Opinion: Banning cosmetic pesticides is a matter of public health, not politics

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The committee’s recent discussion of a ban on cosmetic pesticides in the city was mind-boggling. Other than advisers Michael Janz and Jo-Anne Wright, few advisers seemed to understand or even care about the issue.

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Anyone interested in public health or the climate crisis should care. Pesticides are linked to serious diseases, from cancer to endocrine disorders to Parkinson’s disease. As scientific research shows, their risk is particularly acute for children. Pesticides also negatively impact pollinators and other insects, birds and soil organisms needed for carbon sequestration.

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Pesticide regulation in Canada is full of loopholes. Audits by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) revealed serious deficiencies. A 2016 audit, for example, uncovered PMRA-approved chemicals that Health Canada said posed an unacceptable risk to human and environmental health.

Similarly, a recent audit found that Alberta Environment “did not have adequate processes to minimize the risk of inappropriate pesticide use in Alberta.” Because of these shortcomings, more than 180 cities across Canada, including Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Halifax, have implemented cosmetic (non-essential) pesticide bans on public and private property. Many of these bans have been in place for two decades. A ban on cosmetic pesticides is not extreme; it is the basic standard to protect people and nature.

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In 2015, the city instituted a partial pesticide ban on a small percentage of public land. The idea was that the city would model pesticide reduction and educate citizens about alternatives as a step toward a full ban. The city government has promised to consult with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Children’s Pediatric Environmental Health Unit to overhaul their policies.

None of this happened. The municipal administration never contacted the CAPE or the CPEHU. City reports show that the use of many pesticides has increased. Edmonton was the last city in Canada to still use chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin now banned by Health Canada. The city was sued and fined $165,000 for using an illegal herbicide. A city audit revealed many problems with the city’s pesticide policies. And rather than educating the public, misinformation has been consistently spread, including at the committee’s recent meeting, when the administration said cities could not ban pesticide sales — a statement since repeated by the advise. Tim Cartmell — when Montreal did just that.

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Part of the problem is the powerful lobby of the pesticide industry. The city’s pest management advisory committee was, until recently, chaired by a retired employee of Crop Life, the trade association for the global pesticide industry, and many other members have ties to the industry.

In April 2022, City Council voted 12 to 1 for a report on steps to outline a ban on cosmetic pesticides in 2023. It looked like Edmonton was finally on the right track. However, the lobbying of the pesticide industry then intensified with a half-page advertisement in a newspaper and postcards dropped in mailboxes. Meanwhile, the city government’s subsequent report listed a price tag of nearly half a million dollars for research on the subject that has already been done – both by the more than 180 Canadian cities that have banned cosmetic pesticides and, in the case of investigations, by our city itself. A 2019 survey indicated that Edmontonians overwhelmingly care about the threat of pesticides to pollinators, people and aquatic environments.

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Rather than send the report back to the administration, as Janz and Wright recommended, most of the other advisers relented and repeated the industry’s arguments. The discussion centered on the ridiculous suggestion that the city’s boulevards look terrible because they’re not sprayed with pesticides. Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Halifax are all beautiful and they banned pesticides years ago.

It’s not a political question; it is a matter of public health. Most Canadians are protected from pesticide drift; we in Edmonton have been denied that right. When our children walk to school, they are exposed to toxic chemicals from sticky, smelly, pesticide-soaked lawns. As we recreate in the river valley, we and the wildlife that lives there inhale pesticides from the golf courses. When we work in home and community gardens, we and the bees that pollinate the gardens are exposed to drift from neighbors watering their gardens at Roundup.

Until more councilors listen to science, our city is decades behind the rest of the country.

Rod Olstad is with the Edmonton Chapter of the Council of Canadians.

Robert Wilde is with Pesticide Free Edmonton.

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