Health at risk: Pesticide regulators are failing Canadians

Regulation of pesticides in Canada lags far behind other countries

(Following are excerpts from a column by Dr. Trevor Hancock, a co-founder of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). Dr. Hancock reflects on the problems and consequences of Canada’s flawed system of pesticide regulation. Reprinted by permission of the author. Credit: Victoria Times-Colonist. The full text is on CAPE’s web site. A worthwhile read.)

March 11, 2019 – I cut my environmental-health teeth fighting the pesticide industry and Health Canada in the early 1980s, when I was an associate medical officer of health in the City of Toronto. We were recommending a ban on 2,4-D in the city, on the grounds that controlling dandelions in parks and gardens — known as cosmetic pesticide use — was not worth the potential health effects. I came to an early recognition that the Health Protection Branch of Health Canada functioned more like the industry-protection branch.

Dr, Trevor Hancock

I went on to co-found the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. For years, CAPE has fought to reduce or eliminate both cosmetic and in some cases agricultural pesticide use. It has done so based on evidence, the application of the precautionary principle, and its professional and public-interest concern in protecting health and the environment.

In its work, CAPE and its many community and environmentalist partners have tangled constantly with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, established within Health Canada in 1995. On its website, CAPE notes “gaps and flaws in this review process leave Canadians inadequately protected from health and environmental risks associated with the use of toxic pesticides.”

But CAPE is not alone in its criticism. The federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, part of the office of the auditor general, has undertaken three reviews of the agency since 2003, and they disclose some serious flaws. In 2003, the commissioner reported: “Overall, we conclude that the federal government is not managing pesticides effectively. We found weaknesses in many areas … [which] raises serious questions about the overall management of the health and environmental risks associated with pesticides.” But note, this comes after decades of criticism from health and environmental organizations acting in the public interest — and still the PMRA could not get it right.

In fact, for three of the most widely used pesticides in Canada — atrazine, glyphosate and neonicotinoids as a class — we have lower standards and are years, if not decades, behind Europe in protecting the health of Canadians.

Atrazine, a herbicide that is still registered and used in Canada, although declining, was banned in Europe in 2003. Glyphosate is a widely used herbicide that is a probable human carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization — but not according to the PMRA, which seems to think it knows better. And neonicotinoids are widely used insecticides that are linked to harm to bees and other beneficial insects. The EU banned them for all outdoor agricultural use from the end of 2018, but the PMRA has taken only small steps to reduce their use.

In their blind pursuit of economic growth and their misplaced confidence in dodgy corporate science, governments turned a blind eye to all the warnings, while we all suffer the consequences.

(Read the complete column on the CAPE web site.)

Municipalities don’t need toxic pesticides, new study finds

Maintaining attractive, functional parks and sports fields doesn’t have to cost the earth

October 2018 – A new report from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) refutes the myth that the cost of municipal weed control spirals upwards — and weeds run rampant in public parks and green spaces — when local governments are not allowed to use typical toxic pesticides.

Some municipalities in Manitoba have expressed fears of skyrocketing costs and a virtual dandelion apocalypse, because of the province’s restrictions on non-essential uses of pesticides, which came into effect in 2015. The Association of Manitoba Municipalities has signalled that its members want the law changed to allow local governments to use currently banned products. But the new study from CAPE, based on information from practising weed program managers, found that the riskier pesticides are simply not needed.

City Hall, St. Catharines, Ontario

In the summer and fall of 2018, CAPE conducted interviews with parks managers in six municipalities across Canada — London, Guelph, St Catharines and Toronto in Ontario, Richmond, BC, and Cape Breton Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia. All cities that participated in the study are operating under either provincial or municipal restrictions on non-essential uses of pesticides on lawns and gardens. Some regulations have been in effect for more than 10 years.

The study found that satisfactory levels of weed control can be readily achieved at reasonable cost without the use of prohibited pesticides. How is this possible? Instead of relying on pesticides to suppress weeds, parks managers in these cities have adopted horticultural practices aimed at building and maintaining healthy turf to encourage desired plant growth and discourage weeds. These measures include mowing, aerating, fertilizing, overseeding and top-dressing.

In brief, parks managers who were interviewed for the study reported that:

  • Alternative practices that focus on building healthy soil and turf are effective in controlling weeds, even on sports fields that require maintenance under demanding conditions of use.
  • The cities’ weed control costs have not escalated, but have remained stable. Parks managers reported that priority green spaces of higher use and visibility can be maintained in well-groomed, attractive and functional condition within available budgets without using the banned pesticides.
  • Community residents appear to be satisfied with methods of weed control that do not expose people to toxic pesticides in parks and on sports fields. Managers reported that complaints are minimal.

