Hard to Digest

Hard to Digest

Something just doesn't seem right. In the international game of pesticide regulations, countries like Sweden, Australia, and the US are star players in protecting their citizens from harmful toxins. Canada, meanwhile, hasn't even got off the bench. For many Canadians, that's tough to cheer about.

Something just doesn’t seem right. In the international game of pesticide regulations, countries like Sweden, Australia, and the US are star players in protecting their citizens from harmful toxins. Canada, meanwhile, hasn’t even got off the bench. For many Canadians, that’s tough to cheer about.

“Canada is light years behind other developed countries when it comes to pesticide regulation,” reveals David Boyd, author of the David Suzuki Foundation report, The Food We Eat: An International Comparison of Pesticide Regulations, released in October 2006.

Pesticides are found on almost everything, from strawberries to eggs to spinach. At least 58 active ingredients, used in 1,127 pesticide products available in Canada, have been banned in other developed countries. Among these pesticides are some of the most heavily used household and garden pesticide products in Canada, such as the herbicides atrazine (an endocrine disruptor) and 2,4-D (a possible human carcinogen).

Two recent studies found numerous pesticides in the blood and urine of Canadians across the country. Health concerns associated with chronic exposure to pesticides include increased risk of cancer, organ damage, birth defects, and Parkinson’s disease. A study reported in the Annals of Neurology in 2006 found that exposure to pesticides–even at low levels–can increase a person’s risk of developing Parkinson’s by 70 percent.

The Food We Eat report says pesticide levels in Canada are 10 to 400 times higher than what’s allowed in most European nations. Elsewhere in the developed world, Canada doesn’t fare much better. Canadian limits for use of the herbicide paraquat on fruit are 20 times higher than Australian limits, for example.

“We need to ban the use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes,” says Boyd, who, with the Suzuki Foundation, is lobbying government to raise pesticide regulations to the level of its peers.

What’s a Concerned Citizen to Do?

While food and pesticide regulation largely rests in the hands of our country’s lawmakers, the average person can reduce pesticide use in many ways:

  • Make pesticide use unnecessary by choosing nontoxic alternatives, such as insecticidal soaps and integrated pest management techniques, instead of chemical sprays to
    control insects on plants. Pull weeds by hand instead of using herbicides.
  • To get rid of leftover pesticides, phone your provincial environment department for disposal instructions. Never dump unwanted pesticides onto the ground or into drains, sewers, streams, rivers, or lakes.
  • In the kitchen, peel and wash fruit and vegetables with a mild, natural detergent to remove pesticide residues.
  • Around the garden, the Suzuki Foundation’s Nature Challenge recommends growing native plants to reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides.

Organically Inclined

In her recently released how-to guide for the environment, Ecoholic: Your Guide to the Most Environmentally Friendly Products, Information, and Services in Canada (Random House, 2007), Adria Vasil reminds us that buying certified organics virtually guarantees our favourite foods do not contain pesticides–and Canadians are starting to listen. According to a 2005 Agriculture Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency report, sales of organic food products are as high as $1 billion a year.

On average, organic products still cost a little more than their chemical-laden counterparts. So a little research can make all the difference. Foodnews.org lists 12 fruits and vegetables with the most and least pesticides–to help you know which conventionally grown produce is safe to buy when organic isn’t available.

Not in My Backyard

Humans don’t live in fish bowls. It’s important to note that pesticides travel–from shrubs to grass, grass to soil, and soil to groundwater. When our neighbours use insecticides and fertilizers, it doesn’t take long before those pesky chemicals find their way onto our gardens and into our stomachs.

As of last summer, more than 100 Canadian municipalities, in addition to the province of Quebec, have passed laws prohibiting the use of pesticides for cosmetic, nonessential purposes. This is good. But many communities still allow toxic lawn chemicals for nothing more than killing dandelions.

Recognizing the severity of pesticide exposure to human health, the Canadian Cancer Society recommends a ban on the use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes.

The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada also supports the elimination of nonessential uses of pesticides–on lawns, gardens, and playgrounds, for example–because of concerns over the adverse effects of pesticides on the neurological development of children.

The Dirty Half Dozen

2,4-D weed control: Suspected cause of human cancer; impairs human reproduction. Banned in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden but found in 193 Canadian registered pesticide products.

Permethrin insect control: Suspected cause of human cancer; linked to Parkinson’s disease. Banned in the European Union (EU) but found in 256 Canadian registered pesticide products.

Captan fungus control: Suspected cause of human cancer. Banned in Denmark, Finland, and Norway but found in 30 Canadian registered pesticide products.

Amitraz flea control: Suspected cause of human cancer; disrupts central nervous system and human development. Banned in the EU but found in five Canadian registered pesticide products.

Carbaryl insect control: Likely cause of human cancer; affects the central nervous system and leads to death at high exposures. Banned in Austria, Germany, and Sweden but found in 66 Canadian registered pesticide products.

Trifluralin weed control: Suspected cause of human cancer; impairs human metabolism and sexual development. Banned in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden but found in 23 Canadian registered pesticide products.

Source: The Food We Eat (Suzuki Foundation, 2006)

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