Bid to ban pesticides on lawns takes root

It's definitely that time of year again: With the coming of spring, legions of landscapers have resumed their chemical crusade against dandelions and other uninvited guests at the great suburban lawn party.

But that's changing in Canada. Concern about the health effects of lawn chemicals, especially on children, is growing along with the grass.

A proposal submitted in the House of Commons by the environment committee calls for a nationwide ban on "cosmetic" pesticides in residential lawns, like those that make the grass look greener or exterminate the dandelions. The committee says lawn pesticides should be regulated the same way as tobacco, lead, and asbestos.

At the local level, dozens of Canadian communities have already banned or severely restricted the use of chemicals.

Now Halifax, Nova Scotia, is the first major city holding hearings on a measure to phase out the use of most federally registered pest-control chemicals. The next session is set for June 13.

"There is a certain political turbulence on this matter just now," says Charles Caccia, a member of Parliament and chairman of the committee. "It seems to be coming together from many directions.... When you have to put signs up saying, 'Don't walk, don't touch, and you see the people applying this stuff, and all the protective gear they have to wear, well, people are starting to put two and two together."

Mr. Caccia says people should "change their belief that dandelions are bad ... and come to see them as beautiful flowers, part of the balance of nature."

Others disagree. "I'm not sure the comparison is there" with lead, asbestos, and tobacco, says Tim Tregunno, president of the Halifax Seed Company and a dissenting member of the advisory committee. "Our regulatory system is used as a model by developing countries."

The environment committee's report, presented May 16, was prepared at the request of Health Minister Allan Rock, who plans to present new legislation this fall to overhaul the 30-year-old Pest Control Products Act. The pesticide question is also coming to the fore because of concern by health researchers that children are at much greater environmental risk than earlier estimates. After all, they say, children are not just small adults. Children's bodies are in a developing process. In proportion to their weight, they breathe more air, drink more water, and play with more dirt than adults.

And so environmental standards developed with adults in mind may be wrong for children. In the case of certain substances, researchers suggest, standards may overestimate the amount of exposure that may be deemed safe by a factor of 10.

"The regulatory system is failing," said Paul Muldoon, counsel and executive director at Canadian Environmental Law Association, at a press conference announcing the release of the study "Environmental Standard Setting and Children's Health." He charged federal and provincial authorities with "lack of political will ... and reluctance to act" even in the face of clear evidence that certain chemicals are harmful.

Golf courses and lawns may not cover the same vast acreages as the agricultural croplands of North America, but there are indications that proportionately, more pesticides go onto lawns than grainfields. Caccia's committee report cited a study showing that lawn treatment with pesticides in Chicago averaged eight pounds per acre annually compared with less than two pounds per acre per year on soybeans.

Mr. Tregunno, however, says the Halifax proposal is "not just a lawn issue - it's an issue involving trees, shrubs, flower gardens.... And what if I say, 'I object to those dandelions growing there,' where have my rights gone? I think I have a right to maintain my lawn the way I want to have it."

Maureen Reynolds of Real Alternatives to Toxins in the Environment (RATE), a citizens' group pushing for the ban, says that people need to be educated about alternatives. The best way of maintaining a good lawn is to have healthy turfs in which "good bugs" are at work. She says, "The more you use them, the more you have to keep using them."

Tregunno whose company sells a line of natural fertilizers and pesticides says alternative pesticides are "not the be-all and end-all. You have to use the appropriate product at the appropriate time." He explains that for a few aphids on the rosebushes, insecticidal soap may be the thing, but for a serious infestation, chemical measures are called for.

Karen Kraft-Sloan explains that the environment committee, of which she is vice chairman, has called not for a direct ban on lawn chemicals, but rather a moratorium on registration of new ones and reregistration of ones in use, as is required every five years. This would lead to a de facto phaseout of the chemicals.

Both the US and Canada are federal systems with responsibility for environmental protection shared among three different levels of governments. Canadian officials generally follow the US lead on regulation.

But in pursuing blanket bans on lawn chemicals, Canadian municipalities are going where their American counterparts have apparently not ventured. An official at the National League of Cities, in Washington, who says she is "unaware of any major initiatives" in this direction, cites the Interstate Commerce Clause of the the United States Constitution as the restraint here. In the US, a local government could ban a certain activity, such as spraying trees, for instance, but not a product itself. It's a fine distinction, she acknowledges, "but it flies."

Not that municipal bans have gone unchallenged, in Canada, however. Two chemical companies are taking the little community of Hudson, Quebec, to the Supreme Court of Canada over its pesticide ban. The case is expected to be heard late this year or early next year.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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