What’s the province thinking about pesticides?
It’s been four months since the end of provincial government consultations on the regulation of cosmetic pesticides (here's West Coast Environmental Law's submissions made as part of the consultation), and we haven’t heard much. It’s a bit of a guessing game figuring out what the government might do next. However, we recently received a briefing note for the Minister of Environment under a freedom of information request that raised a few interesting points.
First, the Ministry did not highlight for the Minister the overwhelming numbers of people who responded to the consultation to call for a cosmetic pesticide ban. See the companion post to this one - Provincial consultations show 88% support for cosmetic pesticides ban - for more information.
Second, the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands is apparently opposed to a cosmetic pesticide ban, or, indeed, any other regulatory changes, expressing both confidence in the federal government’s registration of pesticides and “concern over impact to agriculture if new restrictions make it difficult to control weeds on private land.” In light of this Ministry’s opposition, a cosmetic pesticide ban would need the Minister of Environment to go to bat for it.
Third, a briefing note prepared for the Minister is dismissive of the risks of domestic use of pesticides:
The use of domestic pesticides by people on their own private land is considered lower risk compared to other pesticide uses. This assessment is based on Health Canada’s classification of domestic pesticides as acceptable for use in residential settings. We do not collect any information about sales or uses of domestic pesticides, thus have no evidence that they are responsible for health or environmental effects.
This statement is alarming for two reasons.
- Since most cosmetic pesticide use takes place in a domestic use context, this strongly suggests that the Ministry is not seriously looking at a ban.
- In addition, it’s extremely misleading. It is, of course, true that pesticides that Health Canada approves for use in residential settings are likely to be less toxic than those used in a commercial setting. But it’s equally true that people using commercial pesticides are trained to use them, have access to safety and emergency response gear, and have other legally required protections that are not likely to be used in a residential setting. All that can be said is that Health Canada considers the risks posed by residential pesticides to be acceptable given the lack of available safety precautions and the risks posed by commercial pesticides to be acceptable given the availability of such safety precautions.
Another difference between residential and commercial settings is the absence of small children – who are the most vulnerable to pesticide exposure and who are generally unable to read and follow safety instructions. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, each year there are approximately 6000 reported cases of pesticide poisoning in Canada, of which almost half involve children under 6 years old. There is evidence, based on US data, that this number may be half of the actual poisonings. Although the David Suzuki Foundation does not break this figure down by residential versus agricultural use, it seems safe to assume that a significant portion of the under-six year olds poisoned are finding pesticides in a residential setting.
Fourth, the government has apparently taken little further action, and the briefing note does not seem to contemplate much further action. The actual recommendations contained in the briefing note were blanked out (with the exception of the recommendation to release the public consultation summary), which means that the recommendations have not yet been approved or implemented by the Minister (more than 3 months after the briefing note was given to the Minister).
But while we don’t know what the recommendations were (other than that they’re fairly short), the “considerations for next steps” section of the briefing note do not suggest any major next steps. This section seems to contemplate:
- Acknowledging the high level of engagement in the consultation;
- Publicly communicating that “unnecessary use of any [manufactured] products, including pesticides, does not make sense”. This arises from a recognition that “it is possible that science in the future will reveal effects from a variety of products that were considered safe today.”
That’s it. Most of the rest of the “considerations for next steps” involve statements about why certain steps should not be taken:
- A “safe” list of pesticides should not be developed because the BC government does not have capacity to create such a system, particularly given that “no chemical is entirely risk-free so creating a safe list would be a matter of balancing hazard with the likelihood of human and environmental exposure.”
- While environmental monitoring might provide information about the environmental impacts of landscape use of pesticides “it would not answer the question of whether there are health impacts from exposure to these chemicals.”
- The Ministry should not tell individuals how to manage their landscapes because this would make them an “arbiter of issues between neighbours and competing values” and the “ministry does not have the capacity to address compliance issues at the individual level.
Now this briefing note was written at the end of March, and perhaps there’s been a lot of internal thinking in the Ministry since then. But I’m underwhelmed by where the Ministry was at in March. More than 8000 public comments for this?
The last point, in particular, seems to equate a cosmetic pesticide ban as merely being about competing values about management of landscapes, rather than about public and environmental health and safety. I was also interested in the sleight of hand whereby public concerns about BPA in drinking bottles and phlalates in shampoo, and other emerging public health concerns, become a cover for failing to act on cosmetic pesticide.
A briefing note that was serious about discussing the pros and cons of a cosmetic pesticide ban would read quite differently. It would point out that:
- Exposure to pesticides has been linked to a wide range of cancers, neurological and developmental, and reproductive problems, leading the Canadian Medical Association, many public health organizations, and many physicians to recommend reducing or avoiding exposure, especially of cosmetic pesticides. Most health professionals who participated in the province’s public consultations favoured a cosmetic use ban.
- People are most likely to receive unwanted or accidental exposure to pesticides in a residential context and/or in the interface between residential and agricultural areas; such exposure is likely to include exposure to children and pets.
- Control of pests for cosmetic purposes is largely cultural and it is difficult to justify from health, economic or other reasons.
- It is easier to enforce or get compliance with an outright ban on cosmetic pesticides rather than more modest regulation, since such pesticides will be less readily available under an outright ban. A year after Ontario’s ban on cosmetic pesticides came into effect, the concentrations of key pesticides in streams has been found to have dropped more than 80%.
The briefing note is, of course, just a briefing note. Civil servants wrote it and we don’t know how the Minister responded or will respond. Moreover, since the recommendations are blanked out, the above is just a guess based on the rest of the memorandum. I’d be delighted to find that I’m wrong and as we speak the government is drafting regulations to eliminate cosmetic pesticides in BC.
But the best guess is that more public pressure is needed before the province will seriously consider such a ban.
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