Conor Mihell Environment Adventure

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“Our Chemical Detox”

In this short feature for Cottage Life magazine I explore Ontario’s ban on cosmetic pesticides, which came into effect in the summer of 2009. My piece outlines the environmental effects of pesticides and investigates what the ban might mean for water quality in Cottage Country.


“Our Chemical Detox”

By: Conor Mihell

Mary Smith has a “personal attachment to the water” of the Kawarthas, the patchwork of sprawling lakes north of Peterborough where she’s been swimming all her life. But after witnessing decades of development, she is afraid that those once-pristine waters are slowly morphing into stagnant ponds. Fertilizers and pesticides streaming off lawns and agricultural fields are fuelling the growth of weeds and algae and lacing ground and surface water with unpronounceable chemicals.

A Lakefield resident and deputy reeve of the Township of Smith-Ennismore-Lakefield, Smith did her part to protect her favourite lakes by introducing, in 2007, a township-wide bylaw banning the use of pesticides for cosmetic reasons. While she still sees some immaculate waterfront lawns, she insists her township’s ban and cottager education programs have received unanimous support. “The people have told us loud and clear that we should be taking these types of conservation measures,” says Smith. “But there are always those who need more forceful legislation. Our feeling is that we need a provincial ban.”

Environmentalists like Smith have long awaited Ontario’s Cosmetic Pesticides Ban Act. This law, which was passed this spring and is enforced by the Ministry of the Environment (MOE), restricts the sale and non-essential use of chemical herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. The big difference between the new provincial legislation and existing municipal pesticide bylaws in Toronto, North Bay, Smith-Ennismore-Lakefield, and other Ontario municipalities, is that the province has the power to control the sale of products, while municipalities can only ban their use. Quebec’s Pesticides Management Code, Canada’s first provincial ban, for instance, pulled garden products containing 20 red-flagged chemicals off store shelves in that province in 2003. Ontario’s regulations outlaw 85 pesticide ingredients for most lawn and garden applications. All told, 295 pesticide products and fertilizer-pesticide weed-and-feed blends were pulled from Ontario stores.

MOE spokesperson Kate Jordan says Ontario’s new pesticides policy is part of the province’s efforts to reduce public exposure to toxic chemicals. “By definition, the cosmetic use of pesticides is an unnecessary risk,” she says. “The new legislation addresses the question, ‘Why put a poison into the environment if it’s not necessary?’”

According to Mike Gibbs, the coordinator of the Peterborough-based Lakeland Alliance, a network of organizations and government agencies promoting local water-quality and shoreline-naturalization initiatives, pesticide bans are good news for cottage country. Although the quantity of pesticides used in residential applications is far less than in industrial agriculture, Gibbs says their use in Canadian Shield country is particularly risky because of shallow soils, steep lots, and proximity to the shoreline. In waterfront areas, explains Gibbs, “there’s a short, direct path for chemicals to travel from land to water.”

The environmental benefits of chemical-free landscaping aside, it’s a mystery to Gibbs why cottagers would want to maintain an immaculate lawn or introduce non-native plants in the first place. Yet in the community education programs he organizes north of Peterborough, Gibbs routinely sees both in cottage gardens. “If you don’t have [non-native] plants, you won’t need to use fertilizers and pesticides,” he says. “That means more time relaxing. In my opinion, that’s the whole idea of going to the cottage in the first place.”

The American writer and ecologist Rachel Carson brought the dangers of pesticides into the mainstream with her enviro-lit classic Silent Spring in 1962. Since then, studies have linked many of these “elixirs of death,” as she called them, to cancers, reproductive problems, neurological diseases, and respiratory ailments.

Synthetic chemicals and monoculture lawns are thought to be responsible for plummetting populations of songbirds and pollinator species such as bees and butterflies. The Sierra Club cites studies that demonstrate that more than 90 per cent of 2,4-D, a possible human carcinogen and the active ingredient in herbicides such as Killex, migrates through the soil and into ground and surface water. Furthermore, pesticide-fertilizer blends contribute to nutrient spikes in lakes, which can lead to algal blooms.

Under Ontario’s new legislation, one of the few exceptions for lawn and garden pesticide use is “the promotion of health and safety.” This means irritant plants, including poison ivy, and insects that sting, bite, or could compromise the structural integrity of buildings, plus a few other creatures, are still fair game for chemical assault—with certain conditions. Georgian Bay Association executive director and Go Home Bay cottager Bob Duncan is a big supporter of the overall pesticides ban, but he concedes the health and safety clause is a good thing.

“Obviously there are places where pesticides are necessary to avoid other ills,” says Duncan. “But still, the idea is not to use these chemicals where they can leach immediately into the water.”

So, while cottagers will be relieved there are no restrictions on the use of mosquito repellents, Duncan says that for the environment’s sake, they should also accept that buying products to kill poison ivy and other “noxious weeds” requires more effort. For these applications, MOE spokesperson Jordan says cottagers can request “behind the counter” chemical products from retailers. The retailer will then issue the purchaser a waiver that outlines their responsibilities for pesticide use and storage. Pesticide products used to control disease outbreaks in trees will be issued on similar grounds. And the existing Ontario Pesticide Act permit system for aquatic herbicides will remain in place for the treatment of underwater weeds.

If there’s a weakness in Ontario’s new pesticides ban, it’s an exemption that places few restrictions on the use of pesticides at golf courses, says Lisa Gue, an environmental health policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation. Mandatory reporting in Quebec reveals that golf courses spray an average of 5.2 kg of pesticides per hectare annually, a startling figure that’s more than three times the average intensity of agricultural applications. Under the new act, Ontario courses will have to file similar reports. “The transparency elements are encouraging,” says Gue. “At the very least, it will give the neighbours the right to know what chemicals are being used and entering the environment.”

Loophole withstanding, Gue says Ontario’s cosmetic pesticides ban is a big improvement over the existing law in Quebec, where the use of household pesticides has been cut in half since 1994. The scope of Ontario’s legislation is broader and its list of outlawed products longer than Quebec’s. What’s more, Gue predicts its enforcement—a responsibility that was largely handled by eliminating the sale of dangerous products—will usher in a green wave of landscaping. “The products simply won’t be accessible,” she says. Even if consumer demand for pesticides continues, “shelf space will be filled with alternative products that are legal and safe.”

According to Mary Smith, her community’s municipal pesticide bylaw has already caused a shift in attitudes—a big deal, she insists, in a township where waterfront comprises 25 per cent of the residential properties. “Many of our seasonal residents come from other municipalities where there’s a similar bylaw in effect,” says Smith. “Pesticide bans are becoming an expectation.” Smith’s experience mirrors provincial trends: Polls suggest more than 70 per cent of Ontarians support a cosmetic pesticide ban. Ontario’s new policy, it seems, is falling on fertile ground.