Bias Built into Feds' Pesticide Use Review: BC Doctor

Health Canada relies on studies funded by pesticide makers says Physicians for Environment founder Warren Bell.

By Andrew MacLeod 11 Oct 2011 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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B.C. is deciding whether to ban cosmetic pesticide use.

There are problems with the way Health Canada assesses pesticides, allowing the use of products that harm human and ecosystem health, said Warren Bell, a Salmon Arm doctor and past founding president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

Bell was responding to comments Lyndsay Hanson, stakeholder engagement and outreach manager with the pest management regulatory agency, made Oct. 6 to a British Columbia legislative committee considering cosmetic pesticide use, reported in The Tyee.

"What Mr. Hanson does not reveal is that the overwhelming majority of evidence considered by the federal Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency... consists of what are called 'sponsored studies,'" said Bell. "This means that the researchers who have carried out the studies that are presented to the PMRA are paid by the company which is making the product they are examining."

The company will have designed the experiment in a way most likely to make their product looks good, he said. And if the test goes badly for the product, the company's unlikely to forward it to the PMRA, he said.

Bell also pointed out that while the PMRA considers the active ingredients in pesticides, it does not assess the affects of other substances in the product, at least some of which may be toxic.

"As long as profitability and conflict of interest direct the way the PMRA functions, Canadian citizens will be poorly served by their regulators," said Bell. "Products which are harmful to human and ecosystem health will continue to be poured and sprayed and scattered into the environment -- where you and I live."

Science vs. emotion

Premier Christy Clark has said she would like B.C. to have a ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides, a position the NDP opposition supports. Provinces including Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia already have such bans.

Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett, who last year referred to parks campaigners as "eco-fascists," now chairs the bipartisan committee considering the issue. He replaced Margaret MacDiarmid after Clark promoted her to cabinet. Former environment minister Barry Penner was also added to the committee.

In an interview after his appointment, Bennett told The Tyee the committee should base its recommendations on sound science rather than emotion.

"Certainly science is the basis for all Health Canada decisions on pesticides and certainly the approach is precautionary," Hanson told the committee Oct. 6.

The PMRA has 350 scientists who consider large numbers of studies, he said. A photo in his slide presentation showed shelves of some 60 binders which he said were each six-inches thick and were all for one chemical. "That's what our scientists look at," he said.

The agency looks for the smallest dose of a chemical that will harm the most sensitive animal, then it divides that amount by 100 to determine the "acceptable exposure" level, he said. They then calculate the likely exposure when the chemical is used according to its label. It won't be approved unless that likely exposure is below what's calculated as acceptable, he said.

Rigorous testing done, says Health Canada

Committee members asked Hanson about how much certainty the agency has that pesticides are being used correctly and how much can be known about their cumulative effect in the environment.

"When we produce the label, we're looking for 100 per cent compliance," said Hanson. The labels are legal documents that need to be followed, he said. "Those directions for use are there for a reason."

He said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to study the effects of a mix of various chemicals in the environment, though individual chemicals are thoroughly tested. "Pesticides are among the most rigorously tested substances in the world," he said.

And responding to a question from Richmond-Steveston MLA John Yap, he said, "The chemicals themselves have a potential to be hazardous, that's why we have a strong regulatory system in Canada."

Provinces have the authority to put conditions on use beyond what Health Canada allows, Hanson said. "We have to use what is referred to as a science-based process."

A transcript of the committee meeting is available here.

Companies pay for studies: Bell

Hanson's comments need to be given more context, Bell said in an email to The Tyee. His focus on the number of scientists at PMRA and the volume of studies required "amount to nothing more than smoke and mirrors," he said. "These kinds of remarks are intended to convey the impression of bulk, and bulk is supposed to [equate] with quality and integrity."

Bell wrote: 

"Consider this simple fact. What is the likelihood that Mr. Hanson would come all the way from Ottawa to Victoria, and then point out deficiencies in Health Canada's functioning? In fact, what is the likelihood that Mr. Hanson would make one single direct and pointed criticism of the way Health Canada regulates pesticides?

"We both know the answer to that question. In probability terms, it is pretty close to zero.

" Similarly for industry representatives who have presented to the committee, both out in the open, and behind the scenes in their intensive lobbying process. The chance that they will offer frank and independent-minded assessments of how their industry works is even closer to zero.

 "Neither Mr. Hanson nor industry representatives will criticize their respective employers because in today's polarized world, such behaviour would probably result in them being fired."

What Hanson left out is as important as what he said, Bell said. That the studies are provided by the company that makes the product is a problem, he said. "Abundant evidence from the medical literature, which deals with human health, shows unequivocally that studies sponsored by a product manufacturer consistently exaggerate the virtues of that product, and downplay its defects."

The studies, starting with a 1998 publication in the New England Journal of Medicine, are well known to scientists and regulators, said Bell.

Still, the PMRA relies on those studies. "Each study, in each of those binders, has a phrase or sentence in it stating clearly that money for that study came from the pesticide manufacturer who made the product being studied, and wants to get that product onto the market as soon as possible," he said. The companies are unlikely to share studies that arrived at negative conclusions, he said.

Hanson, by the way, told the committee that the binders include much raw data, allowing the agency's scientists to conduct their own analysis.

Other ingredients worrisome

Another problem, said Bell, is the PMRA only tests the active ingredients in pesticides, rather than the full products. "The so-called active ingredient is often only a very small part of a complete pesticide product," he said.

The bulk of the product is other ingredients, he said. "They consist of things like emulsifiers (substances that make oily and watery substances mix together), surfactants (substances that allow the active ingredient to spread more widely on surfaces by lowering surface tension) and of course solvents and dilutents (usually liquids which simply dilute the active ingredient in a large volume, making it easier to spray evenly). And there are even things like artificial colours, to make the product look more distinctive."

Some of the ingredients "are actually known to be quite chemically active toxic," he said. But the PMRA doesn't test them, nor does it test "the effect of combining these ingredients with one another, or with the active ingredient."

Bell wrote, "When you buy a pesticide, you're buying a cocktail of chemicals, only one of which is revealed on the label."

Canadian law allows pesticide manufacturers to hide every ingredient in their products except for the so-called active ingredient, he said. (Though he added poison control centres have full lists and will share them.)

Another problem, he said, is pesticides are usually tested on animals, then the "likely" effect on humans is guessed at through an elaborate process. "There are ways to test pesticide effects indirectly in humans, such as by the use of human tissue cultures, which produce no danger to actual people, or by sensitive tests of genetic damage," he said. "But these methods are almost never employed by pesticide manufacturers -- because they are much more likely to show the bad things that pesticides can do to people."

Nor do the tests show what can happen from long-term, chronic low-dose exposure, he said. "Such adverse effects can take up to 20 years to show up. If the lifespan of test animals is three months, six months or two years, then these long-term effects will never be seen."

While Health Canada reveals "some of the truth, and not the sum of the truth," he said. The agency allows the products to continue to be used, and "you and I -- and our children and grandchildren -- will continue to unknowingly run the risk of becoming an unintended target species."

B.C.'s cosmetic pesticide committee next meets on Oct. 26 in Victoria.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Environment

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