Cities and towns that are resisting bans on non-essential uses of pesticides, like some in Manitoba and Alberta, can take heart from the experiences of their peers in other municipalities, who are successfully controlling weeds without using the riskier pesticides. The complete report — Municipal Weed Control: Lessons from Ground Zero — is available on CAPE’s web site.

Preserve Manitoba’s pesticide law to keep our children safe

PETITION IS NOW CLOSED – But please let the provincial government know you favour maintaining Manitoba’s current pesticide restrictions

November 2018 – Children will be harmed if the current Manitoba ban on cosmetic pesticides is loosened, warns the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).

CAPE earlier circulated a petition urging the Manitoba government to maintain the existing provincial ban on non-essential uses of pesticides. The group is now recommending that those who did not have a chance to sign the petition should still let the provincial government (and your provincial MLA) know that you favour retaining current pesticide restrictions to protect children’s health.

Why does this matter? The provincial government indicated two years ago that it may change the present pesticide law, which has been in effect since 2015. CAPE notes that that relaxing restrictions on toxic pesticides would once again make lawns, parks, boulevards and other green spaces into sources of chemical exposure, defeating the goal of reducing human exposure to pesticides.

In a June 2018 letter to Manitoba’s Minister of Sustainable Development, CAPE cites evidence from more than 500 studies on pesticide risks to human health. Peer-reviewed studies have found that children who are exposed to pesticides are at higher risk for physical and cognitive problems, including low birth weight, learning disabilities, delayed motor (neuromuscular) development, hormone disruption and cancer.

Municipalities in Manitoba have been lobbying for changes that would permit the use of previously banned pesticides. But CAPE points out that hundreds of towns and cities across Canada are able to maintain attractive lawns and safe play spaces without using such chemicals. CAPE’s just-published study of municipal weed control provides examples of successful, non-toxic weed control from across the country.

While pesticides allowed for use in Canada must be approved by Health Canada, CAPE notes that evidence used in federal pesticide evaluations often lacks independent review and does not take sufficient account of multiple chemical exposures that people experience in the real world. As well, Health Canada’s system of pesticide approval typically looks only at the main active ingredients in pesticides, and not at the formulations that are actually sold and used. Product formulations often contain additional chemicals designed to intensify the toxic effects of the active ingredient, which can increase the impact on people who are exposed. Because there are so many gaps and flaws in the federal regulatory process, Canada’s pesticide evaluation system is not reliably health-protective, CAPE says.

Let’s keep children safe from pesticides used on lawns and gardens in Manitoba.

TAKE ACTION. Tell the Manitoba Government that you want the current ban on non-essential uses of pesticides to continue.

Why it matters – lessons from the life and work of Sandra Madray

Honouring a committed advocate and researcher who campaigned on behalf of the most vulnerable

SEPTEMBER 2018 – In this heartfelt and personal reflection, Anne Lindsey, a member of Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Manitoba, remembers Sandra Madray as a dedicated activist who was resolutely committed to the protection of human health from pesticides and other toxic chemicals in our environment.

Sandra Madray (family photo)

I went to visit a friend and colleague recently — someone I hadn’t seen for a while. Sandra Madray was in the final stages of cancer. She was dying. I was shocked and deeply saddened to see the physical changes the disease had wrought on my beautiful friend. She was so thin, and in so much pain.

Cancer is horrific in every circumstance, but the cruel irony in Sandra’s situation is that she worked much of her adult life in a volunteer capacity to prevent cancer and other illnesses — in particular, those caused by, and associated with, environmental and industrial chemicals.

As a co-founder (with Margaret Friesen) of the local group Chemical Sensitivities Manitoba and an adviser to the national organization Prevent Cancer Now, she participated as a citizen/environmental representative in countless government consultations on laws and regulations regarding chemicals.She sat on the National Stakeholder Advisory Council for the Chemicals Management Plan, and on the Canada-United States Regulatory Cooperation Council. She served on the board of the Manitoba Eco-Network for several years, and was active in the Children’s Health and Environment Partnership.

Sandra’s back garden (family photo)

Sandra educated herself (and others) on the science and public policy of chemical exposure and what it means for human health. Studying reams of documents, she did the arduous and often thankless work for which many of us have neither the patience nor the appetite, as we trust hopefully that our governments will make the right decisions in the public interest.

