I have good news and I have bad news. So let’s start with the good.
Last week, a long-awaited (since 2002!) piece of federal legislation came into force – the Pest Control Products Act. It’s a boring name for a vitally important tool to help protect farm workers, gardeners and other Canadians across the country from hazardous pesticides.
Unlike some legislation that sounds good on paper, but is rendered ineffective due to political loopholes (the Species At Risk Act comes to mind), this legislation looks like it should do exactly as it was intended – help keep some of the worst poisons out of our food chain, our water supplies and our bodies.
According to the new Act, the federal Minister of Health is now obliged to initiate a special review of pesticides that contain active ingredients which have been banned by other member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) due to health or environmental concerns. Once the Minister initiates a review, the onus is on pesticide manufacturers to provide evidence that their products are not harmful.
This makes perfect sense. If other countries have found these substances to be harmful enough to ban them, then it should be up to their manufacturers to provide strong evidence to the contrary if they are to be allowed in Canada. Anything less would be to treat Canadians like second-class citizens.So far, so good. But here’s the bad news: according to a recent review of the chemicals found in pesticides sold in Canada, a whopping 61 of them are already banned in other industrialized countries. Thus, while other jurisdictions have seen fit to guard their citizens from these chemicals, Canadians have been given no such protection.
Many of these chemicals are still sold widely in our country. For example, two of the top-five pesticides used in Ontario in 2003 contain atrazine and 1,3-dichloropropene – chemicals banned in OECD countries like Germany and Sweden. Atrazine is a hormone-mimic, meaning it can disrupt hormone levels, impair reproduction and cause developmental defects, while 1,3-dichloropropene is highly toxic to the liver and kidneys and is classified as a possible human carcinogen.
Pesticide manufacturers have often fought regulation on the grounds that there is often no “conclusive” proof that their products harm human or environmental health. But when it comes to human health, surely extensive evidence should be enough. And the evidence is indeed extensive. According to a recent paper published in the Annals of Neurology, for example, exposure to pesticides – even at low levels – can increase a person’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease by 70 per cent.
Another point to remember is that pesticide manufacturers are already getting away with a loophole. Instead of testing pesticides in the form they are sprayed on fields and gardens, only their “active ingredients” are required to be tested. Yet studies have found that pesticides often contain other agents to enhance the effectiveness of the active ingredient, making the actual end product much more dangerous.
For too long Canada has let its environmental and health regulations slide. Frankly, it’s embarrassing and unbecoming of a country that prides itself on being a leader in these fields. With the new Act coming into force, we have an opportunity to catch up – at least in this area.
It’s now up to Health Minister Tony Clement to decide what to do. According to the new Act, he’s obliged to call for a special review of all 61 pesticides, but politicians are notoriously skilled at finding ways to shirk their duties. Let’s hope Mr. Clement lives up to his and makes a decision to protect the health and well being of all Canadians.