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Controversial pesticide 2,4-D deemed not 'dangerous', but still banned in Quebec

Quebec has acknowledged, in a settlement of a pivotal NAFTA trade case, that a controversial pesticide it banned in 2006 doesn't pose a significant risk to humans or the environment.

But the settlement isn't likely to put the 2,4-D back on store shelves any time soon in Quebec - or in several other provinces where its use is restricted.

U.S.-based Dow AgroSciences LLC, which makes the pesticide, said Thursday that a deal to drop its North American free trade agreement challenge vindicates its contention that the product is safe if used as directed.

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"Quebec's decision never had a basis in science," said Brenda Harris, the company's Calgary-based manager of regulatory and government affairs. "And it cast a shadow on the safety of our product." Ms. Harris said the case is about making sure governments are "transparent in their decision-making."

In a statement, Quebec said its ban remains firmly in place and that 2,4-D continues to be a restricted chemical.

The pesticide 2,4-D, once sold widely throughout Canada under brand names such as Killex, is prohibited for lawn care in most provinces east of Manitoba as part of a much broader prohibition on so-called cosmetic lawn care products. The chemical is still widely used in agriculture and forestry. It's also sold for cosmetic uses in the four western provinces and throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.

In justifying the ban, Quebec had initially identified 2,4-D as a possible carcinogen - a claim it failed to demonstrate. And that put the province at odds with Health Canada, which deems the product safe, sparking the company's NAFTA case against the federal government. Claims can only be brought against NAFTA's three signatories - Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Lisa Gue of the David Suzuki Foundation said the settlement would have little effect because even the threat of a NAFTA challenge did not dissuade provinces from banning the chemical. She also suggested the company may have withdrawn its lawsuit because it feared it would ultimately lose the case.

In 2009, Dow filed a challenge under NAFTA's chapter 11, which allows companies to sue governments for actions that affect their investments. The company was seeking $2-million (U.S.) in damages. No cash was involved in this week's final settlement and Dow agreed to withdraw its challenge.

For its part, Quebec agreed to a statement that "products containing 2,4-D do not pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment, provided that the instructions on their label are followed."

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More significantly, the repudiation of Quebec's health warning helps the company protect a much larger market for the product in farm and forestry use, worth at least $120-million (Canadian) a year.

The pesticide, used since the 1940s, is popular because it's relatively cheap compared to other newer chemicals that are still protected by patents.

Officials of the federal government were not immediately available for comment.

According to Didier Bicchi, the Quebec Ministry of the Environment's director of agriculture and pesticides, 2,4-D will continue to be prohibited in Quebec because the government has found the product to be "non-essential" as a weed killer in the province.

"The Pesticide Management Code remains as is. The ingredient 2,4-D continues to be prohibited in the province. The situation for the company's product hasn't changed. The only difference is that it will no longer be labelled as a dangerous product," Mr. Bicchi said in an interview.

According to the government expert, the settlement may eventually help the company in its effort to fight a potential ban being considered by other provinces.

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With a report from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec

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