A Young Crusader Speaks 
about Pesticides, Children and Cancer

Evidence presented to the  Standing Committee on Environment and
Sustainable Development, Chair, Charles Caccia, Pesticide Awareness Day,
Ottawa, Ontario, September 25, 2001

Mr. Jean-Dominique Levesque-René (Individual Presentation): 
Good afternoon.  It is an honour for me to have been invited here this afternoon by the Honourable Charles Caccia. Thank you, sir, for inviting me to attend A Pesticide Awareness Day on the Hill.

My name is Jean-Dominique Levesque-René and I live on Ile Bizard, a west end Montreal suburb. I'm 18 years old and I attend École Jeanne-Sauvé in Dorval.

I'm here today to speak to you about a subject near and dear to me for the past seven years. It is of great interest to me because it concerns children, their health and the environment in which they live. I would like to recount briefly for you my personal experience and how chemical pesticides have affected my own health.

Let me relate to you my quest to safeguard the health of all children in my community. My fight for a healthier environment began quite unexpectedly one January evening in 1994. I was watching The Simpsons on television when I felt a lump on the right side of my neck. I showed it to my mother who wasted no time bringing me to Hôpital Sainte-Justine in Montreal. I had no idea what lay ahead for me. I spent two weeks at the hospital undergoing a battery of medical tests as doctors tried to diagnose my condition. I was a virtual prisoner in the hospital. I was frightened and worried, not to mention extremely tired. This wasn't normal for a 10 year old.

After my lump was biopsied, a doctor came to deliver the bad news. The day was February 11, 1994. I remember it very well. He told me:  "Jean-Dominique, you have a disease called cancer. Your type of cancer is called large cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It attacks a person's lymph nodes as well as their immune system which  protects against bacteria and viruses." This isn't the kind of news a 10-year-old boy expects to receive.  Before, I had been thinking about going home and playing with my dog and my friends. Now, I was thinking about dying. I didn't want to die, not at my age. I cried and so too did my parents and my sister. They were devastated. It was the saddest day of my life.

Before starting my chemotherapy treatments, an oncologist came and explained the procedure to me. I didn't know that my life would be turned upside down or that this was only the start of a life-long struggle. I agreed to take part in a North American experimental research trial which would improve my chances for a cure. I was one of a group of 33 American and Canadian children. I received intensive chemotherapy treatments every three weeks over a period of 49 weeks.

The odds of my surviving this disease were 50 per cent. The doctor had cautioned me that all of my hair would fall out and that I would likely be sterile when I reached adulthood. Two weeks after I started chemotherapy, I lost all of my hair. I was bald and looked like an old man. I wore a baseball cap to cover my bald head.

Throughout my illness, I felt very alone. I spent my entire days lying in a hospital bed. I missed going to school and playing with my friends. I had a lot of time to think things over and to ask myself some questions.

When I arrived at Sainte-Justine, I noticed that there were many children there from Ile Bizard who were being treated for cancer. It was very strange. I discovered that half of Ile Bizard is covered by golf courses where pesticides are used to maintain the greens. There are no heavy industries or high-voltage power lines in my municipality, only residential areas surrounded by three golf courses. My city has a population of 13,5000, including 4,000 children.

During my hospital stay, I recalled that when I was two-and-a-half-years old, I had had a very bad nosebleed and been transported by ambulance to the hospital. I remembered making numerous trips back to the hospital because of nosebleeds. The doctors were unable to pinpoint the cause of my symptoms. Once, I broke out in a bad rash after playing on the lawn, two days after it had been sprayed with pesticides. I was seen by a dermatologist who immediately established a link between my rash and my exposure to pesticides on the lawn.

In the spring of 1987, my parents stopped using chemical pesticides on their lawn. My symptoms disappeared completely. They would reappear when I was exposed to grass in public parks treated with pesticides and when I played at a friend's home where pesticides had been used.

