Health Canada says pesticides are safe. Why?

In a CBOT interview 7 August 2001, spokesman Richard Martin put Health Canada firmly on record. Pesticides are safe. Period. All segments of society are taken into account when registering them.

I'm a scientist - I value facts. I also value human beings.

There are at least a thousand people in the city of Ottawa who go into convulsions, experience anaphylactic shock, find themselves barely able to breath, even lose consciousness, when exposed to lawn sprays approved by Health Canada. Judy Spence is one. Our doctors who treat them know who they are, know the reality of their health problems.

This is fact. These are human beings.

There are at least 10,000 people in the city of Ottawa who experience symptoms clearly identifiable by their doctors when exposed to lawn sprays approved by Health Canada. These are people diagnosed with asthma or allergies. Our doctors who treat them know who they are, know the reality of their health problems. Both conditions are fully accepted by doctors - allergies even have their own certified specialists.

This is fact. These are human beings.

Why does Health Canada deny facts? Why do they deny our existence as human beings?

It's costing Canadians a lot.

Due to the denial of facts by Health Canada, millions of health care dollars are spent in attempts to alleviate the symptoms of asthma and environmental illness caused by exposure to pesticide sprays in Ottawa alone. It's probably a hundred million dollars a year nation-wide.

Due to the denial of facts by Health Canada, Canadian municipalities in provinces without effective urban pesticide limitation legislation are being forced to individually go through the lengthy, divisive and costly process of individual pesticide bylaws to protect the health of their residents.

Due to the denial of facts by Health Canada, panic over West Nile virus is resulting in the spraying of mosquitos - and all of us around them - with pesticides that cause more health problems than they save.

But most of all, there is the human cost of easily preventable suffering.

As long as Health Canada denies facts, as long as they deny our existence as human beings, the health of those who are not in perfect health will continue to be needlessly impaired.

So, why do they do it?

For over 30 years, I did what I could to assist those with severe respiratory illnesses in the Ottawa Canada area. Most of these people are far more adversely affected by volatile components of urban pesticide sprays than are those in perfect health. As have many others, I have been dismayed, even appalled, by the attitude of some who live around me.

Put simply, when asked to stop spraying lawn pesticides because it makes a neighbour seriously ill, about 1 out of ten Ottawans tell you to get lost. About 1 in a hundred say, "get lost or I'll punch your face in". And, about 1 in a thousand resort to sustained violent reaction, such as repeatably waiting until the sufferer is outside their home then starting spraying. With these people, appealing to facts, intellect, humanity, even to self interest, is not only useless, it's counter-productive. It just hardens their attitudes.

After painful reflection, backed by a lifetime of study of natural history and ecology, I've come to a reluctant conclusion. Such reactions are an integral part of the evolution of life on this planet. We are observing the results of confronting billions of years of evolution with the barely-yesterday dream of human equality.

Let me try to explain. All natural life divides everything about them into three classes: things we can eat, things that might eat us, and our own species. Others of our own species compete with us for breeding rights. And, ever since death evolved, breeding has been the deciding factor in evolution: if you pass your genes on to the next generation you survive, otherwise you don't. Whenever we observe apparently altruistic behaviour in nature, it turns out with deeper study to be rooted in gene survival.

We human beings have taken gene survival to a further level - the meme, or culturally-transmitted gene. The rule of survival is the same for both: a meme that is passed on survives, otherwise it dies as a brain wave. But, some of our memes are in direct opposition to our genes and that, I submit, is what is at the root of this inquiry. Altruism, the foundation of human equality, is a meme that confronts gene.

There are a myriad of technicalities used by Health Canada to justify their position, the restrictive Canadian legal definition of public health for one (it excludes anyone with an "identifiable health condition": asthma, taking a medical prescription, even a broken finger), their even more restrictive reliance on toxicology for another (hunger is not 'toxic', nor is heart attack, influenza, asthma or cancer). But, I submit that these technicalities are just symptoms.

Health Canada actions on pesticides are a reflection of those who cannot accept human diversity. They reflect our genetic roots, 'nature red in tooth and claw', rather than hopes for a future based on our humanity. Those of us who value human beings as we are will have to survive without them.

John Sankey
other notes on pesticides