Children will be among those who pay the price if the Manitoba government weakens restrictions on the cosmetic use of pesticides. We hope that does not happen.
There are good reasons, based in science, why it should not.
In April, Sustainable Development Minister Cathy Cox hinted at changes that could allow currently restricted pesticides into wider use once again. Before contemplating such moves, the minister and her colleagues should recall why restrictions on cosmetic pesticides were introduced in Manitoba in the first place.
Acting on scientific evidence and public demand for stronger regulation, the government of the day in 2014 passed legislation to restrict the sale and use of chemical pesticides for lawn care. A list of permitted weed-control products was set by regulation. The new rules came into force in 2015.
The effect of these measures has been to reduce environmental and health risks in Manitoba by reducing exposure of people, pets, wildlife and pollinating insects to chemical pesticides used for non-essential purposes.
It was, and is, sound public health policy. According to a detailed analysis of peer-reviewed studies by the Ontario College of Family Physicians in 2012, health risks associated with exposure to pesticides include adverse reproductive, neurological and respiratory outcomes that are particularly significant for children, pregnant women and newborns.
Adverse health effects include increased risks for a range of physical and developmental conditions such as low birth weight and pre-term births in babies, deficits in cognitive and motor development in children, hormonal (endocrine) disruption, asthma and obstructive lung disease, birth defects, learning disabilities and other developmental deficits. In many studies, the harmful effects noted in children were related to the exposure of their mothers during pregnancy or to children’s exposure at a young age. When cosmetic pesticides are a source of such exposures, these are preventable harms.
For its part, the body within Health Canada tasked with carrying out pesticide evaluations, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, over-relies on industry-supplied studies and fails to take sufficient account of population-based epidemiological research that considers the real-world effects of pesticide exposure on humans. For example, risks from cumulative exposure to more than a single pesticide are not adequately addressed.
In short, gaps in data and critical flaws in the agency review process mean that we cannot depend on Health Canada’s assurances of pesticide safety because the evidence that supports such claims is seriously deficient.
With regard to the cost of alternative practices and products, we need to appreciate that the full cost of chemical pesticide use includes the cost of doctor visits, tests, medications, hospitalizations and treatment of illnesses and developmental deficits associated with pesticide exposure. Add in the cost of special medical services and educational support programs for affected children. And beyond economics is the immeasurable price paid by children struggling with developmental, neurological and respiratory conditions in which exposure to cosmetic pesticides is a factor.
The Manitoba government should act in the public interest and retain restrictions on dangerous pesticides in this province. Indeed, a public opinion poll conducted last fall by Probe Research found that a majority of Manitobans want to maintain current restrictions on cosmetic uses of pesticides. Evidently, there is widespread and well-founded unease about the health effects of pesticides.
According to a 2016 national report by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, seven Canadian provinces have enacted bans of varying effectiveness to prohibit cosmetic uses of pesticides. No province has subsequently opted to loosen such restrictions. Children in Manitoba continue to deserve the protection of a cosmetic pesticide ban.
Dr. John Howard is chairman of the board of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Dr. Paul Doucet is an emergency physician in Winnipeg.