In Lanark County, backlash spreads over plan to eradicate wild parsnip

As Lanark County prepares to launch a two-week spraying campaign to rid the rural area of wild parsnip, some residents say the chemical remedy poses a greater risk to human health and the environment than the invasive plant does.

Opponents say concern over noxious plant overblown, fear contamination from herbicide could prove worse

"No Spraying" signs are sprouting up all over Lanark County, where a two-week wild parsnip eradication campaign is set to begin Monday, June 6, 2016. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Asked about the plant he calls "poison parsnip," Kurt Greaves is blunt. 

"It's everywhere, and it will continue to spread unless we control it."

As proof, Greaves, the chief administrative officer of Lanark County, points to a patch of the plant growing metres from the county offices in Perth. The scourge has literally crept to the local administration's doorstep. 

Wild parsnip is an invasive plant originally from Asia and Europe that has existed in North America since at least the 19th century. Its reputation as a threat to public health is rooted in recent warnings over the toxic effect of its sap, which can cause severe dermatitis if it comes into contact with skin and is then exposed to sunlight.
Lanark County's chief administrative officer Kurt Greaves surveys a patch of wild parsnip growing just metres from the county's offices in Perth, Ont.

Greaves can attest to that. As a young man he was burned by wild parsnip sap while cutting grass.

"Big water blisters on my legs, pretty ugly," he recalls. County officials report receiving "a few dozen" calls and emails from residents who say they were also burned.

"We've had people that have said it has led to severe burning and they have been hospitalized for it," Greaves says.

Spraying set to start

Jurisdictions across eastern Ontario, including the City of Ottawa, have adopted spraying programs to control wild parsnip. The aim is to kill the plant before it produces seeds, stopping its spread. If it's not stopped, wild parsnip can crowd out native plants and threaten agricultural production.
The sap from the wild parsnip can burn skin and even blind people. (CBC)

In Lanark County, eradication efforts are set to begin in earnest Monday, with crews spraying roadside ditches with a herbicide called ClearView. The spraying will last two weeks. ​

But the program has been controversial, and opposition to spraying appears to be growing.

"A lot of people are now concerned. Obviously we are all concerned about using spraying. It's kind of the last resort for us as well," Greaves says.

Opponents in Lanark County, including environmentalists, farmers and medical professionals, insist the scare over wild parsnip has been exaggerated, and say the herbicide poses a greater threat to human health and the environment than the plant does.

Contamination fears

Frank Sammut, a dentist and a former lake steward, says there's a risk the herbicide will leach into the water.

"If the chemical we are all fighting here gets sprayed into the ditches, the rainwater will of course move it into the ponds, the streams and the lakes. Nobody knows what it's going to do down the road."

Maureen Bostock, an organic farmer, is convinced the eradication program threatens the local ecosystem.

"If you go along and you kill all the species, except for grass, you have changed that environment. It's no longer a habitat for beneficial insects."
Opponents of Lanark County's plan to spray for wild parsnip include farmers, environmentalists and medical professionals. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Ken Parks, also a farmer and a beekeeper, worries about his hives, which sit a short distance from roadside ditches.

"I'm just scared that if they start spraying this ClearView it's going to come back somehow into my hives and kill my hives."

Parks's wife Sandy says they've been living with wild parsnip for decades and she can't understand why there is so much concern about the plant now. 

"We used to pick it up, grab the seeds, spray them in the air over top of each other for fun," she says.

Education is what people need about this plant, not a chemical that can potentially do a lot of damage.- Nicole Crausen, Lanark County resident

Nicole Crausen, another Lanark resident, arrives at a gathering of opponents holding a wild parsnip plant. She says it's perfectly safe to handle, unlike other poisonous plants.

"Poison ivy — I just brush up against it and it will get me. I have to break this plant. I have to stand out in the sun, expose it to UV rays for it to affect me. So education is what people need about this plant, not a chemical that can potentially do a lot of damage."

Linda Harvey, a retired physician with a background in biology, says in 20 years practicing medicine in Ontario she only saw one patient who was suffering from burns caused by wild parsnip sap.

"We are going to raise a generation of children exposed to this [herbicide], and we don't know what impact it is going to have on them. I don't think that is fair."

Herbicide safe, county says

ClearView is manufactured by Dow Chemical. According to the company's website, it's used for "post-emergent control of annual and perennial broadleaf weeds, invasive plants and shrubs."

According to a news release issued by the county, Public Health Ontario concluded there is "more danger to being exposed to the toxins in wild parsnip than to the chemical as long as it is applied properly."

We've looked at what other municipalities have done. ClearView is being used in other municipalities and they are having success with it.- Kurt Greaves, chief administrative officer, Lanark County 

Kurt Greaves says before deciding to spray, the county consulted experts and talked to other municipalities, including the City of Ottawa. The county also conducted a limited spraying trial last year.

"We've done the test program. We've looked at what other municipalities have done. ClearView is being used in other municipalities and they are having success with it."

But opponents don't trust what county officials are saying. They've mounted a campaign that includes posters warning the herbicide will kill dozens of native plant varieties ranging from wild strawberry to buttercup. A recent letter to the editor of the local newspaper started with the question, "Is the cure worse than the parsnip?"

Opponents plant signs

Residents who don't want ditches bordering their properties sprayed have hammered "No Spraying" signs — provided on request by the county — into the ground.

Sonia Cirka, organizer of the protest group, says there are better options than spraying.

"There are no risks leaving the parsnip the way it is, mowing it and providing more education," Cirka says.

But mowing ditches is difficult, and practically impossible to complete before the plants go to seed. Not only that, says Greaves, but it can actually help spread the plant.

"We've probably done a lot of damage ourselves by mowing our roadsides," Greaves says. "It's unfortunate that we did not get on this earlier and help slow the spread, but we are hoping to make amends now."