the BC NDP wasted no time in reaffirming their commitment to a cosmetic pesticide ban.  Yesterday I was pleased to attend a press conference held by the leader of the BC NDP, Adrian Dix, and other NDP MLAs announcing that they are reintroducing a private members bill on that, if passed, would ban cosmetic pesticide use in the province. 

To date both the Premier and the Minister of Environment have emphasized that the Committee report is only one piece of information that the government will consider in deciding whether or not to proceed with such a ban, suggesting that the government could still move ahead and ban cosmetic pesticide use in the province. 

West Coast Environmental Law continues to stand with the large number of health, environmental and community organizations that are pressing for a strong, legislated ban on cosmetic pesticides

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer

Photo courtesy of Kerry Bokenfohr