Commentary: Science, not fear, should guide pesticide debate

By Bill Stavdal, Special to the Times Colonist April 27, 2011 6:51 AM

If used properly, many chemicals are necessary to our daily lives


What are we to make of the pesticide debate? We see products studied and approved by the federal and provincial governments for manufacture, distribution and use.

In Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay it is legal to buy them. But wait: it's illegal for common folk to use them. Meanwhile we are urged to combat invasive and poisonous plant species.

By show of hands the four core councils have put into limbo an unknowable number of pesticides. The local bylaws allow only a common list developed by an unelected arm of the Capital Regional District.

That agency, the Round Table on the Environment, seems to have vanished into the thicket of CRD committees. So, whatever new products may emerge will remain banned.

How many lives have been been lost here because of pesticides? We've never been shown any baseline data. How many lives will be saved? No one can claim to know.

All four local bylaws cite the so-called "precautionary principle." Variously worded, it warns that if an intended action may have unforeseen adverse consequences, then it should be avoided. By this reasoning no one would get married, and we'd still be dwelling in the trees.

The term pesticide embraces mainly herbicides and insecticides, plus fungicides, rodenticides and on into specialty substances such as swimming pool algicides and wood preservatives. Purpose: To manage, attack, repel or destroy organisms we don't like. Without agricultural pesticides, the world would starve.

Environmentalists, allied with the Canadian Cancer Society, have persuaded many. Nobody comes right out and declares that product X kills people or makes them ill. There are hints, indications, "some studies suggest," "probable links," concerns and worries. Lawn pesticides are prefixed as "cosmetic" (translation: non-essential).

Demonization is a classic technique. The most astonishing case in point is that of 2,4-D, a selective herbicide. In 2008, after an extensive review, Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency declared 2,4-D safe when used according to instructions.

Ignoring that, David Suzuki continued saying that 2,4-D "may pose risks" to various human body functions and that " it may increase the risk of cancer." The big C-word once more.

The B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands publishes its Home and Garden Pest Management Guide. It's an encyclopedic handbook packed with a range of approaches. With ample cautions for proper handling, the guide approves the use of 2,4-D, mecoprop, dicamba, and MCPA, selective herbicides often used on lawns against dandelions and creeping buttercup in products such as Killex.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in non-selective Roundup, is OK also, mentioned as leaving "no soil residue."

Unable or unwilling to examine pesticides one by one, councils here (and elsewhere) have simply banned everything except for the CRD's list of 46. It's an echo of George Orwell's 1984: if it's not permitted, then it's illegal.

Dr. Reg Mitchell, emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Victoria, scorns it as "chemophobia": Irrational reaction against an increasingly complex world.


By permit, exemptions may be granted for a $25 fee, with restrictions and conditions. Only Esquimalt will grant a one-time violation warning. Penalties range up to $10,000.

The bylaws apply mainly to the homeowner, now judged unable to use pesticides sensibly. Must we tackle giant hogweed by hand and suffer blistering and dermatitis? The municipalities reserve the right to use pesticides as they see fit.

Direction of the pesticide issue in B.C. is pretty well indicated. In 2009 the Speech from the Throne announced public consultation on "new statutory protections to further safeguard the environment from cosmetic chemical pesticides."

A paper and website focused on control. Responding individuals and interest groups overwhelmingly called for more restrictions. B.C.'s new Minister of Environment is Terry Lake. When mayor of Kamloops, he advocated province-wide control on the sale and use of pesticides, as has happened already in new Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario.

If the environmental movement is to endure, it must maintain credibility. May we all join in stopping at source any harmful substance, assessed individually by science, not fear. For now, yet another right to make our own judgments is slipping away.

Bill Stavdal is environmentally conscious View Royal resident and a skeptic: eyes on the stars, feet on the ground.