Reference — Alex Cullen : City of Ottawa Pesticide Ban – Fair or Foul?

Is Alex Cullen Honest?
A bit of a point-by-point breakdown of some of Councillor Cullen’s statements from his October 23, 2005 email:
Addressed to: Paul Hurley Concerned Citizen

From Councillor Cullen’s email:
“It is clear that on the epidemiology side the Ontario College of Family Physicians  (OCFP) rather exhaustive pesticide literature review of over 12,000 scientific, independent, peer-reviewed, published studies involving pesticides and human health leads the OCFP to conclude that there is sufficient evidence to warrant reducing the public’s exposure to these toxins through eliminating the cosmetic use of these chemicals in urban areas, particularly when safer alternatives exist.”

Where does Councillor Cullen come up with this “over 12,000” studies figure? Note the following paragraph from the OCFP report, (or here) page 6, section “Phase 1 — Review of review papers”, subsection “Selection of health effects for study” (emphasis added):

In the search for review papers, the inclusion criteria were expanded to include reviews conducted between 1990 and 2003. The initial search, using the term “pesticides,” yielded 12,061 papers. For the second selection stage, the term “pesticides” was combined with “systematic review,” “meta-analysis,” and “review” to select those studies that apply a systematic approach. When the papers were limited to review articles only, 1684 articles were found. However, these papers had a number of limitations, and although many were categorized as reviews, most did not describe a systematic approach. In addition, a number of the papers were primarily reviews dealing with organochlorines that had been picked up in the search because they were classified broadly as dealing with pesticides. As a result, many of the papers did not meet our inclusion criteria. From this list of 1684 articles, 49 relevant review papers were selected. Two members of the pesticide review group evaluated these review paper abstracts to determine their relevance to the current project. Of the 49 identified reviews, 30 were selected for further assessment using the quality and relevance criteria.

The initial search that yielded the 12,061 papers isn’t much different from a simple Google search for the word “pesticides.” Obviously such a non-specific search will generate many hits. Tightening the search terms reduced the number of prospective papers to 1,684, and from this list, 49 relevant review papers were selected. Up to this point none of the papers were read by OCFP study group. The reviewers finally read the abstracts of these 49 papers, and 30 were selected for “further assessment.” Ultimately the “Phase I” search found thirty studies. The “Phase 2 — Assessment of Primary Studies” this to a “total of 109 cancer papers and 156 non-cancer papers [that] met the criteria for review and were distributed to the reviewing teams.”  The report states that after further review, some of these “were excluded, as these were considered of insufficient methodological quality to provide reliable data.”  How many studies really made up the OCFP report?  Obviously less than 265, with probably less than 100 cancer-related papers.  Considerably less than the “12,000” studies Councillor Cullen claims the OCFP reviewed “exhaustively.” (I’ll leave the question of final total as an exercise for the reader.  Note too that of this number-less-than-265, are reports that show no effects from legitimate pesticide usage… Another exercise for the reader.)

Councillor Cullen:
“Indeed, it is also telling that in the PMRA briefing note on the OCFP review, not only did the PMRA not contest the findings or approach of the OCFP, but made the following statement: “The PMRA agrees with the recommendation of the OCFP report that Canadians can and should seek opportunities to minimise their exposure to and reduce their reliance on pesticides”. (emphasis added) Indeed, this is what we are about.”

Mr. Cullen lifts his statement directly from the PMRA response to the OCFP report. However, he leaves off some additional statements from the PMRA, as follows:

The PMRA agrees with the recommendation of the OCFP report that Canadians can and should seek opportunities to minimise their exposure to and reduce their reliance on pesticides. As such, the PMRA supports Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices. IPM is an approach that combines biological, cultural, physical and chemical tools (emphasis added) to manage pests so that benefits of pest control are maximized and health and environmental risks are minimized.

If Canadians choose to use pesticides, they should use products only for their intended and registered use while following all instructions on the label. The label instructions specify the conditions by which products can be used safely. The PMRA also agrees that, to prevent accidents, pesticides must always be stored out of the reach of children.

Note that Councillor Cullen’s correspondence does not mention that the PMRA also supports Integrated Pest Management, a system that does include proper pesticide usage. Further, the PMRA response notes that epidemiological studies are in general hard to interpret. Whether this constitutes a “no contest,” as Councillor Cullen suggests, or a criticism of the report, is left for the reader to decide. Please read the full PMRA response for complete details.

Councillor Cullen:
“Returning to your e-mail, I can appreciate that you personally may find the Precautionary Principle self-contradictory and not logically consistent, but here your opinion must be balanced by the official position, taken after some thought and research by professionals, of the body that represents 7,200 family doctors in Ontario (the OCFP), and supported by so many other reputable health organizations (including our own local hospitals and Medical Officer of Health).”

This important item in Mr. Cullen’s email caught my eye after I sent my October 25, 2005 reply. He implies that the OCFP report represents the official position of the 7,200-member OCFP. I can find no such declaration in the body of the report or the conclusions. Page 1 of the report (“Acknowledgements”) refers to the OCFP:

This project, which was initiated by the Environmental Health Committee of the Ontario College of Family Physicians, would not have been possible without funding provided by the Laidlaw Foundation. The Ontario College of Family Physicians contributed in-kind administrative assistance and support for completion of the project.

When the 179 page report is searched, one finds the phrase “Ontario College of Family Physicians” on the title page, the acknowledgements (as referenced above), a background section entitled “Rational for Study” on page 4, and one of the references on page 160. The report represents the conclusions of the six project team members, five of whom are medical doctors.


City of Ottawa Pesticide Ban – Fair or Foul?.