CANADA–(ENEWSPF)–May 2, 2011. It’s high spring across much of North America.
That means the dandelions are in full bloom, the plantain is starting to flush out and the clover isn’t far behind. That also means it’s peak season for lawn pesticides, those sprays and granules used to stop weeds dead.
For 80 percent of Canadians and a growing number of Americans, however, synthetic chemical lawn pesticides are becoming a habit of the past. On Friday, May 6, more than 60 international organizations are aligning with a proclamation to honor the woman credited with instigating an international movement:
“We, the undersigned members of the North American health, environmental, landscape and farming community, hereby proclaim Friday, May 6, 2011 as Lawn Pesticide Awareness Day in honor of Dr. June Irwin’s leading role in passage of North America’s lawn first pesticide ban in Hudson, Quebec, on May 6, 1991.”
Irwin, who still maintains a dermatology practice in Pointe Claire, Quebec, said she began to notice rashes and other health issues related to lawn pesticides in the early 1980s. Her early warnings were ignored by the medical community and Canadian federal government, so she took matters into her own hands by attending every town meeting in Hudson, a village just to the west of Montreal.
In 1991, exactly six years from the first day she voiced her concerns at a town meeting, May 6, 1985, Hudson made North American history by banning synthetic lawn and garden pesticides on public and private property except farms and golf courses.
“Lawn pesticides are an example of people willfully, though maybe not knowingly, poisoning their neighbors,” said Irwin. “These are terribly toxic substances and yet, it seemed to me, there was a conspiracy of silence. I’m pleased that, to some degree, we have been able to break through that silence to get the word out.”
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
The lawn pesticide industry, estimated at billions of dollars in revenue, quickly fired back at Hudson and its 5,200 citizens with a local court challenge in 1993. Yet as the lawsuit progressed through the Canadian legal system, all the way to the Supreme Court in December of 2000, public awareness and momentum was building against the use of the products that have been linked to a wide array of health and environmental maladies.
In June of 2001 Canada’s top court shocked the lawn chemical industry with a 9-0 decision in favor of the town’s ban. Other lawn pesticide prohibitions soon followed in municipalities and provinces across Canada.
“We decided that applying pesticides for the sake of aesthetic purposes violated the precautionary principle,” said Supreme Court Justice Claire L’Heureux Dube, who wrote the uncontested opinion. “There was enough evidence to suggest that lawn pesticides could be dangerous, even though there wasn’t proof that lawn pesticides were dangerous in every situation. For the sake of killing dandelions it’s not worth taking a chance.”
The legal scholar who successfully argued for invoking the precautionary principle said the case has had widespread impact well beyond lawns.
“The Hudson case was a landmark decision,” said Stewart Elgie, now an environmental law professor in Ottawa. “It confirmed that communities have a legal right to protect their local environment. And it enshrined into Canadian law the precautionary principle — that governments don’t have to wait for 100 percent scientific certainty before regulating dangerous threats to health and environment. Simply put, the nation’s highest court confirmed that children’s health is more important than dandelions.”
“IF THEY CAN DO THIS, WHY CAN’T WE?”
Dr. Irwin was reluctant to accept the honor from the international community when she learned of next Friday’s proclamation, saying, “It should be an award for Mayor Michael Elliott and the people of Hudson.”
The doctor’s role, however, gave the town a unique weapon in its decade-long legal fight against the chemical industry.
“The fact that a respected member of the medical community was speaking out about pesticide toxicity really opened some people’s eyes,” said Dr. Meryl Hammond, a public-health expert who began campaigning against lawn pesticides in the wake of Hudson’s ban. “June Irwin was ringing a bell that needed to be heard. Hudson was the beacon that led the rest of to say, ‘If they can do this, why can’t we?’”
At first, during the early 1990s, only a few other Canadian towns followed Hudson’s lead. By the time of the Supreme Court decision in 2001, about 30 municipalities had enacted bylaws similar to Hudson’s, which restricted applications of pesticides for cosmetic purposes. Quebec became the first entire province to ban the products such as weed ’n feed and Roundup in 2003.
Heightened awareness and activity on this issue, led by the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and many other environmental and health groups, has brought the lawn pesticide bans to more than 80 percent of Canada. Retail giant Home Depot voluntarily pulled synthetic lawn and garden pesticides off store shelves in 2008.
“Dr. Irwin’s vision and tenacity is the foundation for any of our successes in changing attitudes about pesticides,” said Dan Demers, Director, National Public Issues, Canadian Cancer Society. “Our children, and their children, will now live in healthier communities because of her work. She is a real Canadian hero!”
One of Hudson’s most prominent native sons has been spreading the anti-pesticide message on the campaign trail leading to Canada’s federal election May 2.
“Hudson’s example set the tone for the entire nation and my heart swells with pride,” said Jack Layton, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic party, who was raised in the town as a child and served as Student Council president at Hudson High School. “The issue of protecting our children and environment from pesticides should be a slam dunk everywhere.”
