Pesticides are likely go the way of perfume in Halifax over the next four years as the Nova Scotia capital embarks on a controversial program to become the first Canadian city to ban lawn and garden chemicals.
The move, made public earlier this week, has delighted people who say exposure to chemicals such as the widely used herbicides glyphosate and 2,4-D make them very ill.
But some landscapers and lawn-care companies bitterly oppose the proposed bylaw, which got first reading at regional council this week. Saying the products are safe when used correctly, they plan legal action against any ban.
The first reading of the bylaw came as the media was abuzz with stories about an Eastern Shore high-school student who was suspended for wearing scented hair gel. His teacher reported him to the RCMP, but the police did not file charges in the case.
Opponents of the proposed ban maintain that it is linked with the widely followed policy of not allowing scented products in public buildings and is another example of environmentally sensitive people imposing their will on the majority.
A report on pesticides done for regional council in March said about 5 per cent of the 300,000 people in the huge municipality experience allergic reactions or flu-like symptoms when exposed to common lawn and garden chemicals.
The same report said about 1 per cent of the population suffer seizures or heart problems and about 300 people suffer life-threatening symptoms when exposed to chemically treated lawns.
Earlier, the council rejected a recommendation that all lawn and garden pesticides be banned by next March.
No one in Halifax can pinpoint why the city has been at the forefront of contentious environmental health issues. For centuries, the city has been dumping raw sewage into its harbour and only recently has come up with a plan for full treatment facilities.
Haligonians were made aware of the devastating consequences of environmental illness in the early 1990s when hundreds of health-care workers suffered debilitating sicknesses at the Camp Hill Medical Centre after exposure to several chemicals at the facility.
As many as 55 other municipalities in Canada are considering similar bans. In Quebec, several municipalities have tried to impose one. However, a lawn-care company has forced the issue all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, claiming that the municipalities have no right to regulate pesticide use.
Last year, Nova Scotia amended its Municipal Act to specifically give its capital region the right to restrict or ban pesticide use on lawns or gardens.
A public-opinion survey last fall showed as many as 83 per cent of respondents were in favour of restricting pesticide use.
But Councillor Steve Streatch said in a recent interview that he feels "the environmental lobby groups have infiltrated and hijacked the whole process.
"They [environmentally sensitive groups]have been dictating the direction the rest of us should be going," he said, adding that he thinks pressure for the bylaw is coming from the same people who lobbied agencies to ban perfumed products from public areas.
"The onus for these people's illnesses is being put on the masses, and I think that is wrong," Mr. Streatch said, adding that he was raised in rural Nova Scotia and used pesticides for 25 years. "I'm sorry that they are sick. I feel bad. But to tell the rest of us that we're responsible for that and we have to go out of our way to protect you, that's not right."
Under the proposed bylaw, which will go to public hearings in late May, the region would spend $243,000 to begin the four-year process of phasing out pesticide use and educating the public in the use of alternative means of controlling weeds and fertilizing lawns.
In the first two years, the ban would apply only within 100 metres of homes of environmentally sensitive people and schools and daycares. By the fourth year, it would apply to all cosmetic pesticides for use other than agriculture and forestry.
A staff report presented to council earlier this week acknowledged that registering the properties of chemically sensitive people and phasing out the use of pesticides is so complex that no one can be sure it can be done.
As well, it would be very difficult for enforcement officers to spot everyone who is using a hand sprayer to kill dandelions.
During the first round of hearings on the issue earlier this year, local environmental groups and some members of the medical community expressed concern that the commonly used lawn chemicals could contribute to illnesses ranging from seizures to brain cancer and that children were the most vulnerable.
At the same time, pesticide applicators say their formulations are federally regulated and safe when applied properly.
For Maureen Reynolds, a Halifax music teacher who suffers seizures when she is exposed to lawn and garden chemicals, a ban would be the culmination of a lengthy crusade to protect children from them.
Ms. Reynolds, an executive member of a group called Real Alternatives to Toxins in the Environment, which spearheaded the proposed ban, said she has had to leave her home on nine occasions and travel to a house in the country when her neighbors sprayed their lawns.
"One should be safe in one's home," she said.
She said the phased-in ban would provide enough time to educate people about the hazards of the chemicals -- and to show people that they won't lose their verdant lawns and giant tomatoes if they switch to organic products.
"Lots of landscapers already know how take care of lawns organically," she said, noting that the lawns at the lieutenant-governor's mansion are chemical-free.