The Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government has decided it will continue to use the herbicide Tordon 101 throughout the province, including in the roadside spray program for provincial highways and for the 1,100 km transmission line from the Muskrat Falls site all the way to St. John’s.
Tordon 101, produced by Dow Chemicals, is a picloram-based herbicide used to prevent the growth of alders and other plants. It is applied as a liquid spray after the unwanted brush has initially been cut back. At a public forum last week hosted by the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (CAP-NL), Memorial University professors Dr. Atanu Sarkar and Dr. Cora Young said that the use of such chemicals is an unnecessary risk to public health.
On the heels of the CAP-NL meeting, St. John’s East MHA George Murphy presented a petition to the House of Assembly calling for an immediate ban on the use of Tordon 101 in the province. The Minister for Environment and Conservation Joan Shea responded to Murphy’s questions by saying the province will continue to use the chemical in line with regulations set out by Health Canada, and further stressed that the regulations in place in the province exceed those of the federal body.
Indeed, Health Canada does sanction the use of Tordon 101 and other picloram-based chemicals, even while noting there are risks of contamination of ground water and risks to public health. The agency has also compiled incident reports of various cases where picloram-based products have been involved, ranging from contamination of water, contamination of fish and wild game, and acute toxic shock in humans. The herbicide factsheet on picloram produced by Caroline Cox in the Journal of Pesticide Reform notes:
[P]icloram causes damage to the liver, kidney, and spleen. Other adverse effects observed in laboratory tests include embryo loss in pregnant rabbits, and testicular atrophy in male rats. The combination of picloram and 2,4-D [i.e. Tordon 101] causes birth defects and decreases birth weights in mice. Picloram is contaminated with the carcinogen hexachlorobenzene. Hexachlorobenzene, in addition to causing cancer of the liver, thyroid, and kidney, also damages bones, blood, the immune system, and the endocrine system. Nursing infants and unborn children are particularly at risk from hexachlorobenzene.
Health Canada and the provincial Department of Environment and Conservation are aware of the various risks to public health inherent in the use of picloram-based chemicals like Tordon 101, but take the position that such risks are within acceptable limits. Even though the product is banned for public use in the province, and even though it has been banned in many municipalities and forward-thinking countries around the world, because of the way federal and provincial regulators understand principles of precaution they consider such risks to be acceptable.
The important point here is that federal and provincial regulators are not saying Tordon 101 is perfectly safe, but rather the risks associated with the use of Tordon 101 fall within what they consider acceptable limits. This willingness to accept risks to public health and to the environment is at the core of methodologies for various assessments carried out to determine the impact of specific projects. It is an approach that says, yes there may be contamination of water, yes there may be poisonous effects in wildlife and berries, yes there may be increases in rates of cancer, Parkinson’s, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but we consider this acceptable. The reason pesticides like Tordon 101 have been banned in other places is because forward-thinking regulatory bodies do not consider such risks acceptable.
The backdrop of the local context is a growing world-wide movement against the use of pesticides that has won some significant victories. European Union countries are the most progressive in terms of regulations in place, including bans on many of the pesticides still in use in some Canadian provinces: Sweden, for example, has specifically banned the use of picloram-based products. The David Suzuki Foundation has created a useful analysis of Canadian pesticide regulations in comparison to other countries. The report notes that even though some pesticides are still registered for use through Health Canada, “concerned citizens have pushed governments in Quebec, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, and more than 100 more Canadian municipalities to pass laws prohibiting the cosmetic use of pesticides.” Quebec is perhaps the most progressive province in terms of regulations: the Quebec Pesticide Management Code specifically bans the use of products with 2,4-D, a component of Tordon 101.
If there were no viable alternatives to the use of Tordon 101 to keep down brush along the roads and along power lines one might be inclined to agree with the government on this issue. However, what we are talking about here is alders, and the simple and obvious alternative is to hire people to cut them down. This would create jobs and contribute to economic growth – something the government says it wants to do. Moreover, discontinuing the use of dangerous chemicals like Tordon 101 should be thought of as an investment in the future, as the savings to the health care system will offset any associated costs.
With regard to the Newfoundland and Labrador context, the current round of petitions and public meetings is not the first time Tordon 101 has been in the public discourse, and in the absence of any movement from the government likely won’t be the last. In 2012, when the government began its yearly spray program, there were a number of meetings on the issue and also some creative activism from a group calling itself the Tordon Players (see video below).
Given the intransigence of federal and provincial regulatory bodies on their position on the use of picloram-based chemicals like Tordon 101, agitation such as the theatrics of the Tordon Players makes sense. For there to be any movement on the issue here in Newfoundland and Labrador, awareness needs to be raised and the public needs to decide if risks to human health and to the environment are necessary when viable alternatives exist. So far the issue of the continued use of pesticides in the province has not gained much traction, and that needs to change if there is to be any hope of the provincial government rethinking its policy.
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