Pesticide ban position questioned

Charity defends stance | Canadian Cancer Society says some studies suggest pesticides increase risk

When the Manitoba government announced plans for a cosmetic pesticide ban in early February, it cited research done by several health organizations to justify its new policy on pesticides.

One of them was the Canadian Cancer Society, which has spent thousands and possibly millions of donor dollars on anti-pesticide information and advocacy.

Yet on its website, the society states there is no proven link between pesticides and cancer. If there isn’t a scientific connection, why would one of Canada’s largest charities use donor dollars to promote pesticide bans across the country?

Greg Thomson thinks he knows why.

Thomson is director of research at Charity Intelligence, which conducts research on Canadian charities to help donors make informed giving decisions.

He said the society’s advocacy for pesticide bans isn’t entirely motivated by its desire to protect Canadians from the dangers of pesticides. Its stance is also about raising money.

“There’s a lot of statements that come out of large charities that have to be tempered by the fact that they are marketing statements,” said Thomson, who studies the cancer society for Charity Intelligence.

Gillian Bromfield, senior manager for cancer control policy with the cancer society, said spending donor contributions on pesticide advocacy and information is justified, despite the lack of a proven link between pesticides and cancer.

“Even if it (the science) is not conclusive, it does suggest a reason for concern,” she said.

“We think there is a potential for harm from exposure to pesticides … and at this point we think it is important to help reduce exposures to possible cancer causing agents.”

The cosmetic pesticide ban became an agricultural issue in Manitoba immediately after its announcement, provoking a forceful reaction from farm leaders.

While a ban doesn’t restrict the agricultural use of herbicides and insecticides, producers are worried that weeds will spread from municipal property to farmland. As well, there is the concern that a ban will harden public sentiment against pesticides, said Doug Chorney, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.

In other words, consumers will begin to ask why farmers are allowed to spray chemicals on food if spraying pesticides on lawns is dangerous.


The cancer society’s recommendation to ban cosmetic pesticides in Canada tops the list of reasons the Manitoba government has given for introducing the legislation.

However, Thomson said the society’s support of bans is puzzling because a page on its website states that scientific research doesn’t “provide a conclusive link between pesticides and human cancer.”

Thomson said donors should ask why the society is spending money on an anti-pesticide campaign if there isn’t an established connection.

“If there is really no proof, at this point, that pesticides cause cancer, I would prefer that my dollar to the Canadian Cancer Society not go towards that.”

He said part of his job is to inform the public about what the society is advocating, the validity of the science backing the advocacy and how much money the society spends on those activities.

The society spent $41 million in 2010-11 on activities related to cancer prevention, information and advocacy, while spending $49 million on cancer research.

In spite of his concerns, Thomson said the society is taking a safe position on pesticides because the Canadian public has little love for chemicals and more consumers are embracing organic food.

“On this issue, it (their position) makes sense to me,” he said. “There’s not much of a downside to saying we think this should be restricted.”

Thomson said it’s not unusual for charities to take a position to appease or motivate a certain group of donors because they are in the business of both helping people and raising funds.

“They have the knowledge that what they state may or may not attract future dollars,” he said.

However, he is still concerned that the society is calling for a cosmetic pesticide ban when the science linking pesticides to cancer is so tenuous.

“I’d rather them figure out there is a link before they make that statement,” he said. “I would say please show me the proof.”


However, Bromfield argued that there is scientific evidence to support the society’s position on pesticides and said information on her organization’s website about the lack of a proven link isn’t the complete picture.

“The evidence linking pesticides and cancer isn’t definitive, but it is suggestive and it is growing,” she said. “Our position on the cosmetic use of pesticides is based on the body of scientific evidence that suggests that some substances in pesticides may increase the risk of developing cancer…. What we would want your readers to understand is that there is actually good, quality research… that does suggest a link between pesticides and cancer.”

She conceded there is little evidence of a cancer risk from eating fruit and vegetables with pesticide residue.

“Nationally or internationally, there’s no research I’m aware of that has shown an increased risk from low level pesticide residue on vegetables and fruit.”

Nonetheless, a food and pesticides page on its website has a lengthy section on organic food, including information on a study indicating that children who ate organic food did not have traces of pesticides in their urine.

Bromfield said the cancer society isn’t calling for a switch from conventional food production to organic.

“We do encourage farming practices that reduce pesticides to minimize exposure for farm workers and farm communities … but I can state quite clearly that we aren’t advocating for a movement towards organic farming.”

