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Those Deadly Pesticides


By Alanna Mitchell

The Globe and Mail


The link between common household pesticides and fetal defects, neurological damage and the most deadly cancers is strong enough that family doctors in Ontario are urging citizens to avoid the chemicals in any form.


The frightening message came when the Ontario College of Family Physicians released the most comprehensive study ever done in Canada on the chronic effects of pesticide exposure at home, in the garden and at work.


"The review found consistent evidence of the health risks to patients with exposure to pesticides," the study said, naming brain cancer, prostate cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer and leukemia among many other acute illnesses.


As well, the college found consistent links between parents' exposure to certain agricultural pesticides at their jobs and effects on a growing fetus ranging from damage to death. The risks, they concluded, can come even from residue on food, ant spray and the tick collar on the family cat.


The researchers also found that children are far more vulnerable to the effects of pesticides than adults because their bodies are growing, they have a greater skin surface in proportion to their size than adults, they ingest more food for their size than adults and they often have less-developed systems to excrete chemicals.


Not only that, but after examining 12,000 studies conducted from 1990 to 2003 around the world, and winnowing that down to the most sound 250, the researchers said there is no evidence that some pesticides are less dangerous than others, just that they have different effects on health that take different periods to show up.


They said they are preparing brochures for patients and education material for family doctors to fill them in on the findings.


However, Lorne Hepworth, president of CropLife÷ Canada, a trade association representing the large multinational companies that manufacture pesticides, said he questioned whether the college, a voluntary, not-for-profit association, really had the public's interest at heart in releasing the data:

"Pesticides used properly constitute no unacceptable risk to people's health or to the environment."


He added that pesticides are highly regulated in Canada by federal health staff and must go through a raft of tests, including some on animals to see if the products cause cancer, before they are approved for use.


Not only that, but the federal laws governing pesticides were tightened two years ago to make them protect children better and match more closely the tougher standards in the United States and in other countries, he said.


He pointed out that other studies have shown that pesticide use also provides a safe and abundant source of fruits and vegetables in Canada, and that consuming these can cut cancer risks.


Chris Krepski, a spokesman for the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, an arm of Health Canada, added that a pesticide cannot be registered for use in Canada if it has the potential to cause birth defects.


"As long as they are used according to the label directions, they can be used safely," he said.


The massive scientific literature review comes as many cities across Canada are trying to ban the use of pesticides to make gardens and lawns pest-free and as efforts increase to get rid of mosquito larvae before West Nile season.


Toronto's law came into effect this month complete with posters showing a dandelion and the caption: "Relax. It's just a weed."


Quebec has already banned the most common lawn and garden pesticides across the province starting next year.


More than 66 communities have also moved to adopt bylaws that would limit pesticides, said Katrina Miller of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, a group seeking a reduction in the use of pesticides.


The Canadian Cancer Society, the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, the Registered Nurses Association of Canada and the Ontario Public Health Association have called for the bans as well.


Cathy Vakil, of the Family Medicine Centre at Queen's University in Kingston and one of the authors of the report, noted that alternatives to pesticides are available in most cases and should be considered because the profoundly negative effects of some chemicals can be passed down through generations.


"People need to think long and hard if they want to take that risk for themselves, their children and their grandchildren for the sake of a golf-green lawn," she said.


She also noted that the pesticides used in Toronto's 200,000 storm sewers to kill mosquito larvae emit a product as they break down that is a retinoid, a family of chemicals known to cause limb deformities in fetuses.


That chemical then washes into Lake Ontario and in turn into the drinking water of the Greater Toronto Area.


However, Lorraine Van Haastrecht, spokeswoman for a lobby group representing companies that treat 100,000 lawns in Toronto, said Canada needs "healthy green spaces."


"What we see is parks reduced to massive weed infestations," she said.


And Gavin Dawson, technical manager of Greenspace Services, the largest company in Canada to treat lawns, said that while his company offers pesticide-free service, only about 10 per cent of customers want that. The rest want pesticides.


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