Scientists warn of pesticide peril at Perth meeting

Dr. Vicki Wojcik, research director for the global Pollinator Partnership, warned a large audience at a Perth event on April 6 that bees, flies, and other pollinators are threatened by the overuse of chemical cocktails in pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Photo credit: Matthew Behrens
Posted on: April 10, 2017

Matthew Behrens

As Lanark County prepares another controversial season of roadside pesticide application targeting wild parsnip, a group of concerned residents who oppose the toxic implications of spraying held a standing-room-only public information session in Perth on April 6 featuring two high-profile scientists.

“I live in the land of poison ivy, and I’m no stranger to rashes,” said Dr. Meg Sears, a researcher and lead scientist with the national group Prevent Cancer Now. “Yet that is far more difficult to evade than wild parsnip.” Implying that concerns about wild parsnip are overblown, she pointed out that burns from the plant require a three-step combination of breaking the stem, getting sap on the skin, and being exposed to the sun. Casually brushing against it, she said, is unlikely to cause a rash.

In a wide-ranging presentation, Sears questioned the manner in which pesticides come to market, noting only single chemical elements – and not the final product as a whole – are subject to Health Canada screening. Notably, the state of New York declined to certify aminopyralid, the main ingredient in Clearview which, along with Truvist, is being used in Lanark County – after finding the company-supplied data inadequate.

“We can’t be healthy in a sick world,” Sears said, arguing common sense and education about the plants around us are better alternatives to releasing dangerous chemicals into the environment, where wind drift, as well as leaching into soil, fractured rock, and water tables poses much greater threats to human, animal and plant life. Sears said among the perils associated with pesticide use is the disturbance  of hormone signalling, leading to chronic diseases from prostate and breast cancer to diabetes and obesity.

Sears also warned that a “war on weeds” is bad for pollinators, whose key role in  ecosystem protection and sustainability was outlined by Dr. Vicki Wojcik, research director for the global Pollinator Partnership.

Wojcik discussed the many roles played by pollinators as diverse as bees, flies, birds, bats, butterflies, reptiles and small mammals.

One in three bites of food are pollinator-dependent, she said, as are 80 per cent of the 1,200 most common crops. Noting that “flies are actually wonderful,” given their essential role as pollinators for chocolate, tea, and coffee, Wojcik convinced audience members that “it’s a bit of a harder sell, but flies need love and protection too.”

Wojcik explored how much is at stake as pollinators face rapid population declines in direct proportion to the increasing use of insecticides, pesticides, and fungicides.
In Canada, $2 billion in crops are dependent on insect pollination (that figure is $217 billion globally), while a range of industries from dyes and textiles to fragrances and pharmaceuticals could also be at risk with pollinator declines.

Members of the anti-spraying group Friends of Lanark County plan to pressure local politicians to reconsider spraying in light of recent presentations questioning both the efficacy and safety of roadside spraying.

Among those speaking out is Elphin-based medical doctor Linda Harvey who, in a March 17 letter to Lanark Council, noted that the townships of Tay Valley, Mississippi Mills, and Rideau Lakes have successfully opted out of the spraying program.

There is “little or no solid data on how much of a problem this [wild parsnip] rash actually is, nor are we likely to get it unless we contract a formal study of our own,” wrote Dr. Harvey.  “In my experience as a physician in Ontario, the rash is not at all common.” Given this context, Harvey concluded that “the sprays, on the other hand, are toxic. Do not be fooled by claims of safety. Every pesticide that was ever on the market was considered safe when it came out. A long list of these have been banned as they were anything but safe.”

More information on the spraying issue is available at