Johanne Gelinas Article

Pesticides:  a grave oversight

Ottawa doesn't know nearly enough about the chemicals on our food and our lawns

Thank you to Coalition for a Healthy Ottawa for this article.

by Johanne Gélinas, Canada's former Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. 2004. She audited the Pest Management Regulatory Agency in 2003 for the Auditor General's Office.

Across the country, Canadians are passionately debating whether or not to ban pesticides that keep lawns weed-free.  The federal government committed itself to re-evaluating eight lawn pesticides by 2001. In March 2003, when my audit of federal pesticide management was completed, five of those eight re-evaluations were still underway.

The government's failure to produce timely results leaves Canadians wondering if they are being unnecessarily exposed to  dangerous toxic substances on their own front lawns. My annual report, tabled yesterday (2004) in the House of  Commons, found that such delays are common at the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), a branch of Health Canada. Ottawa is not managing pesticides effectively, nor can it honestly say that pesticide use in Canada is safe.

Pesticides help produce and preserve the food we eat. We use them in forests, gardens and on lawns, to control parasites on pets, and combat the spread of diseases such as West Nile virus. But there are risks: These substances kill living things and are released directly into the environment. The public is concerned about pesticide safety. After my audit, so am I.

Does our food contain harmful pesticide residues? If so, what are  the long-term health effects? What are the health hazards of using pesticides on lawns? What are the impacts on fish, birds, pets -- and children?

The public is asking the right questions. But from top to bottom in  the federal government, I found significant problems. Many pesticides were registered for legal use decades  ago when health and environment standards were lower.  They're now being re-evaluated to see if they meet  current standards -- but the work is not well-managed and is going too slowly.

In 1999, the federal government said it would re-evaluate 405 active ingredients approved for use in Canadian pesticides by 2006. Since then only six active ingredients have been fully re-evaluated. (A handful of others are being pulled from the market by the manufacturers.) My audit found that the PMRA has not  spent enough on its re-evaluation program. It does not deal first with the highest-risk pesticides that  are most widely used in Canada. If an old pesticide is found to be unsafe, the PMRA has no rule on how quickly it should be taken off the market.

These are not theoretical problems. Every pesticide that has been re-evaluated has either had its legal uses further restricted or has been pulled off the shelves because it has been found to pose unacceptable risks.

The PMRA must also evaluate more than 3,000 new pesticide applications each year. In many cases, it is not meeting its own timelines for approving new, possibly safer pesticides -- so farmers and other users spray with older products, with potential health risks.

I'm also troubled  by the heavy and repeated use of temporary  registrations. My audit found instances of temporary registrations issued despite lack of information on impacts on children's central nervous systems. More than half of all recent registrations are temporary.  Worse, they're frequently renewed; some have been extended five times.

The PMRA acts on  limited and unreliable information about actual pesticide use and impacts in the real world; its assessments are built on a foundation of assumptions.  One is that users comply with label directions. This is unrealistic. The PMRA recently collected soil  samples from 20 Ontario onion growers; testing for  pesticide residue, it found that 18 of the farmers weren't following the rules set out to protect health  and the environment.

The problems don't lie onlywith the PMRA. Health Canada has done little to understand the health impacts of pesticides.  Canadians are operating in the dark about the long-term environmental effects on water quality, which is a responsibility of Environment Canada and  others. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's  monitoring program is limited: It conducts only a  small number of tests, and has none at all for  residues of nearly 40 per cent of the pesticides in  agricultural use. This raises questions about whether we know enough about pesticide residues on the food we eat.

Overall, my audit has found a large gap between the federal  government's promises and its performance in managing  pesticides. This is the fourth audit of federal pesticide management in 15 years. The federal government has long known about many of these problems. New legislation and funding provide new opportunities, but the government's response so far leads me to question whether it takes pesticide safety concerns seriously.

Canadians want to  know: Just how safe are the pesticides we use? The federal government should be able to answer that  question. But it can't.

Click here
to download Johanne Gelinas’s full report to the office of the Auditor General.