Thomson said it would be reasonable for farmers to think twice before donating to the cancer society, considering that its position on pesticides is influencing public policy and could potentially affect producers’ livelihoods if it leads to restrictions on agricultural pesticides or increases demand for organic food.

However, Dan Mazier, who farms north of Brandon, said it’s unlikely the cancer society’s stance on pesticides would affect his donation decisions.

What he would like to see is a healthy discussion between the two groups regarding the economic need for pesticides and the potential health risks associated with the chemicals, rather than the cancer society pointing a finger at farmers and producers pointing angry fingers back at the society.

Canadian Health Association’s policies on pesticides:

  • The Canadian Medical Association doesn’t recommend a ban on the use of cosmetic pesticides, but it does call for more research on the health impact of chemical substances and recommends that pesticide use be minimized and managed wisely.
  • The Canadian Paediatric Society does not have a position on the health risk of pesticides. The organization doesn’t have a position because volunteer committees, which raise policy issues, have not brought concerns about pesticides to the CPS board. The CPS does have policies on banning children from tanning salons and preventing snowboarding injuries.
  • The Ontario College of Family Physicians published a review of pesticides and human health in 2004. It concluded that pesticide exposure is linked to cancer, reproductive problems and neurological diseases and that children are particularly vulnerable to pesticides. Environmental groups and health advocates often cite the report to highlight the dangers of pesticides but Health Canada has discredited the OCFP report. It said the report relied on a small group of epidemiological studies to connect pesticides and disease.


  • Pragmatic in Manitoba

    No matter how thorough Health Canada is in regulating pesticides, they still recommend to minimize their use.

    Health Canada also says that effective pest management for lawn care doesn’t have to involve pesticide use. Furthermore, the regulator asks us to remember that pesticides give short-term control of lawn pests, but rarely long-lasting solutions (edited excerpt from

    Personally, like a majority of Canadians, I do not use nor buy pesticides for cosmetic reasons. By following simple and well documented maintenance practices, I get a lawn that is green and healthy for kids and pets to play on.

    The essence of the new proposed regulation is to limit human –and most importantly children’s– exposure to these toxic chemicals.

    In Manitoba, a legislation to ban the use and sale of pesticides for cosmetic reasons is not only a necessity, it is overdue.

  • Dayton

    I can see a dilemma developing. Who says the customer is always right and we should cater to those consumers needs? That’s plain foolish when academia who are funded by the pesticide groups and large pesticide corps do their own peer reviewed studies to brainwash the farmers continually. Heck country music station’s would go broke without these guys.

  • Anti Canadian Cancer Society

    90 Million Dollars and they [Cancer Society] can’t even come up with a valid Scientific Paper that could be peer review by other Scientists and The Pest Management Regulatory Agency?

    Show us the Growing Body of Evidence that lawn pesticides cause cancer. There is none.

    Show us evidence of provinces that have pesticide bans in place are now healthier than provinces that still use lawn pesticides. There is none.

    If you get Cancer you will notice very quickly that the Canadian Cancer Society does not contribute to your Provincial Health Care, its the supplier of the Cancer Treatment Products that offer charitable benefits to the patients and their treatment programs.

    Its the provinces that offer Clinical Trials and free enrollment.
    Its the provinces that offer compassionate usage of ground breaking new products.
    Its the provinces that pays for your stay and meals at a hospital.
    Its the province that pays for all the treatments, blood supplements.
    Its the province that pays for drugs coverage, unless you have employer benefits.

    The provincial fund that coincidentally provides monies to bogus charities like CCS, an example, Trillium Foundation, reimburses manufacturers/suppliers for donating Cancer Treatment products/services.

    A volunteer from the Cancer Society will give you a ride to and from the hospital, car pooling with others, but that’s it. Executives of CCS make $350,000 plus and they don’t drive you anywhere.

  • Don H

    Agricultural use has increased dramatically in the last 4-5 years. In my farm neighbourhood most farmers leave the swathers parked and spray instead. That means the land/crop may be sprayed three times in a single season (before planting, after germination and to dessicate).

    Five years ago the average age of a farmer was 70 something. , now that means the next generation is farming significantly more land and chemicals are the current solution to time problems, my point is I think it will take a few years before the research catches up with the new “Chemical” norm.

    I find it entertaining to hear about cosmetic pesticide bans when our bread and the food source for our meat have likely been sprayed three time in a single season (the last spraying possibly days before going into the food chain).

