Calls for the federal government to overhaul its pesticide laws and regulatory agencies are being made this week in the wake of revelations that Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) failed to warn Canadians about the health dangers of a pesticide used on sports fields, golf courses and vegetable farms.
The pesticide — dimethyl tetrachloroterephthalate, or DCPA — can cause "serious, permanent and irreversible" damage to fetuses without the mother showing any symptoms, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It is the second time this year the agency has come under fire for failing to warn Canadians about a pesticide on the cusp of being banned and measures taken to limit its use. This spring, a Canada's National Observer investigation found the PMRA ignored warnings from its own scientists about the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos.
The agency's repeated failures to warn Canadians about highly toxic pesticides and its chronic transparency issues are symptoms of widespread problems in Canada's pesticide regulatory system, critics say.
The case is a "perfect example" of systemic problems in Canada's regulatory regime for pesticides, said Simon Fraser University public health expert Bruce Lanphear. Lanphear resigned his position as co-chair of a scientific advisory committee to the PMRA earlier this year, citing the agency's refusal to listen to scientists while collaborating with industry lobbyists on pesticide rules.
The PMRA lacks "the resources they need to adequately protect the public" and its mandate "is not sufficiently strong" to let them protect Canadians, he said.
Canada's pesticide regulations are currently designed so that it is very difficult to get a pesticide banned or restricted if new evidence of harm emerges once it has been approved. The onus to justify new bans falls on the regulator, letting pesticide manufacturers avoid having to prove their product's safety. With only a handful of staff relative to the hundreds of pesticides on the market, the agency does not have the means to review new toxicity findings and implement new bans or stronger rules
"As long as initial approval is perceived as a seal of approval and the burden of proof shifts away from industry to PMRA staff or to independent scientists, we will fail to protect the public. It's just a question of how many millions of people" will be harmed by pesticides that should be banned, he said.
The agency's mandate is also "not sufficiently strong to protect Canadians," Lanphear said. The agency currently evaluates which pesticides can be used in Canada based on the risk they pose to Canadians if used according to their label. However, emerging research suggests even small amounts of some toxic pesticides can have chronic health impacts. Canada's risk-based approach fails to adequately consider these long-term impacts, an issue exacerbated by the close ties between the pesticide industry and PMRA regulators, he said.
Calls for the federal government to overhaul its pesticide laws and regulatory agencies are being made in the wake of revelations that Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency failed to warn Canadians about the health dangers of a pesticide.
These dangers were emphasized by Bloc Québécois MP Monique Pauzé. In a statement, she noted that "pesticides have multiple, cumulative threats linked to their use. The federal government must rely on honest, independent data when it regulates these chemicals. We know without a doubt pesticides are dangerous."
The most recent outcry follows revelations the Canadian agency didn't warn Canadians about the threat of the pesticide dimethyl tetrachloroterephthalate, or DCPA, while their American counterparts issued an unusual public warning about the chemical in May.
DCPA is a herbicide used on dozens of vegetable crops, like broccoli and tomatoes. Long known to have serious health risks, its dangers were emphasized in the EPA’s May risk assessment, stressing that it is more dangerous than previously thought. The danger lingers for at least a month after the pesticide is applied and can cause significant damage to fetuses.
While Canadian officials were aware of the EPA warning, emails reviewed by Canada's National Observer show they chose not to issue a similar notice here.
It's a decision that Ecojustice lawyer Laura Bowman, who specializes in pesticides, describes as "outrageous." The PMRA doesn't "want to draw attention to their poor judgment and allow that to happen — and that's more important than protecting people, apparently," she said.