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Canadian Cancer Society Scrutinizes Pesticide Use

(Beyond Pesticides, November 13, 2008) The Canadian Cancer Society is holding a conference to look at the possibility of advocating for stricter farm pesticide laws. The Cancer Society has been a vocal advocate for the cosmetic pesticide restrictions that have passed in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec as well as many municipalities, but it has not yet taken a stance on the much larger use of agricultural pesticides. Health Canada, the Canadian entity responsible for pesticide regulation insists, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does in the U.S., that registered pesticides do not pose a substantive health risk when used as directed, but mounting scientific evidence shows otherwise.

Many of the same chemicals that Canadian provinces have banned for cosmetic use, such as the herbicide 2,4-D, are used in much higher volumes in agriculture than on lawns. Since the Cancer Society is a strong voice in favor of the cosmetic pesticide bans because of the dangers of pesticides, it is logical that they would also be concerned about agricultural pesticide use. In other words, “It’s very hard to argue that the cosmetic use of pesticides poses a public-health risk, including cancer risk, and not examine what is going on in the rural and agricultural communities,” said James Brophy, an adjunct professor at the University of Windsor.

While the health effects of cosmetic pesticide use and agricultural pesticide use may be the same, the risk-benefit analysis for agricultural pesticides is more complex. Heather Logan, the director of the Cancer Society’s cancer-control policy, said the cosmetic bans were needed because “there is some potential for increased cancer” with the use of these products around homes and “no health benefit whatsoever. The only benefit that you get is looking at your lawn without any weeds. The issue of non-cosmetic exposure is very different.”

This highlights the highly contentious nature of risk assessment—in a risk analysis, how are the costs and benefits measured? It could easily be argued that given the viability of organic agriculture, which does not pollute the air, soil, food and water with toxic pesticides, there is no health benefit to using pesticides in agriculture. It is, in fact, a health risk. However, in risk assessment, the analysis does not address only environmental and health risks and benefits; economic concerns are also considered. If it is perceived that the use of a pesticide provides an economic benefit, health and environmental risks are accepted. Even being a likely carcinogen does not exclude a pesticide from registration.

Provincial restrictions on cosmetic pesticides brought the ire of Dow Agrosciences because the company claims the restrictions are not based on scientific studies. It uses the conclusions of Health Canada to say its products are safe, and has threatened to sue Canada under NAFTA for lost profits. One of the difficulties in looking at pesticide risks is that epidemiological studies, while strongly suggesting links between pesticides and health effects, are not generally viewed as conclusive evidence of risk. As the Globe and Mail put it, “Regulators view it much like circumstantial evidence in court. It is able to suggest associations between a pesticide and an illness, but doesn’t provide proof the chemical caused the disease. On the other hand, these types of studies were the first to show the link between smoking and lung cancer.”

Source: The Globe and Mail


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