Federal government plans to weaken its program monitoring pesticides in the environment putting human health at risk

Submitted photo, quoimedia.com

Beatrice Olivastri, Fe de Leon and Laura Bowman, QUOI Media

The federal government has just weakened a program to monitor pesticides in Canada’s environment. It’s a big win for the chemical industry and industrial agriculture – but Canadians have a lot to lose.

Since August 2021, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) has been undergoing a transformation process to strengthen its oversight and protection of human health and the environment and enhance transparency. A monitoring program for pesticide residues in fresh water bodies across Canada was supposed to be a key feature of this transformation process.

The government of Canada already knows that Canadians are concerned about pesticide use from their 2023 opinion polling by IPSO. When asked what first comes to mind when thinking of pesticides, Canadians expressed negative responses outnumbering positive ones by nearly two to one. IPSO indicates these negative mentions have increased since 2019, “suggesting that the public has grown more concerned about pesticides than four years ago.”

In the face of increasing public concern over the hazards of pesticides to human health and the environment, why would you weaken an ambitious program intended to build confidence?

The originally proposed program was to be robust, including citizen monitoring and participation to help Canadians understand how pesticides are contaminating waterways and drinking water sources. This promising version of the program was presented to the Scientific Advisory Committee at Health Canada last June and was greeted with much optimism.

Now, the federal government has reduced funding for the program and significantly walked back its ambition. The newly proposed framework for water monitoring no longer includes key features.

There are no details for an implementation strategy outlining the frequency of sampling required for each pesticide — no timelines, no complete list of the pesticides, no attention to high-risk and vulnerable communities, workers and children all of which are key elements if the program is to assess how pesticides are impacting health and the environment. Disappointingly, after objections from the chemical industry and big agriculture, Health Canada dropped the proposed citizen monitoring element.

Instead, the new proposal relies heavily on a patchwork of existing monitoring, so that the frequency and methods of samples may be unrelated to pesticide use or predicted impacts — and may fail to shed light on the full extent of pesticide contamination of our waters. 

The new proposal could have corrected many deficiencies in the way Canada deals with pesticides. Importantly, Canada does not collect information on where, when and how pesticides are used. This is critical information for selecting appropriate water monitoring sites. As well, Canada does not charge fees to pesticide companies to cover monitoring costs of their products. The federal government should follow the “polluter pays” principle and require pesticide companies to pay for independent, robust pesticide monitoring.

Even with its major deficiencies of infrequent and random monitoring, the 2022 federal monitoring pilot program found numerous exceedances of pesticide levels. Atrazine is just one example of many showing how the federal government is not taking the risks of pesticide contamination seriously.

Health Canada has proposed to re-approve the herbicide atrazine, a product that is banned in Europe but used heavily on corn in Southern Ontario. Atrazine is a suspected endocrine-disruptor with links to breast and prostate cancer, and was recently linked with Parkinsons and birth defects.

The 2022 federal pilot program and other previous water monitoring programs have found that the Canadian Drinking Water Guideline limit of 5 µg/L was exceeded in surface water.  When more robust sampling has been used, atrazine levels in Southern Ontario were 42 times the drinking water guideline. This limit is already higher than the one used the US at 3 µg/L. Atrazine has been banned for use in the European Union since 2004.

There are over 7753 pesticides registered for use in Canada and PMRA’s own Pesticides Sales reports show pesticide use has increased by 47 per cent over the last decade.  Now is not the time to sit back and scale-back water monitoring plans.

We need a clear, transparent and systematic process to better understand pesticide use and contamination in the environment.

We have a right to know where, when and how pesticides are used. The monitoring program desperately needs the oversight of experts such as independent academics who are free of conflicts of interest with profit-making from pesticides and their use.

Beatrice Olivastri is the CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada. Fe de Leon is Senior Researcher and Paralegal with the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Laura Bowman is a lawyer with Ecojustice.