Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia's top medical official says herbicide concerns are ill-founded

The province's chief medical officer of health says there is no risk to public health from an approval recently granted to allow forestry companies to spray the herbicide glyphosate.

Scientific evidence says glyphosate use won't impact human health

Dr. Robert Strang is the province's chief medical officer of health. (CBC)

The provincial government turned to its top health official on Friday in an attempt to allay public concerns about planned pesticide spraying in Halifax County and Colchester County forests.

Earlier this week provincial Environment Minister Margaret Miller signed off on a request from Northern Pulp to spray VisonMax, which includes glyphosate, in more than 1,300 hectares of forest. The herbicide keeps hardwood from making its way into softwood stands.

The approval has met harsh criticism, particularly from people who live near areas marked for spraying, and an online petition is calling on Miller to reverse her decision.

Public has nothing to fear

But the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, said the material being used is less of a concern than how it's being used. And the usage as outlined in the company's permit won't impact people's health, said Strang.

"It all depends on how and where and when it's used. If it was being used for a different purpose in a different way, I may very well come to a different conclusion about risk to the public's health."

Strang isn't alone in this view, which he said is consistent with Health Canada research.

David Miller is a professor in Carleton University's chemistry department and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Fungal Toxins and Allergen.

Very common in agriculture

He's served on toxicology committees for the World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer and the United States Food and Drug Administration. He's also worked for Agriculture Canada and Health Canada.

Miller noted Strang's comments are consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the European Food Safety Agency, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN and Japan's regulatory agency.

He said the vast majority of glyphosate is used in agriculture annually, rather than every 30 or 40 years, as is the case in forestry. And the enzyme glyphosate targets is not found in animals, said Miller.

'The dose makes the poison'

Miller said studies people point to as evidence the material is cancer-causing have no relevance for humans, as determined in a World Health Organization summary report in May.

"It's important to understand that almost any chemical you would care to name … if you put enough dose of that in an animal it's going to get sick and get cancer," he said.

"Things that might cause ill effects in a rat at extremely high dose don't always apply — in fact, don't normally apply to us," said Miller. "The dose makes the poison."

NDP calls for community consultation

NDP Leader Gary Burrill, whose party has been particularly vocal on the issue, said what's missing from the process has been community consultation.

"We don't have an adequate system for acquiring … social licence or community buy-in for something of this nature," he said.

"Communities themselves have to be comfortable, at ease, with what's going on in the environment around them."

A bigger issue than spraying

But at least one environmentalist thinks there is a bigger issue at hand.

"The main problem is clear cutting," said Raymond Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre.

"You don't need to spray if you don't clear cut."

Working with a more natural stand of forest with a constant canopy would solve the problem, he said.

Raymond Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre says spraying is a symptom of the bigger problem of clear cutting.

"This is part of the industrial motto, which is clear cut a stand completely, then plant if necessary, spray and repeat after 40 years."

It all paints a grim picture of the future of forestry management in the province, said Plourde.

"The policy that we were promised has gone away because the industry and its sycophants in the department won't let us have improved practices in this province."