Cosmetic Pesticides - Risks Outweigh Benefits
by Dr. R. Strang
from UPdate June 2000

     I would like to thank Your Worship and Council for the opportunity to speak. I see my role here today as fulfilling my responsibility as Medical Officer of Health. As Medical Officer of Health I am responsible to provide an objective opinion on public health issues based on my training and experience as a Community Medicine Specialist.

      The representative from Landscape Nova Scotia asked Council to obtain medical and scientific information on this issue. That is what I intend to provide.

      I acknowledge that pesticides have many appropriate uses. However, their use should be based on two fundamental principles. First, their use should be governed by an assessment of risks and benefits. Second, all reasonable steps should be taken to minimize their use.

      The benefits of landscape pesticides are cosmetic. These same benefits can be achieved by alternative non-pesticide methods. The HRM experience [HRM has not used pesticides on their lands for several years] and that of Edmonds Landscaping, [a non-pesticide lawn care company] have shown this.

      The risks of landscape pesticides are well outlined in the Toronto Public Health report. There are known human health and environmental effects, and many more suspected effects.

      Pesticide and lawn care industries dismiss these risks and assert that pesticides are regulated and therefore safe. However, there are significant problems with the registration process that DO NOT ensure their safety.

      First, there is a time lag for re-registration which does not keep pace with changes in knowledge. Second, the process extrapolates human safety from animal research. Third, assessment is focused mainly on higher exposures and acute effects. It doesn't account for cumulative exposures from different media, and it doesn't account for cumulative, let alone synergistic, effects of multiple pesticide exposures. Fourth, the registration process doesn't account for the "inert" products. Further, it doesn't account for the greater sensitivities of fetuses and children. 
 When we look at the risks versus the benefits, the benefits are readily achievable by other means. 

      I acknowledge that there is some uncertainty as to the risks, but given this uncertainty, erring on the side of safety is prudent.

      What then should be done? A number of options have been put forward. The status quo is not a defensible option, scientifically, ethically or legally. The experience of the Krever Commission tells us this. An education campaign and voluntary action will not be effective by themselves. Notification of residents before pesticides are used does not decrease pesticide use, and those who are at high risk from pesticide exposure face considerable costs in order to avoid exposure.
 The option of "no spray" zones around the homes of residents who register as having documented health risks from pesticides protects only those individuals and results in no significant decrease in pesticide use. Further, it diverts the focus from the real issue of community-wide risks. This option would require a complex bureaucratic system and would establish inequities between individuals and neighbourhoods. The medical and scientific justification for this option is questionable.

      The option of a total ban on landscape pesticide use is the only reasonable option. It is justified scientifically by a risk/benefit analysis. It is justified in that what is being asked of the lawn care industry and homeowners is short-term inconvenience to adjust to alternative methods. It does not involve a complex, bureaucratic system, and it is equitable.

      A ban is the only option that will significantly decrease landscape pesticide use and the only option that addresses community-wide risks.

      This is not a local issue, or an issue of concern only to a fringe group. It is an issue across Canada, and forms part of the federal Liberal Party platform. HRM has the legislative ability and therefore the responsibility to act.

      The plan of action I would like to present to council is that Council pass the current by-law [registration by high risk individuals and no spray zones around their houses] which does provide immediate protection to those at high risk. Council should include in that by-law a commitment to phase-in a ban in two years time. I do not think a system for incremental increases in no-spray zones should be established. The focus should be on public education and industry adjustment during the phase-in period.

      I would suggest that the by-law include a provision that landscape pesticides could be used in exceptional circumstances, as well as a clause formally adopting the current HRM policy of not using pesticides on HRM property except in unusual circumstances.