Sandra’s garden (family photo)

Because she did that work, she knew that our hopeful trust is misplaced and that most regulatory decisions about chemicals are not taken with the utmost care to protect health or the environment, but rather lean heavily toward maximizing commercial profits and expedience. She knew that as a result, we inhabit a chemical soup of hazardous exposures to pesticides, cosmetics, plastics, vehicle and power plant emissions and other byproducts of the hydrocarbon society.

Sandra’s cancer may or may not have been attributable to environmental or workplace exposures, but many cancers are, and in all those cases, the pain and suffering, the unmitigated sadness and loss for family and friends are probably preventable.

Always kind, generous and with good humour and deep conviction, Sandra used her knowledge to advocate tirelessly for better solutions to society’s problems. She campaigned especially for the most vulnerable — for children, the elderly, the chemically sensitive (of which she was one) and the immune-compromised. A quiet warrior, she never sought special recognition for her work.

Sandra’s garden (family photo)

Some of the efforts she engaged in were successful — one recent example being the Manitoba law to prohibit many chemical pesticides in lawn care. With her own urban yard — an oasis of gorgeous native plants, buzzing and bright with butterflies and pollinators — as an example of better, healthful solutions for green space management, she worked with a coalition of groups to end unnecessary exposures to so-called “cosmetic” pesticides, some of which are linked in epidemiological studies to a variety of diseases, including cancer, respiratory and neurological/developmental problems.

When Manitoba joined numerous other provinces in legislating against lawn chemicals, it was a small but significant step forward in preventive medicine.

It is beyond sad that in Manitoba, it now seems destined to be reversed. Even though recent polling shows most Manitobans consider pesticide-free to be the best approach, powerful forces support chemical solutions for weed control, and they appear to have the ear of the current government behind the scenes. Possibly acting on inside knowledge, one lawn company owner was quoted in Home Décor and Renovations magazine as saying that the regulation would be amended for 2019, and that he was optimistic that it would allow “licensed lawn care professionals to resume the use of more effective weed control products.” We can only surmise that he was referring to substances such as 2,4-D, dicamba and mecoprop.

Sandra’s front garden (family photo)

As citizens, not only must we make every effort to avoid unnecessary products like cosmetic pesticides and scents, we must also continue to encourage our government not to take this terribly backward step. In fact, it would actually be more appropriate to strengthen the law by adding glyphosate-based compounds, such as Roundup, a weed-control product with links to cancer, to the list of prohibited substances. Roundup’s sordid history of coverups by its manufacturer, including the fact that its carcinogenic properties were long known about and hidden, is steadily being revealed in court challenges brought by cancer victims.

Sandra’s garden (family photo)

Sandra will not be with us to see a possible reversal of the policy that she contributed to, and once again, have to endure the impacts of lawn pesticides on her chemically sensitive body. But if this change of policy comes to pass, so many will be affected, including the children and all the other vulnerable people she worked so hard to protect.How many of them will have to get sick and perhaps die before a clean, common-sense and precautionary approach to green spaces is adopted once and for all in Manitoba? For Sandra Madray’s sake, let this number be zero.

Sandra passed away on August 17 at 68 with her husband, Winston, and family members at her side.

Anne Lindsey is a former executive director of the Manitoba Eco-Network, a long-time activist on health and environmental issues, and a research associate with the Manitoba office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.


Where do Winnipeg City Council candidates stand on cosmetic pesticides?

Does your Winnipeg City Council candidate favour a municipal bylaw, if needed, to restrict non-essential uses of pesticides?

With the very real possibility that the Manitoba Government will weaken the current legislation restricting non-essential uses of pesticides, Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Manitoba surveyed all candidates for Winnipeg City Council to discern who would stand up for public health by maintaining the ban as a municipal bylaw in the event of Provincial backtracking. See the text of the letter, below.

43% (or 23) of the total 54 candidates responded by our deadline of October 4. While we would like to have heard from more candidates, we were pleased that, of those who did reply, the majority were in favour of maintaining pesticide restrictions in the form of a municipal by-law. For the full results, and to see where the candidates in your ward stand, see this summary of responses —  Survey of Winnipeg City Council candidates.

A similar question, framed for a yes or no response, was posed to the candidates for Mayor of Winnipeg at the Environmental Forum in September. At that event, incumbent Mayor Bowman supported maintaining the ban (“Yes”), along with the majority of other mayoral candidates. Candidate Motkaluk seemed unsure of her response, and candidate Woodstock said “No.”

