Perennial pesticide debate springs to life

By Paul Northcott

Perennial pesticide debate springs to life

Interest groups stake out their turf in gardening debate, writes Paul Northcott.

As grass and weeds battle for space in gardens this spring, dozens of lawn-care and environmental organizations will compete for the attention of Canadian green thumbs.

For years, a wide array of chemical pesticides such as herbicides for plants, insecticides for insects and fungicides for various diseases have been available to control gardening problems.

Some companies use pesticides to fight intruders such as dandelions whose yellow flower and green broad leaf are the bane of homeowners yearning for a weed-free lawn.

Other professional gardening businesses use organic methods, such as peat moss and lime, to eliminate threats to a uniform blanket of grass.

Environmental organizations have their own agendas too.

Some want pesticides banned to protect public health and the environment.

Others would be satisfied with controls placed on pesticides in highly populated areas.

Concerns over the health effects of pesticides, however, have cropped up in recent years. “Pesticides have been linked to many different types of cancer in humans from breast cancer to non-Hodgkins lymphomas . . . Chronic low-level exposure to pesticides has been linked to low-grade symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea and mental confusion,” according to a 1998 report published by the Sierra Club of Canada.

That has led some Canadians to promote more awareness about pesticide use from coast to coast.

Bernard Frazer founded Canadians Against Pesticides in January 2000 to encourage alternative lawn-care methods.

“There is so little awareness among the average Canadian,” he says.

“The problem is it doesn’t even have to be used on your own lawn to affect you. It could be a neighbour, three or four doors down using pesticides and the wind comes up and blows it around. There is just no getting around it.”

The Environmental Illness Society of Canada is also worried about health problems caused by prolonged exposure to a variety of chemical and allergenic sources including pesticides.

“We’re very concerned about children because they roll around on the lawns,” says Judy Spence, the society’s chief executive officer. “We’ve got little kids who are really close to where the evaporation is . . . so they breathe in a lot of chemicals and their body’s immune system is unable to handle that amount.”

She says the number of chemicals people have been forced to handle has increased dramatically in the last 100 years.

“We’re not designed to handle large amount of chemicals in our daily lives,” says Spence.

And the organization’s message on pesticides is clear.

“There should be a complete ban on the urban use of cosmetic pesticides,” says Spence, who acknowledges lobbying for a similar change in rural areas would be fruitless. “We’ve recognized politicians have drawn a line in the sand, which says they won’t consider banning pesticides in agricultural areas.”

Talk of banning pesticides, raises warning bells within the ranks of groups like the Landscape Ontario: Horticultural Trades Association.

The association maintains pesticides are not causing problems with human health or the environment. They also maintain that it is scientifically proven and peer substantiated that when used properly pesticides do not pose a health risk or endanger the environment.

The association’s stake in that position is worth a lot of money, because last summer it estimated the Canadian horticultural industry was worth $7 billion.

Bob Shane operates a Weed Man franchise in Ottawa.

“The actual amount of pesticide going on an average lawn is less than one-quarter cup diluted in approximately 10 litres of water, and in the state that we apply it to a lawn, it is less toxic than table salt, aspirin, even chloraseptic mouth wash,” he says.

From a homeowner’s point of view, it can be cheaper and quicker to use pesticides instead of organic lawn control methods.

“It’s more expensive to provide organic lawn care,” says Geoff Lee, an employee of PS Landscaping in Ottawa. “Organic will take a lot longer to see the effect. If you put down chemicals you’ll see results in a week.”

Lee does not use pesticides, fungicides or insecticides in his work.

“I’m very sensitive to the environment,” he says. “I’ve never had a pest problem I couldn’t solve using natural methods.”

On the other hand, he does use herbicides to wipe out common lawn weeds.

“I warn the customer before I use it. In most cases they’ll ask what impact it will have on their child or their cat or dog,” he says. “And I’m careful not to get it on me. I use gloves when I’m handling the stuff.”

Nicholas Bott is the owner of the Ottawa-based Lawn clinic, which has provided organic lawn services in the region for six years.

He says more work should be done to develop organic alternatives to lawn care. But after being in the business for six years, he recognized the industry would probably not develop into one which used totally organic methods.

“I think there is a time and place for chemical use, but I don’t think it is in a residential lawn setting,” he says.

At Canadians against Pesticides, Frazer says the only means to affect change is through education.

“Although we play an active role in lobbying for change, I’m personally not in favour of telling people what to do. We’re not in the business of saying you can’t do this to your lawn,” Frazer says. “ We want to promote a paradigm shift and look at ways of doing things.”