A group that nearly won its battle to ban cosmetic pesticides in Calgary five years ago has resurrected the fight. The Coalition for a Healthy Calgary says the most common pesticides used on city greenspaces and yards pose a threat to human health. The group wants the city to pass a bylaw banning the use of pesticides such as Killex and Roundup for merely cosmetic purposes like dandelion removal. It argues that the negative health effects of long-term exposure to these chemicals far outweighs the benefits of ridding one’s lawn of harmless but unsightly weeds. A similar proposition narrowly lost during a council vote in November 2009.
On September 17, council members met with the coalition and Ontario chemical engineer Dr. Meg Sears to discuss new scientific findings on pesticide-related health issues revealed since 2009.
Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra attended the meeting and says many of his “health conscious” constituents have told him they would like the city to go pesticide free. He says council needs to study the science carefully before putting together a possible bylaw that could go “a whole bunch of different ways” by either totally banning the use of pesticides, prohibiting them only for cosmetic reasons, or banning their use by non-registered landscape maintenance professionals.
“There’s the question of whether this is necessary and what the benefits are of banning pesticides and what do we know and what does science tell us?” says Carra.
“I’m personally of the opinion that the less chemicals we dump into the environment probably the better, and so I’m interested in seeing what the science is saying and where we can go from here,” he adds.
Dr. Sears says the science increasingly links pesticides, especially the glyphosate in Roundup, to human illnesses. Some of the more serious health effects connected to the pesticide are cancer, liver problems and congenital deformities in the genitals.
Sears says the federal government approves these pesticides for use because risk assessment studies only examine the serious effects of short-term exposure to enormous doses of the chemical — between 300 and 3,000 times the normal expected exposure amount. Those studies, mainly conducted on rats, do not indicate glyphosate or other approved pesticides pose a health risk at normal exposure rates.
However, Sears says many scientists and physicians argue the health problems they are witnessing around the world are caused by long-term exposure to smaller quantities of pesticides. Many illnesses and genetic effects potentially caused by exposure are only visible over several generations. Sears says long-term studies should be used to determine the risk of exposure to pesticides, but that is simply not how the federal government’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency is structured to function. She also believes the system is unlikely to change.
“That is not going to happen under this government. It’s incredibly science averse. The people in Health Canada, they’re fearing for their jobs, they’re not trying to make the system better,” she says.
Yet where inconclusive science and industry opposition resulted in the failure of a Calgary pesticide ban in 2009, supporters say they hope enough has changed since then to pass one now.
There are currently 171 municipalities in Canada with cosmetic pesticide-use bans. Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Quebec and Manitoba have banned the sale of cosmetic pesticides.
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment has also worked throughout the country to promote the bans, despite recognizing science has not proven health issues are directly linked to specific chemicals.
“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. The use of cosmetic pesticides has no countervailing health benefit and the potential for harm exists,” the physicians group states on its website.
Robin McLeod and Cindy Tuer both sit on the board of Coalition for a Healthy Calgary. They say their push in 2009 for a ban lost by a single council vote, which they believe was swayed by industry claims a ban would hurt business in the city.
Now they are concentrating on swaying councillors back to their side, but they are also working on forming a provincial coalition to approach the Alberta government about a ban on sales. Municipal governments can ban the use, but not the sale of a product, so McLeod and Tuer say that to be really effective they have to get pesticides off store shelves.
“If you get the two levels [of government] making laws it’ll change attitudes and the whole thinking around it,” says Tuer.
City council has not said when it might be tackling the issue again. Tuer says when it comes to government protecting the health of citizens, addressing pesticides is the “low-hanging fruit” that would benefit the entire population.