A Personal Fight Against Pesticides

by Espen Larsen

Jean-Dominic Levesque-René doesn't have any photos of himself from the days just before the doctors removed his tumour.

"I was so ugly," he says. Jean-Dominic was watching the Simpsons on television when he first noticed the lump, pearl-sized, on the right side of his neck. It was a day in early January, seven years ago, and Jean-Dominic was 10 years old.

"In one week, it was this big," he says, and picks up a bottle of white-out, pointing a pale slender finger towards the bottom of the plastic cartridge.

In four weeks, the lump had grown to the size of his fist and the doctors at St.Justin's Hospital in Montreal confirmed Jean-Dominic had contracted non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer that has been associated with exposure to commonly used pesticides. None of the doctors mentioned the possibility of such a link, but when Jean-Dominic discovered he wasn't the only kid from Ile Bizard in the cancer ward, he got curious himself.

Ile Bizard is home to about 14 000 people, a half-hour drive west of downtown Montreal. It's a relatively quiet suburban town surrounded by three golf courses. In fact, 35% of Ile Bizard's land mass consists of green fairways that are regularly treated with chemicals.

"There were 22 kids from Ile Bizard in the hospital with cancer," he recalls, sitting by the kitchen table on a late-winter Saturday afternoon. "Being in the hospital gave me a chance to think. How did I get this cancer?"

Jean-Dominic and his parents had a suspicion and went to the public library. They found a study linking non-Hodgkin's lymphoma to 2,4-D, probably the most common active ingredient in herbicides sold in Canada. 2,4-D is used to get rid of weeds like dandelions, thistles and ragweed, and it kills by causing abnormal cell growth that interrupts the movement of liquids and nutrients in the plant.

Jean-Dominic had his first experience with lawn chemicals as a toddler. He wasn't even two years old when his parents hired a company to spray the backyard. Jean-Dominic reacted by crying and bleeding from his nose. A month later, they sprayed again. This time, Jean-Dominic responded with the same nose-bleed, plus nausea and vomiting.

His parents, assured by the professional lawn-care company that the chemicals were "less harmful than a cup of coffee," sprayed once more before the summer was over. Jean-Dominic got sick again. This time, they went to a local dermatologist who asked if they used pesticides.

"She told us we were poisoning our son," says his mother, Monique Levesque.

"I didn't believe her. I didn't want the weeds on my grass," she says. It wasn't until after they sprayed the fourth time, in April the following year, that they went to a doctor who convinced them to stop using pesticides.

Pesticides changed Jean-Dominic's life. He has lost almost two years of schooling since he was diagnosed with cancer, due to chemotherapy and a weakened immune system that leaves him prone to infections. He also suffers chronic fatigue.

Monique wants to show me all the documents she has collected over the years. She walks me to a storage room in the basement. There are several boxes full of paper on the floor, and a table is covered with newspaper clippings, medical studies and other pesticide-related documents. From the pile, Monique pulls out a Montreal newspaper with a photo of Jean-Dominic, bald-headed but with a bright smile, in front of a flower-bed of yellow daffodils. The photo covers the full front page and the headline reads, "Toxic Garden." This was the first story about Jean-Dominic's crusade, written while he was still in hospital.

"You see the light in their eyes better when they don't have hair," his mother says, before she finds a study from the National Cancer Institute in the United States that links non-Hodgkin's lymphoma to herbicides like 2,4-D. It has blue highlighter all over it, and, in the upper right corner, a sentence added by a typewriter reads, "Ceci est le cancer dont Jean-Dominic a souffert."

Later in the afternoon, she and Jean-Dominic's father drive me to the bus station. In their minivan, Monique says that very few people who get cancer during childhood will reach their full life expectancy. But she's optimistic about winning the pesticide battle.

"People's mentality has changed completely in seven years," she says.

Reprinted from the Peace and Environment News, July 2001, with permission.