by Sheryl McCumsey – Edmonton Chapter Steering Committee Member and Coordinator, Pesticide Free Edmonton
Chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxin that inhibits proper nerve functioning. It is used to kill insects by paralysing the insect’s essential muscles like those used for breathing. Of course it doesn’t just impact insects as many health studies have proven. The chemical is linked to severe birth defects, brain damage, developmental delays and behavioural problems in humans. Its use correlates with increased incidence of cancer and it has caused deaths. Some of the largest lawsuits around any pesticide are related to chlorpyrifos. $23.5 million was awarded in 2010 to one US family in a lawsuit after their children were permanently harmed. New York State also sued Dow Chemical, the company that makes the chemical, for $2 million for saying chlorpyrifos is safe. Currently, seven US state attorney generals have charged the Environmental Protection Agency with violating federal law by failing to issue required safety findings on chlorpyrifos. Meanwhile, in Canada, when Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency was audited in 2015, this pesticide was specifically mentioned as not being re-evaluated as required by law.
Besides being dangerous there is evidence that chlorpyrifos does not work. Edmonton uses chlorpyrifos to kill mosquito larva but the chemical also kills mosquito predators like dragonflies, bats, and birds. Mosquito populations rise due to their inevitable resistance and lack of predators. This is why Winnipeg sold their stock of the chemical to Edmonton. Edmonton’s website states that chlorpyrifos is applied in areas where dragonflies do not lay eggs but entomologists say local species of dragonflies do lay eggs in temporary water bodies and in grass where the city applies it. One study from 2016 also shows that chlorpyrifos is harmful to 97% of endangered species in the US including honeybees. This pesticide is very persistent and has been found in Arctic ice dating back to 1972. This means it drifts for very long distances, and hangs around for a very long time.
Why, then, is Edmonton the only municipality in Canada to continue to use chlorpyrifos for mosquitoes? (A number of documents prove this to be the case, including a document sent to Pesticide-Free Edmonton from Health Canada.) Edmonton keeps one form of the chemical, Dursban, in reserve in case of an “emergency,” and city staff say they no longer spray it. However, the city continues to use another form of the chemical called Pyrate—and it does so against federal regulations as chlorpyrifos is only to be used in “public health programs” such as during an outbreak of West Nile virus.
We have had only one case of West Nile Virus in our region in ten years, and the Centre for Disease Control states that only 1% of people diagnosed develop a serious illness. Edmonton’s chief medical officer of health agrees that there is not a public health reason for using this chemical. Yet after Pesticide-Free Edmonton filed a report of misuse of this chemical to the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, information that the use of chlorpyrifos must be limited to public health programs vanished from Health Canada’s website.
What is even more disconcerting is that the city of Edmonton has failed to notify the public it is spraying chlorpyrifos in the form of Pyrate. The city has further contravened federal regulations by spraying this chemical inside our city’s boundaries when Health Canada states that “these uses will be limited to temporary pools in outlying areas of municipalities.” The city has also said in a letter shared with surrounding counties the city sprays in, that this pesticide is “safe”—which is what Dow was sued for saying. This chemical is being used in our city and we are not even notified of its use, let alone where it has been applied.
We believe that the citizens of Edmonton have a right to expect that regulations be followed. We also believe that public health professionals should be involved in the policies that determine how pesticides are used, and that the city and the province should be educating the public on the very real risks associated with pesticides. The city of Edmonton should stop using chlorpyrifos immediately, and create policy to prevent abuse of pesticides in the future.