Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pesticide ban needs test period

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Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh is taking comfort in a poll released Tuesday that indicated most Manitobans want a cosmetic pesticide ban. Manitoba would be the seventh province to restrict pesticides and the first western province to impose a broad cosmetic ban. British Columbia backed away from a ban after Premier Christy Clark was convinced that her promise to implement one would be harmful.

Manitoba, however, is following the herd. The overwhelming support for a cosmetic ban found in a survey of 498 Manitobans last month by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment indicates that compliance should be quick and wide-spread.

People, in general, are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with research that shows growing associations between some chemicals and serious health effects, including types of cancer and, in children, neurodevelopmental disorders.

The science is not conclusive. Physician groups that have reviewed the research are careful to note the concern over pesticides and the impact on health is predicated on studies that find higher risk or incidence of disorders and disease in specific groups -- the very young, children, the elderly and those who work with pesticides.

The Ontario College of Family Physicians, which did extensive reviews, notes that fetuses, newborns and children are at elevated risk because of their rapid development, but generally there are "consistent links to serious illnesses, such as cancer, reproductive problems and neurological diseases."

Part of the case against pesticides rests on the concern about what is not known -- research is just starting to probe the interaction of chemicals and the impact on human health. It is prudent, advocates argue, to halt the use of pesticides on lawns and public places where people, especially children, walk, play and mingle.

Mr. Mackintosh's plan is to phase in a ban on the sale and use of pesticides, removing the right of property owners to use chemicals to control the weeds on their lawns. He should proceed with care.

Cosmetic bans across Canada target the common lawn weed killers, but allow golf courses to be treated, and spraying for bugs. Alberta took a measured cosmetic approach in 2010, banning weed-and-feed-type products popular with homeowners. Albertans can still use herbicides to spot-kill weeds, limiting the runoff of chemicals into waterways.

A British Columbia special committee recently concluded that the lack of conclusive science on pesticides and disease weighed against an outright ban, which can have unintended consequences. Municipalities that adopted bans found that fields and lawns can become weed havens. Pesticide-free maintenance -- hand-picking weeds, aerating or using organic solutions -- is more expensive, and labour intensive.

The committee report that changed Premier Clark's mind also noted that pesticide bans in B.C. towns and cities affected rural environments. The grub of the European Chafer, for example, moved from lawns and boulevards into agricultural crops to feed, presenting a problem for farmers.

The Winnipeg School Division, which years ago banned herbicides on its grounds, is still trying to find a good way to keep its fields weed-free.

The movement to ban pesticides is motivated, in part, to protect the environment but a cosmetic ban offers little benefit for the lakes and streams. Agriculture, which would not be affected by the provincial regulation, uses the huge bulk of pesticides applied annually.

The wide support for a cosmetic ban, however, is compelling and the science, as yet unclear, gives reason to re-think Manitoba's regulation of cosmetic pesticides and the use by property owners of chemicals increasingly implicated in serious health concerns.

A phase-in of a ban is appropriate, but Mr. Mackintosh's legislation must require an independent public review of the costs and consequences of a ban imposed in hopes of securing poorly defined benefits.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 A16

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