Environmental Science & Technology, January 18, 2006


Canadian cities successfully by-pass industry's legal challenge to laws that keep pesticides off lawns and gardens.

[Rachel's introduction: Several Canadian cities have passed precautionary laws in recent years, banning the cosmetic use of pesticides on privately-owned lawns. The pesticide industry challenged those new laws in court, but the Supreme Court of Canada just upheld the precautionary bans. In the U.S., 40 state legislatures have caved in to the pesticide industry and made such municipal laws illegal, but that could change.]

By Janet Pelley

During the past decade, some Canadian cities have addressed rising concerns about the safety of pesticides by banning pesticide use for aesthetic purposes on all lawns and gardens, including those owned by homeowners and the government. Now that a Canadian Supreme Court decision has virtually eliminated the threat of industry lawsuits challenging these bans, the pesticide bylaws are predicted to spread rapidly across the country.

Although copycat laws in the U.S. have been forestalled by industry- sponsored legislation, a growing number of U.S. cities are finding ways to cut pesticide use without resorting to bans, experts say.

On November 18, Canada's Supreme Court rejected an appeal of Toronto's pesticide law by the pesticide industry, which charged that it illegally duplicated existing federal and provincial legislation regulating the use of pesticides. Toronto's ban, passed in 2003, forbids the so-called cosmetic use of pesticides and lays out fines for scofflaws.

The court action reinforces the idea that local governments have a role to play in prescribing how pesticides can be used, says Theresa McClenaghan, legal counsel to the Canadian Environmental Law Association, an environmental group. The decision means that the pesticide industry won't be able to fight the city bylaws in the courts, she says.

More than 70 municipalities (including Vancouver, British Columbia; Montreal, Quebec; and Halifax, Nova Scotia) have already passed bylaws prohibiting the cosmetic use of pesticides, and many more cities are poised to pass bans now that the Supreme Court has cleared the way, says Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). He adds that CAPE applauds the action because pesticides pose unacceptable risks such as cancer and endocrine disruption.

Ahead of their Canadian counterparts, U.S. cities won the right to pass local ordinances restricting pesticide use as far back as the 1980s, says Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, an environmental group. However, the widespread embrace of pesticide bans was subsequently thwarted by industry-sponsored "preemption" legislation, adopted in 40 states, forbidding localities to make laws more stringent than those of the state, he says.

As a result, U.S. activists have focused on banning pesticide use on land managed by public institutions such as schools, hospitals, and county governments, Feldman says. At the same time, local governments in California and New York have begun to test the strength of the preemption laws, and Canadian-style citywide pesticide bans may soon make a U.S. debut, he adds.

In response to growing challenges to preemption laws, the pesticide industry is engaging more heavily in grassroots action to help consumers speak up in favor of pesticide use, says Allen James, president of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment, a trade association.

Copyright 2006 American Chemical Society