(Beyond Pesticides, June 24, 2008) On June 18, 2008, Ontario joined Quebec in restricting the sale and cosmetic use of pesticides, but critics say the move will actually weaken existing anti-pesticide rules across the province. The ban was the last government-backed bill to be rammed through before the legislature adjourned for the summer, passing 56-17 over the objections of health groups and municipalities.
Environmental and public health advocates, including Ontario’s nurses, are dismayed that the province’s new pesticide law doesn’t go far enough to protect public health. “When the premier announced a ban on the use and sale of cosmetic pesticides on Earth Day, we stood side by side with him and applauded what we thought was a step forward to protect people from these poisonous chemicals,” says Wendy Fucile, President of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO). “But today, we see what the province’s legislation actually means is that municipalities will be stripped of their tough municipal bylaws to protect people, and the provincial legislation will serve as a ceiling, not as a floor upon which stronger local regulations can build.”
Because the new law preempts local by-laws, it actually weakens protections in some municipalities with strong local protections. Since Ontario’s ban exempts substances like glyphosate, a herbicide that is currently banned in Toronto and many other municipalities, these communities will have their municipal laws weakened. It also exempts golf courses and allows pesticide use to control weeds, both of which are currently prohibited in Toronto.
Ms. Fucile says while nurses recognize that the new law provides many benefits because it does ban the use and sale of most cosmetic pesticides province-wide, the alarms health and environmental groups are sounding about the legislation must not be ignored. She says over the last few weeks, these groups have been continuously urging the government to amend the bill so that municipalities are allowed to have tougher bylaws governing pesticide use.
“Community action to protect pubic health mobilizes best at the municipal level. It is a grave mistake to demobilize that capacity, as this legislation will do,” Ms. Fucile says, adding that RNAO is calling on the government to correct this mistake by restoring this essential municipal power as quickly as possible and treating municipalities as full partners in public health.
RNAO Executive Director Doris Grinspun says nurses are also concerned about an open-ended exemption clause that could, in the future, allow extensive non-essential use of chemical pesticides. “This undermines the intent of the legislation, which is to protect people’s health, especially the health of children who love to play. They can’t read signs warning them that the grass has been sprayed with harmful toxins,” she says, adding that the chorus of public opinion is also calling for a tough pesticide ban. “People want to know their neighbors’ lawns are safe. Nurses needed the government to show strong leadership on this, but they have let us down.”
Ms. Grinspun says as Bill 64 becomes law, the association will hold the government accountable to make sure the legislation works to protect and enhance public health despite its flaws. That means RNAO will closely watch as regulations are developed, and bring any risks to the public’s attention.
In the U.S., 41 state have preemption laws that prevent localities from passing more protective pesticide laws than the state. In general terms, preemption refers to the ability of one level of government to override laws of a lower level. While local governments once had the ability to restrict the use, sales and distribution of pesticides, pressure from the chemical industry led many states to pass legislation prohibiting municipalities from passing local pesticide ordinances that are stricter than state policy. Preemption laws effectively deny local residents and decision makers their democratic right to better protection when the community decides that minimum standards set by state law are insufficient to protect local public and environmental health.
As pesticide pollution and concerns over human and environmental health mount, states and municipalities are fighting to overturn preemption laws and return the power back to localities. For more information on state preemption laws, see Beyond Pesticides Preemption factsheet.