New Rules Finalized for Pesticides in Ontario

[Photo credit: Earth from Apollo 11, NASA]

Province closes key loopholes to ensure strength of cosmetic pesticide ban; other changes will weaken controls to protect the environment and human health

By Kathleen Cooper, Senior Researcher, CELA

It’s spring and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Another anniversary today is Ontario’s passage of legislation on Earth Day, 2008, to ban the cosmetic use of pesticides. Prior to that year, it had long been a sign of spring for CELA staff to get calls from the public with concerns and even outrage about the needless or “cosmetic” use of pesticides.

For this year, in significant changes to Ontario’s Pesticides Act and the associated Regulation 63/09, proposed last December and as of this week now final, the Province undertook to:

1) eliminate Ontario’s pesticide classification system;
2) eliminate the Ontario Pesticide Advisory Committee;
3) weaken the rules governing the use and sale of corn and soybean seeds treated with neonicotinoid pesticides (implicated in world-wide pollinator decline); and
4) alter the rules governing the longstanding ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides.

The latter three changes mainly resulted from the decision to ditch the classification system, considered a needless duplication of the more basic federal pesticide classification system that Ontario has now adopted.

Fortunately, for the cosmetic use ban, input to the consultation was taken on board and the final decision has added key safeguards that should maintain the original and precautionary integrity of the ban. When first published, the Province insisted that the ban on cosmetic use was unchanged. However, CELA strongly disagreed. We noted key loopholes and are very gratified to see them addressed (as discussed further below).

To explain these revisions, first an explanation of the decision on pesticide classification. Within the federal-provincial shared jurisdiction over pesticide law, regulations under the federal Pest Control Products Act establish four basic pesticide classes including: a) Domestic; b) Commercial; c) Restricted: and d) Manufacturing. Confusingly, Ontario has reversed the order so for the new arrangements, intended to adopt the federal scheme, “Manufacturing” is Class A, ”Restricted” is Class B, “Commercial” is Class C and “Domestic” is Class D.

Ontario’s former system was more nuanced with a larger number of classes to add requirements for use, sales, and training (and thus to address worker and/or environmental and public health protections). Also, classes were used to list products either banned or allowed for cosmetic pesticide use, and to control use and sale of neonic-treated corn and soybean seeds.

With elimination of the classes, the cosmetic ban was woven into Regulation 63/09 by allowing the Environment Ministry “Director” to compile a new list, appended to the Regulation, allowed for cosmetic use. Candidate pesticides could be drawn from any of the four new classes and with the Director’s decisions guided by certain criteria. Alarm bells went off for us for two reasons.

First, all four classes could be considered. We saw no rationale for including in the list allowed for cosmetic use either the “Manufacturing” class (the concentrated stuff used to formulate end-use products), and especially the “Restricted” class (defined in the originating federal classification system as those with particular health and/or environmental risks). Fixed in the final version, the list can now only include either Class C – Commercial or Class D – Domestic products.

Second, the Province insisted that criteria to guide the Director’s decision were unchanged from prior criteria or from related federal guidance about low-risk pesticides. We disagreed. Again, the final decision corrects key areas. For example, important language had been left out of a criterion for allowing pesticides with a “history of safe use.” This phrase needed to be qualified to refer to products with a “history of safe use for purposes other than as a pesticide.” This change reflects longstanding federal language describing such low-risk products, providing clarity that it refers to benign stuff like vinegar or spicy chili powder. Omission of this language would have been a slippery slope towards accepting longstanding efforts by the pesticide industry to inaccurately equate federal regulatory approval of any pesticide with a determination of “safety” rather than, more accurately, a determination of “acceptable risk.” Finally, in the criterion related to ensuring low potential for exposure, the province also expanded the language and added “environmental” alongside human exposure.

With the above revisions, we can agree that the province did intend to maintain, but now has maintained, the integrity of the ban on cosmetic use of pesticides.

As for neonic-treated seeds, implicated in the worldwide decline of pollinator species, long gone is Ontario’s prior target, set in 2014, for an 80% reduction, by 2017, in acreage of corn and soybean fields planted with neonicotinoid-treated seeds. By the 2016 growing season, the reduction was only 24% but a reduction nonetheless and its publication a welcome indication of public transparency. Alongside the target, new requirements on farmers and seed vendors were meant to track the need for and reduce the use of neonic-treated seed and to track results.

Couched as relieving administrative burden, the revised measures will now reduce requirements for evaluating the necessity of whether or when to use these seeds, including to prevent their unnecessary and prophylactic use. The province has also reduced measures to track and assess trends in sales.

Like the short-sighted elimination of the Ontario Pesticide Advisory Committee (established in the early 1970s and consistently misrepresented during these consultations and by the pesticide industry as only being involved in the former pesticide classification process) we consider the changes related to neonic-treated seeds as a backward step. They will serve to undermine attempts to reduce their use and limit access for researchers and risk assessors to comprehensive data on historical and current uses to assess impacts on ecosystem health.

Now we wait for the final steps in the federal government review (anticipated for the fall of 2020) of the neonicotinoid pesticides, prior components of which have already led to extensive restrictions and bans on further use of these pesticides.

For today, Happy Earth Day and here’s to Ontario having retained the integrity of what remains one of the strongest bans in North America on the needless/cosmetic use of pesticide.