Strict rules await pesticide makers

By Jean-François Bertrand

If the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, it’s probably because your neighbour is using pesticides to care for his lawn.

And if you see little yellow flags that say “caution” on his property, you know he had his grass sprayed with potent chemicals. Or perhaps he consulted Ann Atchison, the Glebe’s Home Hardware pesticide specialist, who sold him some off-the-shelf solutions to keep his lawn free of insects and weeds.

“Of course, those chemicals are dangerous. I wouldn’t eat vegetables after they’ve been sprayed,” she says.

“And there are other, more environment-friendly, products. But they’re not as effective,” says Atchison.

Born and raised on a farm in Metcalfe, she knows her pesticides and their importance.

“You’ve got pesticides to get rid of insects, herbicides to get rid of vegetation.”

There are two kinds of herbicides: selective and non-selective. The former attacks and kills broad-leaf plants — such as dandelions — while sparing the grass. The latter kills everything, such grass and weeds in concrete cracks.

Atchison notes that non-selective herbicides do not sterilize the soil, rendering it worthless forever. It is possible to replant after seven days.

Regardless of the product used, she says the instructions should be followed to the letter and that one should be careful with their animals and small children. “You don’t want them licking the grass. In my opinion, get the good stuff, the harsh chemicals.”

Bob Shane also prefers harsh chemicals. He’s the Ottawa general manager of Weed Man, a commercial pesticide application company.

Shane’s chemicals are so powerful they’re not available off the shelf. He says the typical selective herbicide — used for the last 50 years — is “a synthetic reproduction of naturally occurring hormones. A drop of the stuff added to a dandelion makes the plant grow so rapidly that it can’t produce enough food for itself. Within days, the weed dies,” says Shane.

Since it can be time consuming to apply the chemical one drop at a time on every single weed, Weed Man buys its chemicals in pure form and dilutes them over 100 times. “The actual amount of pesticide used on an average lawn is about a quarter cup,” he says. The rest is water.

Like Atchison, Shane says pesticides should be handled with care for safety reasons. “We’re talking chemicals. They have to be treated and handled as such.”

Before each application, Weed Man employees plant little signs on the lawn. The signs indicate that an application was done on the lawn and list the product name, the date it was applied and the phone number of the company that sprayed it. On the back of the sign is the description of the product and its registration number. A federal law makes Shane do this.

Pesticides are products approved by the federal government and controlled by the province.

The Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency, a branch of Health Canada, approves every pesticide licenced for use in the country.

And “pesticide” is a broad term. It includes “any injurious, noxious or troublesome insect, fungus, bacterial organism, virus, weed, rodent or other plant or animal pest, and includes any injurious noxious or troublesome organic function of a plant or animal,” according to the Pest Control Products Act.

The agency’s spokesman, Chris Krepski, says the approval process is similar to the one the pharmaceutical industry faces when it introduces a new drug. A new pesticide, or even one that has been improved or has a new use, gets tested and scientifically reviewed.

“We want to ensure that pesticides are safe for humans and the environment, that they work as directed,” he says.

An average review can take 18 months. Last year, the agency approved more than 2,000 different products, about 80 of which were for new products. More than 300 were for new formulations of existing pesticides. (The balance was for new uses of existing products and products only used in manufacturing.)

Shane proudly point outs that “there’s often more testing done on some lawn care products than on some pharmaceutical drugs.”A company may take seven or eight years and up to $1 million to develop and test a new product before bringing it to market, he says.

Once the Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency approves and registers a new pesticide, the Ontario Pesticide Advisory Committee, classifies it according to its potency.

“Different categories of pesticides mean some have to be handled with more care, that some are available for home use while others can only be bought by commercial applicators,” says John Steele, an Ontario Ministry of the Environment spokesman.

The Ontario Pesticide Act regulates the use of pesticides. “It requires that certain things be done. For example, for some types of pesticides, one must write a test to receive a licence to apply it,” says Steele.

For Home Hardware’s Ann Atchison, pesticides are a consumer commodity, needed products that shouldn’t be banned. “If they’re banned, you’ll see infestations on the lawns. And panic among the homeowners.”