Last year, nearly 166,000 litres of pesticides were used to kill weeds in Manitoba school yards, parks, golf courses, along highways and boulevards and in other public places.
That's the equivalent of more than 1,000 bathtubs full of chemicals, almost all of which are restricted in other provinces such as Ontario and Nova Scotia, which have passed cosmetic pesticide bans. "That's a lot of litres," said Ian Greaves of the Campaign for Pesticide Reduction. "And that's the concentrate stuff."
The Free Press analyzed the year-end pesticide reports filed in 2011 by nearly 300 permit-holders, mostly public-sector agencies such as school districts, utilities and rural municipalities. It's the first time anyone has tallied the weed-killing chemicals sprayed along highways, in parks and schoolyards, on golf courses, around hydro dams, along boulevards and on dozens of other public spaces.
2,4-D, one of the most commonly used broad-leaf killers in the world and among the most hotly debated pesticides, easily topped the list of the most-used chemical in the province.
More than 52,000 litres were used last year, and 2,4-D was also one of the active ingredients in several other top pesticides, such as Premium 3-Way.
Among the top users of weed-killer last year was CN Rail, which sprayed more than 9,000 litres of weed killer along its right-of-ways, including 2,4-D, Diurex and Vantage. Another top user was Tolko, the forestry giant.
The database does not include pesticides used by farmers or the small bottles of weed-killer bought by homeowners to zap dandelions on lawns. Some in the lawn-care industry argue it's homeowners, not trained and licenced applicators, who are responsible for most of the over-spraying that occurs.
Next month, Manitoba will take the first step toward a cosmetic pesticide ban, something nearly every other province has already done.
A discussion paper will launch public consultations over the summer, with legislation to follow this fall or early next year. It's expected the ban will mostly apply to lawns, but which chemicals will be outlawed and how wide-reaching the ban would be is up in the air. The province could allow trained applicators to continue to use the big guns, such as 2,4-D, on some weeds that pose a threat to crops, pastures, wetlands and native species. But it's likely a host of chemicals will be outlawed for use on annoying but harmless weeds such as dandelions.
Already, environmentalists and health advocates have begun lining up in favour of a tough ban, while farm groups, lawn-care companies and the Association of Manitoba Municipalities oppose the idea. They argue every chemical used on weeds undergoes rigorous testing and evaluations by Health Canada and comes with strict safety rules. And they say there is little scientific evidence pesticides cause illnesses such as cancer or environmental damage.
But many health groups, including the Canadian Cancer Society say there is a growing body of research linking pesticides to increased rates of some cancers, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and increased cancer risks among children. They argue it makes sense to decrease risks where possible. Nearly every other Canadian province along with many European nations agree, and have clamped down on the use of herbicides for cosmetic or aesthetic reasons.
Some other findings from the 2011 pesticide-use reports:
- Roundup, one of the best-known weed-killers and the one most commonly found on hardware store shelves, was used surprisingly little in Manitoba last year. Only about 2,500 litres was used on public spaces, often just for spot-spraying.
- Malathion, the controversial mosquito killer that has caused street protests in Winnipeg, was also used very little last year, thanks to a bug-free summer. Only about 1,100 litres was sprayed across the province, mostly in the towns of Altona and Carman.
- Brandon filed no pesticide report in 2011 because it didn't use any chemicals. That's because the city has had a cosmetic pesticide ban in place for several years.
"The municipal flower is the dandelion," joked community services director Perry Roque. "It's a sea of yellow."
The city, which has environmental policies a generation ahead of Winnipeg's, has been experimenting with greener ways of controlling weeds. That includes 'power seeding' the city's main sports field so grass will crowd out any dandelions and bagging clippings so weed seeds don't go flying.
- Virtually no public agency used green products. In 2011, there was almost no use of organic or environmentally friendly weed killers such as Fiesta or EcoClear. Seven Oaks General Hospital was among the few exceptions, using both on its weeds.
Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh, who is stickhandling the non-essential pesticide restrictions, says one of the challenges will be to raise awareness and usage of green weed-killers and convince people a cosmetic pesticide ban doesn't have to mean an invasion of weeds.
Among the biggest users of pesticides are the weed-control districts scattered across rural Manitoba, and the province's plan to restrict the use of some products could open up a rural-urban split on the issue.
Weed-control districts used almost 50,000 litres of herbicides, mostly in ditches and along highways and often on weeds that invade crop and pastureland.
John Johnston, president of the Manitoba Weed Supervisors Association, said he's worried about what a cosmetic pesticide ban might mean to the arsenal of products available to fight some of those noxious weeds.
"It takes a tool out of our toolbox, a big one," said Johnson, whose is head of the weed-control district around Hartney and Souris in southwest Manitoba.
Noxious weeds -- not dandelions, Canada thistle and purple loosestrife that annoy gardeners -- such as leafy spurge can take over native ecosystems, choke wetlands and chase out local species, including some endangered ones.
Leafy spurge, probably Manitoba's most troublesome weed, is almost unkillable. Its taproot can grow to seven metres, and its pretty yellow flowers can take over pastures, poison cattle and even cause irritation to humans.
Johnson said leafy spurge costs Manitoba's farm economy $40 million a year.
"We're fighting a hell of a battle with it," he said.
One option for a Manitoba pesticide ban might be to allow weed experts access to some of the heavy-duty chemicals such as 2,4-D but restrict their use to only noxious weeds. That would allow rural weed-control programs some wiggle room to deal with plants such as leafy spurge.
Another option may be to restrict a cosmetic ban to urban lawns, but Johnson says that may pose unintended problems.
Cities and towns act like huge seed banks -- weed seeds blow beyond the city limits or hitch rides on deer and birds. If farmers see a creeping weed invasion in ditches and along highways, they may take the chemicals into their own hands.
"If we don't do it, the farmers will, quite frankly," said Johnson.
SEE THE DATABASE
The Free Press has analyzed end-of-year pesticide reports to create a searchable database that allows Manitobans to see what gets sprayed on public land. For example, the Rural Municipality of Headingley sprayed 275 litres of 2,4-D over 124 hectares of land but used six litres of Tordon 22K to spot spray. Almost 1,100 entries such as this exist, covering nearly every weed-control district, school division, golf course, utility and rail company, as well as the city and province. In some cases, you will be able to see which pesticide was used around your child's school. It's only for one year -- 2011. But it's the first time anyone has logged what gets sprayed on public land in the province.
To peruse that database and interactive features, click here.