Public concerns about herbicide use in Nova Scotia rising, though usage steady

Public concerns about the use of herbicides in Nova Scotia's forests appear to be growing, though the number of hectares approved for spraying in 2016 is on par with previous years.

Opposing views on the health risks associated with glyphosate

Forestry companies have been spraying the herbicide in Nova Scotia's forests as a matter of course for decades. (Jeff Green/CBC)

Public concerns about the use of herbicides in Nova Scotia's forests appear to be growing, though the number of hectares approved for spraying in 2016 is on par with previous years. 

An online petition asking the province to retract its approvals for herbicide spraying this year garnered more than 3,200 signatures.

Most of the forestry companies in Nova Scotia spray a Monsanto product called VisionMax. The active ingredient is glyphosate. 

The herbicide is primarily used in agriculture, but it is also used in the forestry industry to kill deciduous trees — such as maple, oak, and birch — in order to allow trees used for pulp wood to flourish.

Spraying is common in N.S.

Forestry companies have been spraying the herbicide in Nova Scotia's forests as a matter of course for decades. Here's a look at recent years:

  • In 2011, 14 approvals were issued.
  • In 2012, 14 approvals were issued.
  • In 2013, 16 approvals were issued.
  • In 2014, 13 approvals were issued.
  • In 2015, 9 approvals were issued.

So far this year, Nova Scotia's Department of the Environment has granted 10 approvals to forestry companies to spray herbicides. All together, 2,600 hectares of land will be sprayed in five counties.

Two more approvals are pending. 

Numbers provided by Northern Pulp show the paper company has sprayed between 1,080 and 1,780 hectares each year since 2009.

A spokeswoman said the company does not spray the same location each year, and waits between 40 and 80 years between applications.

Earier this month, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, said there is no evidence that glyphosate creates a risk to human health if used properly. (CBC)

Conflicting messages

Last year, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listed glyphosate as a "probable carcinogen."

But Keith Solomon, a professor emeritus in the school of environmental sciences at the University of Guelph, said that conclusion doesn't match what many other agencies have found.

"IARC doesn't look at all of the information that is available," he said.

"They don't look at the studies ... that are required to be submitted to the regulatory agencies. They don't see those, so they perhaps don't get all the information and they could come to an incorrect conclusion."

In 2016, the WHO and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations announced that glyphosate was "unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet." 

Most of the forestry companies in Nova Scotia spray a Monsanto product called VisionMax. The active ingredient is glyphosate. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Doctors weigh in

Earlier this month, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, said there is no evidence that glyphosate creates a risk to human health if used properly.

But Dr. Warren Bell, a family physician from British Columbia and founding president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said he is concerned about the long-term health effects of exposure to low levels of glyphosate. 

He said there is ample evidence to suggest glyphosate is getting into people's bodies. "Glyphosate residues have been found in California wine, in menstrual pads, in German beer, in the urine of 99.6 per cent of Germans tested."

Once glyphosate is in a person's body, he said, there is evidence to suggest it could mimic a naturally occurring amino acid, called glycine, and prevent proteins in the body from working properly.

"It opens up the potential for a vast array of disturbances of biological function," he said.

Bell said he's also concerned about evidence that suggests glyphosate can create antibiotic resistance in humans, and that it makes metals more biologically available, which can cause negative health effects.

 International concerns

Some countries — such as Sri Lanka, Malta and Argentina — question the safety of glyphosate.

This year, the European Union's executive commission failed to agree on extending the authorization for glyphosate, citing health concerns.

Instead, commission members agreed to extend the approval for only 18 months to allow the European Chemicals Agency to do more research.

Retired Dalhousie University biology professor, David Patriquin, said Nova Scotia should follow the EU's lead.

He said glyphosate inhibits enzyme pathways in plants and many bacteria, which could have an impact on the intestinal bacteria in humans and their immune systems. 

With files from CBC's Information Morning