SAFE WHEN USED AS DIRECTED
The movement against lawn pesticides has been slower to take hold in the United States, however. Although Harry Reid and other Senators convened a hearing on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1991 and listened to testimony from scientists and concerned citizens, the lawn chemical industry has long pointed to approval of its products by the Environmental Protection Agency as justification for their continued use. That same year, in reaction to Hudson’s ban, a lobbying group known as The Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE) was formed in Washington, D.C., to dispel the “myth” that lawn pesticides were dangerous.
“When used according to label directions, pesticides are not a threat to people, pets or the environment,” said a press release issued by RISE on April 4, 2007 — the same day the SafeLawns movement was launched on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
In the past four years, however, several communities have enacted local pesticide prohibitions on community-owned property and school grounds, including 36 towns in New Jersey alone. The state of New York, citing increasing scientific evidence that links lawn chemicals to a variety of medical maladies from cancer to ADHD, passed a statewide ban on the applications of pesticides on playgrounds and playing fields in May of 2010.
None of this would likely be happening right now, say many environmentalists, were it not for Hudson’s lead.
“The town of Hudson, Quebec, and particularly the actions of Dr. June Irwin, have sent a clear signal to communities all across North America that the use of lawn and landscape pesticides is both harmful and unnecessary,” said Jay Feldman, the founder of Beyond Pesticides of Washington, D.C. “Chemical lawn pesticides are scientifically linked to cancer in people and pets, and are known to be toxic to the nervous and immune system, endocrine disruptors, and tied to respiratory effects such as asthma. Alternative practices that rely on maintenance techniques and soil health that prevent unwanted insect and weeds are far more effective than their chemical counterparts.
SIGNATORIES (as of April 28)
Advocate Precautionary Principle, Sarasota, Fla.
Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Anchorage, Alaska
Alberni Environmental Coalition
BC Pathways, Victoria, BC
Bernards Township NJ Environmental Commission, Bernards Township, N.J.
Beyond Pesticides, Washington, D.C.
Canadian Cancer Society, Vancouver, Ca.
Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Toronto, Ont.
Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Citizens for a Green Camden, Camden, Maine
Citizens for a Green Scarborough, Scarborough, Maine
Citizens of a Green Yarmouth, Yarmouth, Maine
The Coalition of Organic Land Care Professionals, Seattle
Comox Valley Friends of Farming
Connecticut NOFA, Hartford, Ct.
Coquitlam Pesticide Awareness Coalition, Coquitlam, BC
EcoJustice, Toronto, Ca.
The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Paonia, Co.
Environmental Health Fund, Jamaica Plain, Boston
First Nations Environmental Network,
Friends of Casco Bay, Portland, Maine
Farmworker Association of Florida, Apopka, Fla.
Galveston Baykeeper, Seabrook, Texas
Green Communities Canada, Peterborough, Ont.
Groundswell Stratford, Stratford, Ontario
Healthy Lawn Team, Madison, Wisconsin
Institute of the Environment, Ottawa, Ont.
Inspire Health, Vancouver
Lawn Reform Coalition, Washington, D.C.
Leah Collective, Concord, N.H.
Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, Unity, Maine
Manitoba Eco-Network, Winnipeg
Natural Resources Defense Council, New York
NOFA Organic Land Care Program, Stevenson, Ct.
North Columbia Environmental Society, Revelstoke, BC
Ontario College of Family Physicians, Toronto
Organic Horticulture Business Alliance, Houston
People’s Action for Threatened Habitats, Vancouver
Pesticide Action Network North America, San Francisco
Pesticide Free Kimberley, Kimberley, BC
Pesticide Free Capitol Region District, Victoria, BC
Pesticide Free Cranbrook, Cranbrook, BC
Pesticide Free Columbia Valley, Sparwood, BC
Pesticide Free Columbia Basin, Cranbrook, BC
Pesticide Action Nanaimo, Nanaimo, BC
Pesticide Free Zone, Kentfield, California
Pesticide Watch, Sacramento, California
Physicians for Social Responsibility, Washington, DC
Protect All Children’s Environment, Marion, N.C.
Rainfrog Amphibian Sanctuary, Roberts Creek, BC
Rachel Carson Council, Washington, D.C.
Richmond Pesticide Awareness Coalition, Richmond, BC
Safer Pest Control Project, Chicago, Ill.
The Sierra Club, Washington,D.C.
Sierra Club of Canada
Sierra Club BC, Victoria, BC
Sierra Club Chinook, Calgary
Sierra Club Connecticut, Hartford, Ct.
The SafeLawns Foundation, Newport, R.I.
Toxic Free Canada, Vancouver
Saskatchewan Environmental Society, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Stop Targeting Overuse of Pesticides, Victoria, BC
Toxics Action Center, Boston
Toxics Information Project, Providence, RI
Valley Green Pesticide Awareness, Comox Valley, BC
West Coast Environmental Law, Vancouver, BC
Wildsight, Kimberley, BC