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Now that spring is in the air, the fancy of many home owners turns to lawn care. But this annual ritual doesn't bring much joy to Dr. June Irwin, one of the most outspoken members of the Canadian medical profession on the subject of pesticides in urban areas.

“How many cases of flu-like symptoms are blamed on an unknown virus when in fact there has been spraying of insecticides or herbicides on buildings or on lawns?” asks the Quebec dermatologist and environmental activist.

Common symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning, says Dr. Irwin, include coughing, a burning throat, dizziness, mental depression, skin rashes, diarrhea, vomiting and headache.

“We shouldn’t be spraying our lawns, just like we shouldn’t be blowing smoke in people’s faces,” she says. “The spreading and the spraying of chemicals on lawns, trees and in houses is against the common right of all citizens to breathe clean air and to remain in good health.”

The term “pesticide” refers to all chemical substances used to control insects, diseases, weeds, fungi and other “pests” on vegetables, fruits, plants, animals and buildings. Herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and soil fumigants are all considered pesticides.

The Pointe Claire, Quebec dermatologist was named Woman of the Year 1997 by the Montreal Council of Women for her work in drawing public attention to the widespread use of pesticides and PCBs. She was instrumental in ensuring the passage of an anti-spraying pesticide bylaw in her own neighbourhood, and in crusading against pesticides at the provincial and federal level.

Morning dew on the grass.

In other parts of Canada, concern about urban pesticide use appears to be growing.

“There’s definitely been a big jump in public awareness and openness to alternatives,” says Merle Hammond of Baie d’Urfe, Quebec, author of Pesticide Bylaws: Why We Need Them, How to Get Them.

“It’s just a huge, huge concern,” concurs Sharon Labchuk of Millvale, P.E.I., co-founder of the Environmental Coalition of Prince Edward Island. She notes that anxiety about the use of pesticides for urban lawns stems from the greater concentration of people in cities. Once released into the air, pesticides can travel substantial distances, even on windless days, Labchuk says. Moreover, they can be brought into the house on clothing, pets and on the soles of feet. “Once they are in the house, they don’t degrade nearly as quickly as they would outside.”

She has noticed a growing shift away from the image of a bright green, weed-free lawn as an urban ideal. “We look down on people with lawns like that,” she says, suggesting that such lawns may eventually go the way of the Edsel and the muscle car.

Across the country, concerned citizens are working to achieve bylaws to ban the use of pesticides in public and private lands. Pesticide Watch, a newsletter published by the Ottawa-based Campaign for Pesticide Reduction, details the progress made by municipalities. A year-round pesticide ban, for example, came into effect in Westmount, Quebec, on January 1, 1999. In the Newfoundland municipalities of Pasadena and Steady Brook, two bylaws were passed last summer banning all pesticide spraying on municipal properties.

The potential threat of pesticides to human health, however, remains a hotly-contested question. The Crop Protection Institute, representing pesticide manufacturers and distributors, says 2,4-D is the most common pesticide used by home owners and is considered safe by experts.

The institute also stresses that any substance, at a certain amount of intake, can have harmful effects, and that the human body is very good at eliminating toxins from the system, even extremely toxic products.

Suburban street in Los Angeles.

Wendy Rose of Bolton, Ont., executive director of the Urban Pest Management Council of Canada, notes that the pesticide industry is “the most regulated industry in Canada” and that Canada’s regulatory system is considered one of the most stringent in the world.

“Our products have been deemed safe, if the label is followed,” she says. “It’s very important for any consumer to read the label, and to follow it as you would any prescription.”

Some individuals, she says, do have sensitivities to lawn chemicals. In these cases, she recommends the “good neighbour policy,” which has been quite successful in the United States. Essentially, that policy is a matter of common sense. If you or your family are troubled by a neighbour’s lawn spraying, request that it be done while you are away.

Not sure what to do?

If you choose to use pesticides on your lawn, follow these guidelines.

  • Store pesticides in secure, well-ventilated areas, preferably locked in a safe cupboard, garage or garden shed.
  • Store products only in the original container. NEVER transfer the contents to another container.
  • Keep all containers tightly sealed.
  • Before storing, pay attention to the symbols illustrating the risk of flammability, explosiveness or toxicity.

Alternatives are available that will allow you to have an attractive, healthy lawn.

For more information, visit Eartheasy’s pages:

Says Labchuk: “You’ll never have a monoculture in nature. So you have to get over that mindset. The big hurdle is getting over the idea that weeds on your lawn are harmful.”

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