By Gideon Forman
Most cancer organizations recommend that people reduce their risk of cancer by avoiding tobacco, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and doing regular exercise. While these will go part of the way towards preventing this awful disease, there is another critical measure citizens in western provinces can take to reduce their risk of cancer: urge their province to ban lawn and garden pesticides.
Quebec was Canada’s first province to implement a ban on cosmetic use of pesticides in 2006. Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island have since followed suit. While Manitoba is implementing a partial ban on pesticides, British Columbia has opted not to do so for now. In 2005, the Prairie provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta led the country in household pesticide use.
Study after study suggest that people exposed to pesticides – including weed-killers and insecticides used outside the home – are more likely to get cancer.
The science is grim. For example, research reported in 2004 by the Ontario College of Family Physicians, then published in the scientific journal Canadian Family Physician looked at pesticide studies from around the world. They found that pesticide exposure is linked to cancers of the prostate, kidney and pancreas. Among their conclusions:
“All 11 studies from the United States, Canada, and Europe examining the association between pesticide exposure and brain cancer showed increased risk.”
The doctors were especially concerned about children:
“Increased rates of all types of leukemia [a blood cancer] were found in children whose parents used insecticides in the garden and on indoor plants and whose mothers had been exposed while pregnant.”
But the good news is we can keep our properties beautiful without the use of cancer-causing chemicals. Pesticide bans have been enacted in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes – and in these provinces homeowners are maintaining their lawns and gardens using non-toxic methods.
For example, in early spring they apply a natural corn-gluten product that prevents dandelions and crabgrass from germinating in the first place. Next, they overseed, aerate, and keep their grass nice and long (7.5 cm) — to ensure a thick lawn that won’t let weeds get a foothold. And if the odd weed does emerge, they remove it by hand or spot-spray with vinegar.
In Manitoba, for example, data from CancerCare indicates that, over the next 20 years, the number of cancer cases will rise by 50%. If the person who gets ill is your son or daughter, that’s not a statistic, it’s a tragedy. But this awful path is not inevitable — if our leaders take action while there’s still time.
The Manitoba government is bringing in a lawn pesticide ban. They are to be commended for this, but Manitobans should urge their MLAs to expand the ban so it includes not only lawns but also gardens and golf courses – two other places where toxic pesticides can make us sick. Other westerners can point particularly to Ontario’s good example.
Lifestyle changes such as tobacco cessation and increased exercise are vital but if we really want to tackle cancer we also need to address the disease’s environmental causes. Province-wide prohibitions on non-essential pesticides would be a major contribution to cancer prevention.
Gideon Forman is Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (www.cape.ca).