CBC In Depth
The pesticide debate
CBC News Online | Updated May 21, 2004

The debate over whether to ban the use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes is back where it started: at the local level.

An attempt by a committee of the House of Commons to ban lawn chemicals across the country was stopped in March of 2002 when the Health Minister, Anne McLellan, said she did not have the authority to do it.

She did announce an overhaul of the Pesticide Control Products Act. Her bill proposed a review of chemicals, some of which hadn't been examined since they were approved 30 years ago. A registry would be set up so that Canadians could look at the ingredients of all registered pesticides being sprayed, as well as how dangerous they're considered to be.

McLellan said once a pesticide had been approved for market, the federal government has no authority to ban it.

McLellan ignored a Liberal-dominated committee recommendation in 2000 to phase out cosmetic pesticides for lawns, parks and golf courses over five years.

Instead, she deferred to the Supreme Court ruling in June, 2001, concerning the town of Hudson, Quebec.

The court upheld the town's right to ban the cosmetic use of pesticides. In the unanimous ruling, the justices wrote that such a law is best achieved by the level of government closest to the citizens affected.

Since that ruling, the move to ban the cosmetic use of pesticides at the local level has been picking up steam. More than 60 municipalities across the country have passed bylaws of their own.

In 2001, Halifax became the largest city in the country to enact a ban. It was designed to phase out the use of pesticides gradually. It took effect on April 1, 2002 but was extended to the cosmetic use of pesticides on lawns and gardens on April 1, 2003.

On May 22, 2003, Toronto city council approved a lawn chemical ban of its own.

The bylaw will be eased in over the next few years, with a focus on citizen education. Enforcement was to have begun across the board in 2005. But during the spring of 2004, there was a movement to reconsider the ban. Lawn care companies lobbied city council to water down the ban.

After a day of acrimonious debate, it came to a vote on May 20. In the end, council decided to stick with the ban, with some modifications. Lawn care companies have until April 1, 2005 to comply with the bylaw. Homeowners have until April 2007 to get used to the new reality. If they're caught spraying after that, they'll face a fine of $255.

"You need the people of Toronto to buy in and the lawn-care industry to buy in. I'm confident that by giving them some time, they will," said Mayor David Miller, citing the bylaw as the right thing to do from a public health point of view.

On September 12, 2002, Vancouver took a different approach. City council nixed a plan to ban lawn chemicals and opted for the public education approach.

Politicians were worried about how such a bylaw would be enforced.

Councillor Jennifer Clarke said other communities that have imposed bans have found it only affects commercial operators who are skilled at applying pesticides.

"It has homeowners who may be less skilled purchasing the pesticides and using them themselves," she said. "There's no ability to enforce against that."

It seems clear that there will be no national ban on the cosmetic use of lawn chemicals. But the debate will rage on. On one side, environmentalists and some in the health care professions argue that long-term exposure to pesticides are bad for us; on the other side, lawn care companies and many gardeners who fear that without pesticides, weeds and insects will take over private green spaces.

So what are the dangers some are so worried about? And if these chemicals we've grown accustomed to are banned, what are we expected to use instead?


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