By Sandra Steingraber, Ph. D., Ecologist, author, cancer survivor, and internationally recognized expert on the environmental links to cancer and reproductive health
The smell of lawn chemicals is as dependable a harbinger of spring as robins and lilacs. Not in big parts of Canada, where many municipalities and provinces have opted to abolish the cosmetic use of pesticides on the grounds that the links between pesticide exposure and childhood cancer are too troubling to ignore. So, how come we're still using them?
DDT is now so universally used that in most minds the product takes on the harmless aspect of the familiar. ~ Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Harmless aspect of the familiar was the phrase that leaped into my mind when I watched a scantily clad woman - the day was hot and sunny - lie down in a green sward of grass in front of the Women's Center on the campus of DePauw University in Indiana. Next to her waved a small yellow flag that warned passers-by to keep off the grass as it had just been sprayed with pesticides.
I guess the word irony might also have applied. On the other side of the flag, a card table was piled high with copies of my book, Living Downstream, which, among other topics, discusses the dangers of lawn chemicals. The books were for sale. I was positioned up on the porch, encouraged by my faculty host to chat with students, drink punch, and sign books as part of an informal reception before my all-campus Earth Day lecture.
Yes, I intervened. The reclining woman seemed bewildered by my concern for her, pointing out that the yellow flags are so ubiquitous that no one notices them. She reluctantly promised to shower and launder her clothes before attending the evening's lecture.
No flags wave from the lawns in many parts of Canada. Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island - and many cities across the rest of the nation - have expressly outlawed the cosmetic use of pesticides. Within these provinces and municipalities, the use of synthetic pesticides to improve the appearance of lawns and, in some places, gardens is now illegal.
Indeed, Earth Day 2009 - one year ago - was the deadline for hardware and garden stores across Ontario to remove approximately 250 chemical bug and weed killers from their shelves. Beginning on that ceremonial day, as part of a commitment to decrease toxic exposures to chemicals linked to cancer, residents of Ontario could no longer use pesticides on lawns and gardens, and stores could not sell them.
And just how are the organically managed lawns of Canada faring? During my last visit to Toronto, I can't say I noticed any barren, grub-infested yards or playgrounds abandoned to thistles - my grandfather the farmer called them Canada thistles for a reason, right? - and I'm happy to report that all the French-style gardens still looked lovely.
What I did notice is that the legislation outlawing lawn chemicals has become familiar enough to Torontonians to merit an offhand mention in the complimentary magazine in my hotel room. This lushly illustrated guidebook not only trumpeted the city's best restaurants and hottest nightclubs, it also welcomed visitors with the following reassurance:
All green spaces are pesticide-free. In 2004, Toronto became the largest municipality in the world to ban cosmetic use of lawn and garden pesticides. The Sierra Club of Canada reports a clear link between pesticide use and breast cancer; many other studies have shown the dangers to children from chemical exposure to pesticides.
That is precisely the worrisome body of evidence that I review in Living Downstream. When I speak about leukemia and lawn chemicals here in the United States, people in my audiences sometimes tell me that the subject matter is too depressing for them to even contemplate. But in parts of Canada, doing something about it is a selling point for tourism.
The Canadian and U.S. governments have the same scientific evidence available to them - indeed much of the data on children's exposure to pesticides and its possible contribution to pediatric brain tumors were generated on this side of the border. So why have so many jurisdictions in one nation chosen, as a response to that data, abolition of cosmetic pesticides while jurisdictions in the other rely on dinky yellow flags?
In Canada, the ban on nonessential uses of pesticides began with old-fashioned citizen activism in the small village of Hudson in Quebec. (This story is documented in the documentary film A Chemical Reaction.) Upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, that city's ban was replicated in other communities. Such bans are supported by the Canadian Cancer Society (a counterpart of our American Cancer Society) and by the Ontario College of Family Physicians. Research partially funded by the OCFP concluded, in 2007, that the weight of the evidence indicates a "positive relationship between exposure to pesticides and the development of some cancers, particularly in children ... The authors of the research recommend that exposures to all pesticides be reduced."
Benefit of the doubt goes to children, not to chemicals.
By contrast, federal agencies, mainstream cancer charities, and physicians' organizations south of the border have been more circumspect about the role of involuntary exposures to inherently toxic substances in creating health threats. Why the demurral? Is it because the impulse in the United States is to treat public health threats as issues of personal choice? Thus, lawn flags instead of bylaws?
I don't know the answer here. Let's ask. The mothers of children with leukemia can go first. (A 2009 study found higher levels of household pesticides in urine samples collected from children with leukemia and from their mothers than in the urine of mother-child pairs living in households unaffected by leukemia. Not all of the mothers of these child cancer patients used pesticides themselves. In fact, most did not.)
When it's my turn, I'd like to pose the following query to the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and the American Medical Association: I spent a lot of time this spring walking by yellow flags planted in the green lawns of college campuses, on my way to Earth Day lectures. When I pointed the flags out to my student escorts, most of them just shrugged. Meanwhile, to the north, 77 percent of Canadians already benefit from pesticide bans, Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau introduced a bill last week to ban the sale and use of nonessential pesticides for lawn care in Nova Scotia, and momentum grows for a province-wide ban on lawn chemicals in British Columbia. Why can't we do things like this?
Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, newly published in second edition by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the documentary film adaptation. This essay is one in a weekly series by Sandra exploring how the environment is within us.