During my chemotherapy sessions, I thought about the probable link between my cancer and my exposure to pesticides. After researching the subject for one month, I came across a pamphlet published by the American Cancer Society. It contained a picture of a child playing with his dog while wearing a mask. The pamphlet established a link between non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and the use of lawn herbicides containing 2,4-D, the most widely used lawn herbicide in Canada. The dialogue was straightforward and I quickly understood that exposing children like myself to pesticides posed a danger to their health.

It was then I asked my parents to take me to meet the mayor of Ile Bizard so that I could show him the American Cancer Society's pamphlet on the dangers associated with pesticide use. I told him how concerned I was about the number of Ile Bizard children suffering from cancer.

At the same time, I asked him to pass a bylaw banning pesticide use in our municipality. The date was May 6, 1994. The mayor did not take my request seriously, so I decided to organize a demonstration with the help of a few friends and their parents. We marched in front of City Hall with colored balloons and placards. Television camera crews were on the scene and my protest caught the attention of all local media. My plan was to heighten the awareness of elected municipal officials, to let them know what was happening to the children of Ile Bizard and to emphasize the importance of safeguarding their health.

The time had come to do battle. Just about every month, I attended the meeting of municipal councillors, urging them to adopt a bylaw banning the use of chemical pesticides. Each time, the mayor would answer that there was no scientific evidence to establish a link between cancer in humans and pesticides.

Yet, I knew for a fact that many of Ile Bizard's children had contracted cancer. The reasons why I had to fight for my life then became clear to me.  After a stay in intensive care, I overheard a doctor telling my parents that I would not survive a bout with infection contracted following a chemotherapy session. He was wrong. For the first time, I fought to stay alive. I understood then that my life was to have an even greater purpose. I discovered the mystery of life, not the mystery of death.

While I was a patient at Sainte-Justine, I posted a map of Quebec on the wall of my hospital room. Each time a child suffering from cancer was admitted, I would ask him where he lived. That's how I discovered that many children from Ile Bizard had cancer, 22 in all. They were suffering from leukemia, lymphoma, neuroblastoma, Ewing's sarcoma or bone or brain cancer. These were my own personal findings.

I then began to put pressure on researchers at Hôpital Sainte-Justine to compile official statistics on the number of cancer cases among Ile Bizard's children. With the cooperation of Montreal's public health department, they compiled figures which were reported in La Presse on February 21, 1998. These figures showed that the cancer rate on Ile Bizard was four times that for the entire province of Quebec.

Unfortunately, many of my friends succumbed to their illness. I will never forget my friend Marie-Eve who died of leukemia on November 6,1996. She was 12 years old. Before dying, she said to me: "Jean-Do, you have to live.  It's time for me to go, but you have a lot of work to do to protect the children". Marie-Eve helped me find the courage I needed to never give up the fight.

For the past seven years, I have been visiting cities and communities across Canada. I have met with children and their parents and I have observed that children seem to be suffering a great deal from asthma, allergies, learning disabilities and cancer. I cannot remain silent. Each time pesticides are sprayed in my neighbourhood, I react with an asthma attack, my allergies flare up and I get nosebleeds. I also suffer from learning disabilities in school and I have to work harder to succeed.

I recall speaking to a class of sixth graders in a Granby, Quebec primary school. One student asked me if I missed a lot of school while I was undergoing my chemotherapy treatments at the hospital. I told him that I had missed two and half years in all. His response: "Lucky you". I told him that I would rather have gone to school than contracted cancer.

My greatest wish is that doctors talk to their patients about the danger of exposure to pesticides and the associated health risks. I firmly believe that cities and towns must ban the use of pesticides to improve the appearance of lawns and gardens. Our elected municipal, provincial and federal officials must protect their children from these toxic chemicals. I urge you to assume your responsibilities and to lobby the Minister of Health, the Honourable Allan Rock, for a ban on pesticides. All Members of Parliament and all public servants need to be made aware of the dangers of pesticides in our environment. Each and everyone of us has a duty to
protect our children's health.

In conclusion, I want you to know that something positive came out of my illness. Having cancer was not an enjoyable experience, but this struggle taught me to accept my responsibilities as a member of the community. We can do something to help children. You can make a difference.

I'm reminded of words of Rachel Carson: "The more clearly we can focus our
attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction."

Thank you.