Urban Pesticide Use - Ontario Style

Lawn spray companies in Ontario used many tactics in their quest to douse us all with pesticides that "the government says are safe". And, they were being assisted by the Ontario government (Ministry of Environment and Energy) to an extent that effectively nullified even the minimal safety provisions in the federal Pest Control Products Act.

For example, on Monday 16 June 1997, at least two lawn spray companies were going about their business in Ottawa-Carleton (eastern Ontario) as usual, spraying assorted equivalents of 2,4-D. All mixtures being used included mecoprop and dicamba, the "2,4-D"s that are much more persistent in the environment than 2,4-D acid is. The wind was officially recorded as 28 km/hr gusting to 56 km/hr, but lawns in my community were littered with small branches by the end of the day. A number of people observed spray being grabbed by the wind half way between the spray nozzles and the ground and lifted in swirls over adjacent properties and passers-by. The trucks only ceased operations an hour before the first thunderstorm of the day moved through.

Surely, this can't be legal? Well, welcome to reality in "Incredible Ontario", as the provincial tourism people call us.

[image of sign] In Ontario, companies spraying pesticides in residential areas are required to post a sign specifying which pesticide(s) were used. These are actually reasonable signs - they state "Warning Pesticide Use", have an icon of a person walking with a red barred circle, and are 8½x11" - large enough to read safely. Signs for public areas such as parks must be even larger.

The provincial regulation specifies that the sign must be rainproof, and that "no person" may remove such a sign for 48 hours after spraying. However, if the sign comes with such a flimsy plastic stake that the wind blows it away within minutes, that is not a violation of the provincial regulation. And, if a small wind-resistant green sign touting the environmentally friendly lawn care company is firmly planted right next to it, that's not illegal either. Althougth the spray company is responsible under the Ontario Pesticides Act for removing the sign between 3 and 10 days after application, none do. In fact, at least one tells customers pointedly that they "don't come back to check the silly things".

The spray trucks have two tanks, one with solely fertilizer, the other with the concentrated pesticide mix of the day. The applicators' nozzles have two valves, both under one hand. Whenever any safety question arises about pesticides, they "are spraying only fertilizer". So, even if a TV crew photographs the spray sailing up over the rooftops as the tree tops are wildly tossed, as they did on Monday, that is not evidence of improper pesticide use, according to the Province of Ontario.

Ontario provincial regulations offer 12 km/hr as a "guideline" maximum wind speed for the spraying of any pesticide. As a guideline, they refuse to enforce it. Federal registration, under the Pest Control Products Act, often specifies that a specific pesticide formulation may not be sprayed in "high winds" - all phenoxy herbicides are so designated. The federal government will tell you verbally that high winds are 8-12 km/hr, but a definition of high winds is not specified anywhere in the Act or regulations made under it. So, a wind speed of 60 km/hr, even if documented at the spray site by a professional metrologist as it was in this case, is not evidence of improper pesticide use, according to the Province of Ontario.

As an additional precaution, signs are made up in a batch before the truck starts work - all indicate all pesticides carried that day. So, the sign is not evidence that a pesticide was in fact used on the property, according to the Province of Ontario. It's not fraud either - contracts with customers specify only the number of applications per year, not what is in each application, and the cost depends solely on the number of applications, not what is in each one.

In this particular case, an additional tactic was used. At least one company obviously realised that the winds had been excessive: according to provincial officials, they recorded in their application log that only granular herbicide had been used that day. Of course, the signs posted stated solely federal registration numbers of liquid formulations. And, the trucks carried no mechanism for applying granular material. But, that was only an "administrative error" according to the Province of Ontario, and they refuse to lay charges for such minor breaches of regulations as mere administrative error. Besides, the fact that witnesses saw that no granular material was used then means that the property didn't receive any pesticides at all, right?

So, as far as the Ontario government is concerned, people endangered by pesticide drift have only one option with respect to violations of federal legislation: tort law (which is outside provincial jurisdiction). Several test samples of vegetation must be obtained from an adjacent property and must test positive for the pesticide, and immediate damage must be documented to that adjacent property that is so characteristic of the pesticide used that there is no other possible explanation. Of course, if the winds are really high, spray drift covers such a large area that chemical tests can not detect it. Besides, it seems that the samples must be taken by MOEE personnel, or the provincial government refuses to lay charges. There are precisely two provincial pesticide officers for the entirety of Eastern Ontario. And, obviously, no one can prove, one on one (class actions being virtually prohibited in Canada), that the life of a whole community's trees were shortened by herbicide drift either.

What about health effects? Well, in Ontario the notion that a hundred cases of "mild flu" might in fact be caused by insecticide drifting over a whole community is 'controversial'. So is environmental hypersensitivity. No one runs faster from any hint of controversy than a Canadian. Besides, there is only one environmental health officer for the entire Ottawa-Carleton region - just under a million people.

As you might expect, there is now widespread defiance of the provincial regulations. For example, I attended the graduation ceremony at the University of Guelph 11 June 1998 - most of the campus about the graduation and reception buildings had been sprayed so recently that the ragweed had barely started to wilt, and the smell between buildings was almost asphyxiating. No signs. Stick it in your ear.

On 22 April 1998, most of the trees throughout the Britannia Beach park of the City of Ottawa were sprayed for insects by City staff. Four signs were posted briefly at the edge of one of the Beach parking lots, none at the other parking lot, none at any of the other path entrances to the park. There was no prenotification, and even these four signs were removed well before the 48 hour time was up. And, when a regional health committee asked the City for details, the Director of Operations replied, in writing, "I can assure you, however, that the City is not proposing a pesticide spraying program, nor has any spraying been carried out by city staff in Britannia Park this Spring."

On 9 May 1998, the town of Embrun sprayed its main park playground with glyphosate. There was no prenotification, no posting, and two busloads of elementary school children were playing in the park throughout the spraying. A parent's protest was met with defiance, "this stuff is safe", and the spraying continued. The Province of Ontario has taken no action, yet forbids others from doing so.

I mentioned "the government says our products are safe", didn't I? Well, Environment Canada has lots of literature stating that "pesticides are toxic otherwise they wouldn't work", but, you see, Environment Canada still doesn't have any authority over pesticides. Until very recently, that authority was vested solely in Agriculture Canada, and their chief spokesperson routinely compared the toxicity of "most" pesticides favourably to table salt. (Just sprinkle 2,4-D on your breakfast eggs - delicious.) Now, Canadian authority over pesticides has been transferred to Health Canada - but, so have almost all the Agriculture personnel involved for years with pesticides.

Nothing in Canadian or Ontario legislation deals explicitly with claims of pesticide safety. Pesticides are specifically excluded from the purview of most Canadian safety legislation, in particular from the federal Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS). In fact, it is a violation of Canadian law even to talk about the identity of non-pesticide components of pesticide formulations, even of components that are well known to be dangerous to human health.

So, in Ontario, the pesticide registration process has been nullified by the provincial government with respect to matters of public safety, with the implicit support of the federal government. And, moderates like PEN were squeezed out of the picture.

Extremism begets extremism. All our members joined the Health Dangers of Urban Use of Pesticides Advisory Committee, which worked for a total ban on all lawn pesticides. Although we failed with the City of Ottawa, during 2007 we connected with the MPP for Ottawa South, the premier of the province, Dalton McGuinty. As of Earth Day 2008, cosmetic pesticides can no longer be applied or sold within the province.

John Sankey
other notes on pesticides