Protecting Children’s Health from Needless Exposure to Pesticides

Posted by Kathleen Cooper, CELA Senior Researcher

From the Grassroots to the Supreme Court, and Back Again

When the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously decided, in June of 2001, that the small community of Hudson, Quebec had the legal power to ban pesticide use, community activists from coast to coast celebrated a sweet victory. The Court denied an appeal (already lost in two levels of the Quebec courts) by two lawn care companies. The Court confirmed that Hudson had the power, as do most municipalities in Canada, to set by-laws that respond to community concerns and for the protection of the general welfare of the public.

The motivation for the Hudson by-law, and the efforts of thousands of others across Canada, came primarily from mothers of young children. During the 1980s, in parks and school grounds, they objected to pesticide spraying. The occasional headaches, nausea or rashes were difficult to trace to pesticide use. More seriously, those affected with chemical sensitivities could not go outside. For the most part, health effects were not directly evident, just worrisome. Especially galling was the fact that the spraying seemed completely unnecessary.

Throughout the 1990s, authoritative scientific reports drew attention to the special vulnerability of children to environmental pollution. Pesticides were particularly singled out for birth defects, developmental delays, motor and nervous system dysfunction and immunotoxicity. People questioned placing children at risk for the sake of lawn care. Many local authorities began to restrict pesticide use. Some acted merely to cuts costs. More often, with health and environmental goals in mind, pesticides on public lands were dramatically reduced, in some cases by 90 to 100%. Hudson, Quebec was the first, in 1991, to go after the sacred ground of private property.

Hudson’s by-law bans pesticide use across the board and then allows for a series of exceptions, mostly having to do with protection of public health. For example, the ban does not apply to swimming pools or water purification and ensures that public health officials can approve the use of pesticides to protect public safety, such as for insect outbreaks. Nor is indoor use included. The end result is a ban on the outdoor use of pesticides on public and private property for “cosmetic” purposes or those that simply maintain appearance.

With the final resolution of Hudson’s ten-year court battle, municipalities across the country are under more pressure than ever to enact pesticide by-laws. They are also afraid of being sued. However, it seems clear from a range of legal opinions that Hudson-style by-laws should withstand such challenges, indeed, are unlikely to be challenged. Fifty such by-laws exist in Quebec. Halifax and Shediac, New Brunswick have by-laws and tiny Cobalt is the first community in Ontario with dozens more actively considering.

Forward-thinking companies are moving into organic lawn care methods and seeing profits rise. Loblaws will go pesticide-free in the Spring of 2003, stocking alternative products and providing educational workshops. As the groundswell of public support grows, it is echoed by mainstream health-focused organizations. Support for pesticide by-laws comes from the Canadian Cancer Society, Ontario College of Family Physicians, Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, Association of Early Childhood Educators – Ontario and many more. Their statements support what the Supreme Court confirmed, that such local action is lawful within the three levels of government responsibility over pesticides in Canada. Moreover, as the Supreme Court noted, it fits within the international commitments that Canada has made towards taking precautionary action to address environmental problems. Confirming what the mothers knew from the start – that where children’s health is concerned, precaution is necessary.