  • James H Moodie

    If is was not for the success of the GMO lobby
    I would have argued that modern farmers area hard headed lot and they know if a pesticide is cost effective or not.
    When it come to the safety then farmers like every one else must trust that the regulatory system is effective. If the regulatory system is working andd most Farmers would argue that the

    • Daren, thanks for the feeabdck. Just this morning I was talking to an animal embryo researcher about new technology. He claims that even today the livestock sector is still feeling the effects of the way crop biotech was introduced back in the 80s. I know wheat wasn’t the plant species in the spotlight then, but it goes to show how the lack of communication then has had such a lasting effect.I’ll look forward to your upcoming document about taking a proactive position on biotechnology, particularly the parts related to helping address world hunger. I’m starting to think every column and blog post I write should end with a call to arms to address the crisis of one billion hungry people.Owen

  • Jimjimny

    This issue goes right to the heart of good Governance and confidence in our Governance.
    Pesticide use is rigidly regulated in Canada most farmers would argue to rigidly regulated as it increases costs dramatically.
    If the Manitoba Government believes its regulatory system works then there is no need to ban so called cosmetic pesticides.
    If it they feel the need to ban pesticides to protect the publisc rather than some other touchy feely greeny tree hugging popularity contest then they shoud update their regulatory standards to international standards.
    It doesn’t matter who the lobyist is whether it is the multinational corporations or the anti everything everywhere lobbists they should get the simple answer.
    We have a rigid regulatory system in place in this field of trade, we feel it serves both the supply industry and the consumers well, therefore these activists/lobbists need to go away and come back with some hard facts.

  • Jimjimny

    Harry Gordon Selfridge or Marshall Field is also credited with originating the phrase “The customer is always right.”[4] Later Hotelier César Ritz advertised in 1908, ‘Le client n’a jamais tort’ (‘The customer is never wrong’)
    This was in reference to the simple fact that the customer can always take their money elsewhere.
    GMO is the best example of this no matter how much capital Monsanto and Du Pont throw at the EU the people know that modifying the female gene was wrong and that will never change. The people know that the principle is safe but the practice of allowing your GMO modified pollen to drift in the wind should never have been allowed furthermore they exercise their rights as customers and democratic citizens by lobbying their representatives more effectively than the mega money, because unlike the USA in Europe money cannot vote.
    Harper wants to abolish state funding opening the wayfor money to win elections in the UK and Germany there is a strict limit on the amount of time political adverts areallowed.Harper uses taxpayer money toadvertise.

  • Risky Business

    To me, this issue is simpily a question of risk. While yes, there is no “definate link” between pesticides and cancer or other health issues, there is research that “suggests” there is a link. And by the fact that there is even a suggestion means that there is a risk. Anti-ban advocates always go back to citing Health Canada, saying that this governing body subjects all pesticides to rigorous testing before deeming them “safe for use”, however, in their evaluation, they state that at a given level, a particular chemical only an exceptable level of risk to human health. Health Canada does not say that a pesticide is completely safe or that it will not cause cancer or other health problems.

    The urban pesticide ban proposed by the Manitoba government is a method of risk management, something that citizens and businesses alike try and do everyday – manage and minimize risk. They are not saying that if citizens use pesticides on their lawns they will get cancer. They are simply saying that there is a risk and they are choosing to minimize that risk, just as an investor may choose to invest in one company but not another.

    Personally, I dont have an issue with the ban, I think it is a good risk to try and eliminate. Why risk our children getting sick for a greener lawn? To me that seems like a no-brainer.

    • Bob

      “suggests” there is a link? You could take any product lets say ketchup and say everyone over 50 who has died from cancer has eaten ketchup. Does that “suggest” that ketchup causes cancer? This is the mentality being used by the Canadian Cancer Society. I used to volunteer for the Canadian Cancer Society however I would never do that again. This “charity” only serves to create huge salaries for it’s executives.

