Cosmetic use of pesticides “endorsed” through Liberal inaction

Last week the Liberal Government missed a golden opportunity to demonstrate environmental and health leadership. Health Minister Anne McLellan failed to include banning the cosmetic use of pesticides in the new Pest Control Products Act.

Why? Inaction is perhaps explained by legal jurisdiction. CBC’s Website ( reports that “the federal government has no jurisdiction to ban the use of pesticides once they’ve been approved for the market.”

The site quotes Health Minister Anne McLellan: “Our jurisdiction is in relation to safety. Once something is deemed to be safe, then it is up to the provinces or municipalities as to how that will be used.”

So what about this issue of safety? The safety of pesticides has been on the public’s conscience for years.

(Remember: We are not talking about banning agricultural pesticides here. We are talking about banning the use of chemicals on lawns… lawns in our back and front gardens, as well as in front of city hall.)

Rachel Carson published her ground-breaking treatise, Silent Spring, in 1962. In this book, she discussed how our North American use of chemicals was upsetting the natural balance, poisoning the food chain, and destroying biodiversity. Silent Spring was all the more potent because she herself was a well-respected scientist.

Why the title Silent Spring? Because she postulated that if society continued to use chemicals as we were back then — basically in what she postulated was an uncontrolled and unregulated manner — that songbirds would die. Amphibians would die. The result? The “silent spring” whereby the call of the thrush and robin are not heard because they are dead.

Oh phooey! I can just see some of you rolling your eyes heavenwards as you read this… Some of you might guffaw and note that this is nonsense: we’re still using chemicals and the robins still return and sing. Some of you might guffaw and note that you’re okay, you’re healthy, as is your family.

Others among you might note that Rachel Carson was one of the first writers of the last century to make us sit up and look about us to appreciate our place amid our shared, natural world. Former US Vice-President Al Gore credits her with galvanizing his nation’s collective conscience-raising which resulted in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. (If you have the Internet, check out The Ecology Hall of Fame at

Carson’s cautions remain appropriate today. And personally, I wish that Liberal Health Minister Anne McLellan had given a bit more thought to Rachel Carson and Silent Spring.

I bet that two organizations — the Sierra Club of Canada and Canadian Cancer Society — would agree with me. Both associations — one which lobbies for environmental, the other health awareness — worked hard to encourage the Liberals to ban cosmetic use of pesticides.

So, exactly what does that word “cosmetic” really mean? Here’s the ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary definition. “Cosmetic: something superficial used to cover a deficit or defect.” It’s this word “superficial” that’s key: we must ask ourselves this: is a chemically-treated lawn really necessary? The answer, truly, is: no.

What would the ban have meant in the context of pesticide control? That use of pesticides on public and private lawns would be banned. Is this significant? Why, yes! What does the purchase and use of such chemicals cost us taxpayers in terms of direct cost, not to mention long-term personal health costs? The cost is financial. The cost is long-term health — or the lack of it.

Because they did not include a ban on cosmetic use of chemicals, the Liberals have dealt individual municipalities another crippling cost. Two communities in Québec (Chelsea and Hudson) have shown leadership by enshrining such a ban in their bylaws. Now our capital, Ottawa, is considering it. What will the cost be? Potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars as reported by CBC Radio last week.

Such costs are hidden. By refusing to enshrine a federal ban, the Minister passes costs to municipalities. What cost? First (always uncalculated by any economist I’ve ever heard of) is the cost of volunteers who spend their time lobbying for change. Second is the cost of all the municipal workers time and effort spent in public hearings, not to mention re-writing by-laws, paying legal fees etc. Who pays? Taxpayers. Us!

No wonder there’s an inherent momentum for inaction aka the status quo if we you and I have to pay for this along with everything else. Not to mention the lobbying of the chemical companies.

It perplexes me that Minister McLellan wouldn’t include this ban. Jurisdiction provides the needed excuse… but what about this issue of health safety? A ban would have sent a clear message to the public that the environment and public health matter to the Liberals. It would encourage us all to act locally, in our most personal space: our very own back yards where our toddlers and pets play, and where wild birds feed.

Oh come on, Katharine, I hear some of you saying. No-one would let their toddler play on a lawn that’s been recently sprayed.

If you say so. I happen to know differently. Just last year I visited a retirement residence. Someone from a private company was still out, spraying the front patch of green grass in front of the building. Inside the courtyard, where the garden and inviting lawn stretched before me, a host of little signs peppered the lawn. All informed people not to step on the lawn for “X” number of days because of pesticide residue.

But you know what? It was a balmy summer Sunday. Family groups were dotted about on the lawn. Seniors sat on park benches, bemused at the antics of toddlers, playing on the lawn. Over there was a baby taking its first steps, tumbling to the grassy lawn and, wavering on unsure little legs, stretching up to Mommy’s arms. What a lovely image of summer and family downtime.

Here and there in the lawn, a touch of Nature could be seen: a bold robin cocked its head to the side, listening for a worm, then plunged its beak amid the chemicals to bring out its meal.

What’s wrong with this picture? After all, the chemical company did its job: they sprayed, then left a litter of signs. Obligation over: after all, the people have been “educated.”

Or have they? The people choose to ignore the signs: physical and otherwise.

Leaders like Health Minister Anne McLellan choose to ignore signs, too — not to mention their crucial role of leadership. This, I believe, is what governments should do: take leadership roles in matters of public health and conscience.

Cosmetic use of pesticides should be banned at the federal level because the costs to our health (not to mention the health of our natural world) are too great. And, the costs are too great for Canada’s municipalities to bear, as they enshrine such bans into their by-laws.

Why did Liberal Health Minister McLellan fail us?

Jurisdiction, you say? What about public health?

Should we mail her a copy of Silent Spring?


Katharine Fletcher enjoys her organic lawn near Quyon, Québec.