Election Day is Wednesday, October 24. In Winnipeg, visit the City of Winnipeg official election web site for voting information. For voters outside Winnipeg, please check your city or town web site, or contact your local municipal office.

Here is the text of the letter that was sent to Winnipeg council candidates.

Letter to Candidates for Winnipeg City Council

September 14, 2018

Dear Winnipeg City Council Candidate,

Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Manitoba is a coalition of health and environmental advocates with a mission to reduce exposures to the unnecessary toxic chemicals used in lawn and greenspace care. We are pleased that the Province of Manitoba passed legislation, effective in 2015, that bans the use and sale of many lawn care products that have been linked to a range of ill-health outcomes. With this legislation, Manitobans joined the majority of people across Canada who are protected from lawn care chemicals through legislation or by-laws. The ban is province-wide and thus includes the City of Winnipeg.

However, there are indications that the Provincial Government is preparing to change the relatively new regime for weed control on green spaces. These possible changes could result in chemicals once again being widely used on lawns, in neighbourhoods, and parks, thereby exposing vulnerable people, including children, to increased risks of learning disabilities, asthma and a wide range of other illnesses. This in spite of provincial polling that shows the majority of Manitobans prefer a chemical-free approach, and the fact that even the Chief Public Health Officer for the Province states that “If pesticides are not needed, they should not be used”.

We are surveying all candidates to ascertain your position on this issue. We intend to publicize the results to contribute to the informed choice that Winnipeggers can make in electing their councillors.

If elected, would you support protecting public health by maintaining the ban on these so-called “cosmetic pesticides” as a municipal by-law in the City of Winnipeg, in the event of provincial changes?

Please feel free to consult our website for further information on this issue. We would appreciate your response … by Monday, October 4.

Thank you for your commitment to civic issues!

Brain-harming chlorpyrifos to be banned on US food crops

US EPA ordered to ban use of neurotoxic insecticide

AUGUST 2018 – A California appeal court has ordered the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban the use of the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos on food crops.

The court found that the EPA had acted illegally in failing to ban the chemical last year in the face of solid scientific evidence of its harmful impacts on children’s brain development. Studies have found that children of mothers exposed to the pesticide during pregnancy have higher risks of low birth weight, developmental delays, lower IQs and autism.

California vegetable farm (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2015, EPA staff scientists proposed a ban on agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos, but in 2017 the Trump-appointed head of the agency overruled EPA’s technical advisors and allowed agricultural use of the pesticide to continue. The latest California court order requires the federal agency to issue a ban on the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops within 60 days of the decision.

Chlorpyrifos is not a weed control product. It is an organophosphate insecticide that has been used in the United States on some 50 vegetable, fruit and nut crops. In health studies, researchers identified higher-than-permitted levels of the chemical in children of farm workers and in people exposed through pesticide residues in food.

Health Canada is scheduled to hold a public consultation on uses of chlorpyrifos in this country in November 2018. The pesticide is not permitted for residential use in Canada. Despite its adverse effects on children’s health, chlorpyrifos is allowed on some agricultural crops in Canada and for some specialized purposes such as larval mosquito control (e.g. in Edmonton) and against elm bark beetles (e.g. in Winnipeg).

MORE – New York Times report


US court rules weed-killer caused California man’s cancer

Over 4,000 pesticide-related US lawsuits pending against manufacturer Monsanto

AUGUST 2018 – An American court has awarded damages totaling US$289-million to a California school district groundskeeper who claimed that exposure to the pesticide glyphosate resulted in his developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The decision is a major setback for Monsanto, maker of the popular glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup. The company is facing more than 4,000 similar lawsuits across the United States.

Introduced by Monsanto in 1974, glyphosate is extensively used in agriculture and forestry, as well as for weed control on lawns and in gardens (where permitted).

Creative Commons

The California jury, which was shown internal company documents, found that Monsanto had failed to fully warn users of its glyphosate-based products about the health risks associated with their use. The successful plaintiff, Dewayne Johnson, is not expected to recover from his illness.

Monsanto denies that its products are responsible. Bayer, which recently purchased Monsanto, said it will appeal the verdict.