  • Yens Pedersen

    What a completely bogus piece of ‘reporting’! I went to the Canadian Cancer Society’s website to see what they say about pesticides. In many spots they say there “may” be a “connection” between pesticides and cancer. The society also clearly states that it’s position on cosmetic use of pesticides is based on the precautionary principle, which Mr. Arnason writing for the WP chose to ignore. Mr. Arnason’s writing is either sloppy or deliberately misleading since “no proven link” does not equate to no “scientific connection”. Of course it is true that there is no conclusive proof that low level exposure to pesticides causes cancer. It is also true that there is no conclusive proof that smoking cigarettes causes cancer. Yet there is significant scientific evidence of a link. I wonder if Mr. Arnason also cherry-picked which statements from Charity Intelligence he used. One of the key messages from Charity Intelligence’s report “Cancer in Canada” is that there ought to be a bigger focus on prevention rather than on the myth of the “cure”. Prevention is exactly why the Canadian Cancer Society is advocating the elimination of cosmetic use of pesticides. Mr. Arnason uses a statement from Charity Intelligence to cast aspersion on the Canadian Cancer Society’s motives. He suggests that their motives have more to do with money than public health. A trip to the society’s website to find their position on cosmetic use of pesticides makes it obvious how ridiculous that suggestion is. Their position on pesiticides is buried deep in their website and is obviously not part of a key fundraising initiative. On the other hand, one only has to open the Western Producer to just about any page to realize how dependent the Western Producer is on pesticide revenues.

  • Neil

    I’m surprised how Gillian Bromfield contradicts herself by saying there is no proven link between pesticides and cancer and then later in the article suggests a link. I’m also disappointed in the Cancer Society using my charitable donations to promote organic farming and false statements about a link when the science has proven there isn’t one when “pesticides are used properly”. And that is the key to this discussion. Agricultural pesticides are no different than gasoline, oil, salt, sugar, cafiene, prescription drugs, and other known carcinogens They are safe when used at proper rates or doses. As a farmer if I continually spill pesticde on me when using it I will increse my risk of getting cancer. The same goes for a child who plays on a lawn right after it is sprayed. So maybe the cosmetic ban is needed so the risk is eliminated. But don’t promote it because of the pesticide’s fault. Like most problems in this world it is the human component that may endanger someone. Also for information the average of farmers is 50 something, not 70. And yes we use more pesticides than 20-30 years ago as part of our management to make a profitable living. But most (not all I will agree) of us do so in accordance with the precautions as set out by Health Canada and other government departments. By the way academia are not funded by the pesticde corporations. The corporations do have their own researchers to do tests before they ever ask the Canadian government to confirm or dispute their results for registering a product. The academia are funded by taxpayer dollars to do independent testing before a product can be used, the same as for the drugs you buy at a pharmacy. If its good enough for human drugs the same system should be good enough for our food system.

    • Bill

      Spot on Neil. Hopefully blanket bans like this don’t spread into agriculture, or else we’ll have a lot of starving people in the world. Unfortunately, I don’t think some people realize how much more is produced now than 60 or 70 years ago

  • Dayton

    One thing is for sure. If you don’t use chemicals you have eliminated the risk to the public by 99%. Maybe that’s what the consumer is buying when they pay a premium for Organic products? The customer is 99% right in this case.

    • Robert Wager

      So we are to just disregard the 60 people who died from bacterial contamination of bean sprouts in Europe this summer. Not to mention the thousands of people who will have life-long kidney problems from eating those organic bean sprouts.

  • Bill

    Here is an interesting feature I read in Macleans just last week. It points out some unintended consequences of banning cosmetic pesticides.
    However, I believe it would be better if only sports venues were allowed to use these in order to keep their fields in order and playable. The surface area is huge when compared to an average city lot, if you are too lazy to get out there and pull the two dandelions you have, then maybe you just shouldn’t have a lawn.

  • hendrik

    I think dogs and pets in general are more detrimental to our health than pesticides.

  • blackmantoucher

    This article is very interesting in the realm of the bans going on in the western producer considering pesticides are very dangerous.

  • Martin Pick

    Whoa! I have read 450 pages of so called “science” provided by Ontarios Ministery of Environment; almost All hyperbolic exaggeration.

    However the overriding error is that almost all of it refers to “pesticides” in one single grouping; I don’t believe any reasonable person would deny there can and are differences in toxicity between , for example, insecticides and herbicides.
    None of these brainy people see that.

    It’s all hogwash – Health Canada is the sole testing agency and when they are quoted they are accused of being in industry’ s pocket.

    How do you deal with people who don’t want to see the truth?

    Martin Pick

  • Rick

    When you’re in cities like Saskatoon during dandelion season where there is a pesticide ban you can hardly breath because of all the dandelion fluff in the air and the pesticide ban adds a nice 3rd world touch to the appearrance of the city parks and boulevards. Our family gives that city a wide pass until dandelion season is over.