Ottawa Citizen
October 20, 2005


'Better safe than sorry" is a weak basis for public policy, yet it's
the standard that city council seems ready to apply in pursuit of a
ban on cosmetic pesticides.

City staff and many councillors, plus Mayor Bob Chiarelli, are backing
a bylaw that would force Ottawans to stop using insecticides and weed

The bylaw will be discussed at committee today. If it passes there,
Ottawa's full city council is likely to place it on the agenda for its
Wednesday meeting.

A major public-relations campaign hasn't convinced a majority of
Ottawans that pesticides are dangerous: city staff's own figures show
that a three-year effort has reduced the number of Ottawa households
using pesticides from 54 per cent to 53 per cent. Thus comes the
hammer: a bylaw.

There's plenty of evidence that pesticides are harmful if misused.
Pesticides, like paint-thinner and gasoline and even seawater, can be
dangerous if you immerse yourself in them or drink them or spend a lot
of time working with them without protection. But there's simply no
hard scientific proof emanating from Health Canada's pesticide experts
-- no evidence beyond intuition and anecdotes -- that small quantities
of legal pesticides, used judiciously, hurt humans or pets. If people
are spraying pesticides carelessly, that's a different problem with a
different solution.

Lacking scientific support from Health Canada's experts, both the
city's medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Cushman, and his
counterpart at the provincial level, Dr. Sheela Basrur, invoke the
"precautionary principle" to advocate banning the cosmetic use of
pesticides in urban areas entirely.

That's the better-safe-than-sorry idea. It holds that unless a
substance can be definitively proven safe, it should be banned.

What the doctors are saying is that they wouldn't use pesticides on
their own lawns. That's fine. But it's an unacceptable leap to say
that nobody else should, either. In the absence of proof, citizens
must be allowed to draw their own conclusions and do their own risk-
benefit calculations.

The precautionary principle contrasts with the "harm principle." That
principle prompts Health Canada to test chemical pesticides and ban
some and restrict others.

Theoretically one could apply the precautionary principle to anything
and everything that poses a potential risk. Swimming pools, vehicles
and staircases all represent a certain risk. We can't ban them all.

The proposed bylaw doesn't make internal sense. If the precautionary
principle is in play, there's no defensible reason to exempt rural
Ottawa from the ban -- people in West Carleton might get hurt by
pesticides just as much as someone in Beacon Hill. And there's no
excuse for exempting golf courses, whose entire function is

City council has no scientific expertise it can substitute for Health
Canada's. Its only justification for the policy is the precautionary
principle. Councillors must come to their senses before they vote.

Copyright The Ottawa Citizen 2005