A PESTICIDE BY-LAW? By Jean Cottam (Article)

Jean Cottam

On April 23, 2004 the Ontario College of Family Physicians (OCFP) announced the completion of their evaluation of peer-reviewed literature on pesticides. The twelve-year review revealed “comprehensive links to serious illnesses, such as cancer, reproductive problems and neurological diseases.” (See http://www.ocfp.on.ca.) Among effects on children were growth retardation, birth defects and fetal death. The elderly were found to be more at risk of developing Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and the young to suffer from autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Included among lawn-care pesticides are slow-release “weed and feed” products, which are designed to persist in the environment, so neighbours who have to leave their homes don’t know when it is safe to return. Granular “weed and feed” products are applied to the entire lawn. The mixture of fertilizer and herbicide is incompatible, as one is intended for problem spots and the other should be applied to the entire lawn. The product sticks to children’s shoes and is imported indoors. The weedkillers (phenoxy herbicides) are contaminated with chlorinated dioxins which are linked to cancers, and to reproductive, immunological and neurological problems. In Sweden, where use of the phenoxy herbicide 2,4-D was discontinued, human and canine cancer rates were reduced. It is noteworthy that most of the pesticides are product of chemical warfare research.

The City’s pesticide education efforts, coupled with a voluntary pesticide reduction strategy, are not working. The guidelines state that use of pesticides on private property ought to be reduced by 70% in three years (2003, 2004 and 2005). The plentiful signs warning of pesticide use and the strong odour on suburban streets are partial evidence that the guidelines are being ignored. Even more telling was the lack of response from many residential condominiums when polled by City staff. Only about 30 out of 650 responded to the City of Ottawa questionnaire in 2003. Evidently, Ottawa should follow in the footsteps of Halifax, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, which have a pesticide bylaw.

It is unrealistic to expect the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) to protect human health, because of its conflicting mandate. The PMRA, formerly reporting to Agriculture Canada, has developed close ties with the chemical industry and is paid by the industry for examining existing industry-sponsored pesticide studies or samples provided by the industry. There is evidently no mandate to examine independent peer-reviewed scientific literature. The evaluation criteria that the PMRA used to date ignored health issues and many of this agency’s rulings are now considerably outdated. The process is extremely slow. For example the evaluation of herbicide 2,4-D has been going on for many years. Moreover the PMRA relies to a considerable extent on the American Environmental Protection Agency, which is now less independent than under previous American administrations. The PMRA tends to support the chemical industry in their denial of the presence of toxic dioxins in 2,4-D, the most commonly used herbicide. It is noteworthy that this content may vary depending on a given batch or sample. So called “technical acids” of 2,4-D tend to be cleaner as to the presence of dioxins than products of subsequent processing in the reactor.

Spokesmen for the lawn industry fear a substantial loss of income if use of pesticides becomes restricted and attempt to fight back by presenting the general public with the horrifying visions of lawns completely taken over by dandelions. Yet it is eminently possible to have a beautiful lawn using healthy lawn maintenance methods. The City of Ottawa has been offering free horticultural courses for the past two years and there are organic lawn maintenance companies as well as those willing to adapt to pesticide-free lawn care methods. I am a condominium garden home owner and yet I do have a substantial pesticide-free front lawn, much better looked after than the lawns of my neighbours.

How do I do it? Simply, by topdressing and overseeding in the spring. I water my lawn only occasionally but deeply and insist on cutting the turf myself and leaving the clippings on the lawn. (It is inadvisable to leave the clippings behind if the lawn has been treated with herbicides.) Most chemical lawn companies cut the grass too short, or inadvertently pull it out by the roots, thus promoting a substantial growth of weeds. In addition, a grass that is cut too short does poorly in dry conditions. The recommended height is 3". I had a slight problem with grubs during the early spring, two years in a row. I did absolutely nothing about this. Soon my grass won the war with the grubs without any intervention on my part. Dandelions virtually refuse to grow on my lawn, even though the adjacent hill is full of them. Apparently, there is an invisible boundary they do not cross.

There are two local organizations advocating a pesticide by-law for the City of Ottawa: the semi-official Health Dangers of the Urban Use of Pesticides Working Group, which meets at the City Hall, and Coalition for Healthy Ottawa (CHO) with website http://www.flora.org/healthyottawa/. K. Jean Cottam, PhD Tel.: 726-1596 / Fax: 726-3581

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