MORE – CBC News report


2016 poll shows majority of Manitobans support cosmetic pesticide ban

Manitobans favour restrictions on cosmetic pesticides

SEPTEMBER 2016 – By a clear majority – 53 per cent to 42 per cent – Manitobans want to maintain the current provincial ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides, according to a 2016 province-wide poll by Probe Research. (Five per cent of those polled did not respond or expressed no opinion.) Among Winnipeggers, support is even stronger: 55 per cent of city respondents say they favour the existing pesticide ban, compared to 38 per cent who are opposed, with 7 per cent not responding.

The survey of 1,000 Manitobans was conducted in September 2016. Results for the province are accurate within 3.1 per cent.

Prairie rose mallow (CPBM photo)

The Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Manitoba (CPBM) working group notes that health risks associated with these toxic chemicals greatly outweigh the purported benefits of their use. “Maintaining the ban on non-essential pesticide use is prudent, rational and in the best interest of public health,” said Neil Bailey, spokesperson for CPBM.

review of pesticide health studies, conducted by the Ontario College of Family Physicians, found that pesticides are linked to a variety of childhood and adult cancers, adverse reproductive outcomes, developmental deficits among children, and adverse respiratory outcomes.  The review found that pregnant women, babies and young children are most vulnerable to the toxic effects of pesticides.

“When it comes to pesticide use, it is evident that Manitobans want to protect the health of children, pregnant women and other vulnerable people,” said Karen Peters, a member of CPBM. “A majority of people do not want to see changes in the current pesticide regulations.”

Groups supporting a ban on non-essential pesticide use include the Canadian Cancer Society, Manitoba Lung Association, Manitoba Eco-Network, Green Action Centre, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Nature Manitoba and the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

Manitoba’s cosmetic pesticide legislation came into effect in 2015 with amendments to The Environment Act and approval of a provincial regulation. As of November 2016, seven provinces in Canada have enacted restrictions on non-essential uses of pesticides.


Why Manitoba’s cosmetic pesticide ban should be maintained

Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Manitoba Position Paper: “Restricting Non-Essential Uses of Pesticides in Manitoba”

Keep playing fields safe for kids. (Bill Branson, public domain)

Below is a link to a brief prepared by Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Manitoba in 2016, explaining why our group supports maintaining Manitoba’s current ban on cosmetic uses of pesticides. The original brief was filed with the Province of Manitoba as part of their public consultation process in September 2016. The paper was subsequently updated as of November 1, 2016. A list of local and national organizations supporting a ban on cosmetic uses of pesticides is included.

Questions addressed in the paper include:

  1. Who is Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Manitoba?
  2. Why does the coalition support restrictions on the sale and use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes?
  3. Federal authorities such as the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) claim that approved pesticides are safe when used as directed. Why does CPBM believe otherwise and on what evidence?
  4. Shade-tolerant planting, with mulch (CPBM photo)

    How does CPBM respond to the claim that current restrictions on pesticides are imposing unacceptable additional costs on municipalities?

  5. Do other provinces restrict the sale and use of cosmetic pesticides?
  6. What would CPBM like to see happen?
  7. What do you think of allowing licenced applicators to continue to use the restricted pesticides?
  8. What next steps does CPBM recommend?

In the intervening time since the CPBM paper was prepared, the Government of Manitoba has come under continued pressure from municipalities and lawn care service providers, seeking changes in the current regulations. At the same time, additional scientific studies have been published concerning adverse health impacts associated with human exposure to pesticides.

Link to CPBM Position Paper:

Restricting Non-Essential Uses Of Pesticides in Manitoba


Cosmetic pesticide regulations across Canada: a survey (2016)

80 per cent of Canadians are protected by cosmetic pesticide restrictions: Manitoba ranked 3rd best in country

In 2016, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) released a report providing a detailed overview and critique of cosmetic pesticide regulation in Canada at the provincial and municipal levels. As of 2018, seven provinces currently have regulations restricting cosmetic uses of pesticides. Elsewhere, some municipalities (Vancouver, for example) have bylaws where there is no province-wide law.

Yellow iris (CPBM photo)

CAPE’s report outlines the different government responsibilities for pesticide regulation at federal, provincial and municipal levels; compares the various versions of current regulations and bylaws that are in place across the country; brings together information on provincial best practices; and makes suggestions on how pest management can be improved. There is also a scorecard ranking provinces’ cosmetic pesticide laws. Manitoba’s existing restrictions in their present form are rated third-best in the country. Among provinces with cosmetic pesticide bans, no province has subsequently taken steps to loosen their regulations.

Link to the report:

A backgrounder to the report: