Fight to Ban Pesticides
Dr. Bruinsma lost her fight with cancer and passed away last February. She recently won the 2002 Canadian Environment Award for her work on pesticides. The fight to ban pesticides continues across Canada because of her and many other innocent victims of these unnecessary poisons.
The Accidental Crusader
Some scientists believe pesticides can cause cancer. Dr. Nicole Bruinsma isn’t convinced that’s what led to hers. Still, she’s leading the battle to have them banned By Brad Evenson Across Canada right now, millions of tiny flags are being unfurled on lawns, warning children to stay away. Men and women in work pants, rubber boots, and gloves are spraying the turf, mostly with a synthetic growth hormone called 2,4-D. The chemical causes the cells of leafy plants to divide uncontrollably, like a cancer, so that weeds such as dandelion and crabgrass literally grow themselves to death. This is no small enterprise. Almost seven in ten Canadian homeowners spray their grass, or dust their roses and shrubs with chemicals. Last year, sales of non-agricultural pesticides exceeded $100 million in Canada, not counting the fees charged by lawn-care companies. Many people spray the pesticides themselves – and they really pour it on. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says lawn owners apply ten times more pesticide per square foot than farmers do on their crops.
The result is a homeowner’s dream: lush emerald grass free of weeds, the kinds of lawns John Deere commercials are made of. And something else: residues of these pesticides run into groundwater, are carried aloft by evaporation, are ingested by birds, or worms, or smeared on the palms of cartwheeling children. Opponents of spraying believe the rising rates of asthma, environmental sensitivity, and certain cancers are caused by herbicides and insecticides. The tiny paper flags are, to them, the banner of a hated, occupying army. There is mounting evidence that the chemical residues may be toxic and that the indiscriminate use of pesticides could be an environmental disaster in the making. Now, more and more cities are banning the chemicals, or discouraging their use through public information campaigns. This is not about agriculture – without pesticides, billions might starve. And some insecticides, notably DDT, save lives in Africa and Asia by killing mosquitos that spread malaria. This is about grass.
The fight, involving town councils and lawn-care companies that use pesticides, has reached the Supreme Court of Canada. Last May, a House of Commons committee recommended a gradual phasing out of “cosmetic” pesticides – synthetic chemicals used for ornamental, not food-producing, purposes. It’s a huge battle. It’s going to get bigger. Behind much of it is forty-one-year-old Nicole Bruinsma, a family doctor from Chelsea, Quebec. Four years ago, she lost her right breast to cancer. In 1997, during her months of chemotherapy, she happened to see the film Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer. Sitting in a dimly lit room, watching the film, it struck her that pesticides may have a link to cancer. “You hear about the penny dropping?” she laughs. “Well, the penny really dropped.” Bruinsma, a general practitioner with a degree in biology, was no stranger to ecology. Her husband, Scott Findlay, is an environmental biologist. One of his Ph.D. students, Jeff Houlahan, had been researching declines in global amphibian populations; one explanation is that pesticides are involved. Still, the film opened her eyes.
“These things are designed to kill life, and therefore they must have an effect on living tissue, of which we are made, right?” she says.
“I fervently believe that it makes sense.”
Over the next year, as she began reading more scientific literature and talking to medical colleagues, the environmental-toxins explanation came up again and again, though there was nothing conclusive. She searched her memories of an idyllic country childhood, but could not recall ever having any abnormal exposure to pesticides. “I wasn’t raised in a toxic waste site or under high-tension wires,” she says. “My mother wasn’t exposed to anything dramatic during her pregnancy.” But even if she couldn’t be sure her own cancer was caused by these toxins, she was struck by what she read, and by the notion that the risk – toxic exposure – wasn’t worth the reward – a beautiful lawn. So when a neighbor urged her to join the campaign to ban their use in Chelsea, she jumped in.
Since 1998, she has spearheaded efforts to ban cosmetic pesticides both in Chelsea and across Canada. She is not blind to the impact her own story had. “The fact that I had breast cancer gave it the really personal element that made people stop and think,” she says. When the House of Commons environment and sustainable-development committee released its 200-page report on pesticides, “Making The Right Choice,” it criticized cosmetic pesticide use and quoted her extensively. It should have been a time for jubilation. But Bruinsma found no time to celebrate. The cancer was back, and this time, her entire body was riddled with it. Weeks earlier, she had disappeared to a clinic in the Bahamas in search of an alternative cure. She was beginning another intense personal battle, this time for her life.
North America’s obsession with mowed lawns can be traced back to the late eighteenth century, when the landscape architect Andre LeNetre grew small lawns in the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. Until then, grass was not cultivated for ornamental reasons; it fed cows. The lawn aesthetic was quickly adopted in England, and by the mid-nineteenth century it had caught on in North America, though it was mostly wealthy estates that had lawns. Then, a simple game changed everything: golf. According to Virginia Scott Jenkins, author of The Lawn, A History of an American Obsession, the game had a huge influence in popularizing lawns. Once content to play on cow pastures, U.S. golfers had begun, by the early
1890s, to demand the luxury of smoother surfaces. Through an ad placed in a farm journal in 1905, the O. M. Scott & Sons seed company sold 5,000 pounds of Kentucky bluegrass seed, typically used for livestock pastures, to a New York real-estate company then building one of the first golf courses in the U.S. It caught on. The company got membership lists from golf clubs and sent advertising material to the men, who they thought would appreciate a yard that looked like a golf green. It didn’t take long for the notion to germinate with average homeowners. Sam Snead and other golf professionals advertised grass seed and other lawn-care products in the 1930s and 1940s. The golf industry even paid for federal research into hardy grasses. Across postwar North America, suburbs were rising from agricultural land on the outskirts of cities, covered row on row with uniform carpets of flat, mowed grass.
Environmentalists claim that the widespread use of lawn chemicals can be traced to 1956, when the Masters Tournament at Augusta National golf course in Georgia was televised for the first time. Suddenly, everyone wanted Masters-quality grass. And pesticide companies had something that could help: 2,4-D, pioneered in the 1940s to make crops grow faster. The U.S. Army used 2,4-D, along with another herbicide, to create Agent Orange to kill crops and jungle trees in Vietnam and increase visibility for warplanes. Back home, folks used 2,4-D, a close cousin of Agent Orange, for dandelions. And once the weeds were dead, people wanted to be rid of annoying flies and mosquitoes, too. Tanker trucks would trundle down suburban lanes spraying the toxic insecticide DDT to kill mosquitoes. Children often frolicked in the clouds. It smelled sweet, like fruit.
In 1962, the biologist Rachel Carson decried this practice in her book Silent Spring, warning of the ecological and health dangers of DDT Silent Spring triggered the first stirrings of a consumer-oriented movement to protect the environment. Although scientists refuted the claim that DDT had led to the extinction of several bird species, the U.S. government banned its use in 1972. Canada soon followed. By the time Nicole Bruinsma met Scott Findlay, her future husband, on a research project, when they were both banding snow geese near Churchill, Manitoba, in 1980, the green movement had hit the mainstream. Until she developed cancer, Bruinsma enjoyed a relatively carefree life. The daughter of Dutch immigrants, she grew up in the countryside west of Montreal.
Bruinsma and Findlay married in the mid-eighties. She worked as a general practitioner, and he was a tenure-track biology professor at the University of Ottawa. In 1989, they bought a sprawling brick house in the village of Chelsea, north of Ottawa. It overlooked a farmer’s field to the south. Hardwood hills loomed to the west. That year, they had a daughter; two more would follow. Like many residents of Chelsea, they loved outdoor sports. Patients invariably got advice from Bruinsma to exercise and eat well, and she led by example. A tall, strikingly beautiful woman with dirty-blonde hair, she was a graceful swimmer and cross-country skier. It was a running joke among her fellow doctors that Bruinsma was “a granola exercise freak,” a woman who spent a lot of time outdoors.
Her cancer came as a shock. Bruinsma noticed the lump in 1996. She admits that, like many women, she ignored it for a few months, figuring it was nothing and would probably go away. Two years earlier, she had had a false alarm, a lump that turned out to be a cyst. Then, one winter night in 1997, she woke up suddenly. “I thought, ‘Whoa, what am I doing?’ ” she says. ” ‘I’ve gotta deal with this.’ ” Two weeks later, when the lump was found to be cancer, a surgeon removed the breast. “I remember my colleagues saying, ‘Of all of us … it’s impossible that it’s you,’ because everybody used to tease me about my carrot sticks for lunch. I’d always be the one exercising.” If Bruinsma could get cancer, people said, anyone could. She had investigated her family history and learned after genetic testing that she had no predisposition to breast cancer. She had no unhealthy habits, but just in case, she switched to eating only organic foods.
To be certain she was rid of her cancer, Bruinsma underwent radiation and chemotherapy. She also saw a psychiatrist to focus her mental energies on getting well. “And the other measure that I took, which was sort of over and above most, was that I actually had a prophylactic mastectomy [breast removal] on the left side,” she says, a precaution that reduces the chance of a recurrence. Throughout this time, she struggled to find an explanation for the cancer. Little she read seemed to fit. In the summer of 1997, she attended the first World Conference on Breast Cancer at Queen’s University in Kingston, where the film Exposure was screened. The film’s thesis is that environmental factors such as radiation, plastics, and chemical pesticides can trigger an increase in estrogen production, which has been linked to breast cancer.
Bruinsma has a scientific mind. She knows some other environmental factor could have caused her cancer. But she couldn’t make the world stop using plastics overnight. Pesticides, on the other hand, seemed to be a definite risk factor, and one that was entirely avoidable. The only reason that the vast majority of people would be exposed to them was for the sake of a pretty lawn. As veteran activist Merryl Hammond puts it, “Why would anyone spray chemical poisons in a suburb, where the only crop people are trying to grow is children?” In early 1998, with her neighbor’s encouragement, Bruinsma screened the film and delivered a lecture on environmental links to cancer before a crowd of 200 people, including a CTV News crew, packed into a Chelsea ski chalet. The topic struck a chord in the community, where most people live on one-acre, wooded lots. At the meeting, someone asked, “Why not ban pesticides in Chelsea?”
In fact, someone had already tried, though the effort had run out of steam. But Bruinsma was a powerful spokesperson – not only was she a physician, but a physician with cancer, talking about cancer. When she approached the Chelsea council about a ban, she encountered no opposition. Like many rural communities, Chelsea does not have a municipal water system; residents get their water from artesian wells. “When you live on wells, you don’t want a lot of chemicals getting into the groundwater,” says Mayor Judy Grant. “I couldn’t imagine anybody being happy to drink the water from a well knowing their neighbor was using pesticides.” Grant asked the proponents of a ban to write a bylaw; she would see that it passed. Chelsea was not the first community in Canada to consider a ban. Twenty-two other Quebec municipalities had passed some kind of pesticide bylaw. Indeed, the province is at the forefront of this movement.
In 1991, the council in Hudson, a town just west of Montreal, passed Bylaw #270, called “Concerning Pesticides.” The first of its kind in Canada, it banned the cosmetic use of pesticides. The following summer, two lawn-care companies, Chemlawn and Spray-Tech, broke the bylaw and were charged. In court, they argued that Hudson did not have jurisdiction over the issue, since they had Quebec permits to spray pesticides and used products registered by Agriculture Canada. But in 1993, the Quebec Superior Court ruled Hudson Council had acted in the public interest. The bylaw would stand. A few months later, the first draft of the Chelsea bylaw was completed. This early version excluded golf courses from the pesticide ban, for the sake of expediency. In economic terms, golf courses are a middle ground between farms and lawns, since their income, and, therefore, local jobs, hinge at least partly on the idealized beauty of their turf and greens. None of the bylaws to date had affected golf courses.
But many Chelsea residents argued that golf courses are among the heaviest users of pesticides, something experts readily admit. Golf greens, in particular, tend to attract all kinds of pests, such as mold, because they are mowed daily as short as one centimeter, making them a kind of perpetually open wound. The bylaw was amended to give golf courses five years to quit using pesticides and passed in December, 1998. Meanwhile, the battle was moving from a little town to the national stage. The following summer, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development began hearings into pesticide use. The Canadian Public Health Association invited Bruinsma to testify on its behalf. Bruinsma told the committee that no one on earth, not even infants, has escaped the reach of pesticides. Experts say humans now carry at least 500 chemicals in their bodies that were not in anyone’s body before 1920. Fat is the perfect storage place for such chemicals.
Since women have a greater percentage of body fat than men, especially in their breasts, they are more likely to accumulate persistent organic pollutants, known as pops. The older generation of pesticides, such as DDT, tend to rise with evaporation, are carried by winds for days or weeks, over thousands of kilometers. In Canada, they condense under the effect of cold Arctic air and fall to the ground or into waterways. This long-range transportation is known as the Grasshopper Effect. Since these pops are not easily dissolved in water, animals cannot excrete them. They tend to build up over a lifetime, magnifying at each ascending link of the food chain, ending in humans. “Breast milk is the most contaminated food that humans can eat, because it presents a food that is at the very top of the food chain,” Bruinsma testified at the Ottawa hearings. “It’s more concentrated than anything we’re exposed to. And that’s the first food we’re putting into the mouths of our infants.”
One of Bruinsma’s key points at the hearings was that molecules found in some pesticides, including DDT, can disrupt the hormones of living creatures, from salmon and alligators to birds. Hormone disrupters have been linked to all kinds of illnesses, including cancer. An Israeli study offers a hint of the effect of environmental toxins. Prior to 1976, the levels of DDT, as well as other pesticides such as lindane, were five to 800 times greater in cow’s milk, human milk, and human tissue in Israel than in the U.S. Its breast-cancer rates were among the world’s highest. But in 1978, the government began an aggressive campaign to phase out these pesticides for health reasons. By 1986, breast-cancer mortality in Israel had fallen 8 percent from a decade earlier. Israeli scientists believe the end of DDT use caused the decline. The trouble is, even when chemicals such as DDT are no longer in use, they can persist in the environment for decades.
“There are certainly doses in the environment now that still make it into the Arctic and still make it into the fish in Lake Ontario, for instance,” says the University of Toronto’s Scott Mabury. Humans ingest pesticides primarily by eating, but also by drinking, touching, or inhaling them. Children are at particular risk. They eat more, drink more, and breathe more air per kilogram of body weight than adults, while their bodies do not break down harmful chemicals as readily. Pesticide companies say their products are now much safer, and offer dozens of studies as evidence. DDT has been banned, and common lawn pesticides such as 2,4-D and microprop tend to break down quickly in the environment. No study has definitively linked them to cancer. (One study has suggested that 2,4-D can disrupt the reproductive cycles of female rats, but further research is needed to prove it is a hormone disrupter.) “Modern pesticides are not like the old-time pesticides,” Mabury acknowledges.
“There has been a very large and important evolution in pesticides towards lower application rates, meaning less goes out there. [Products are] more selectively toxic toward the target organism and less toxic to non-target organisms.” Speaking at the Commons hearings, Lorne Hepworth, president of the Crop Protection Institute, an industry association, told MPs that companies spend tens of millions of dollars ensuring new products are safe. “Our companies have no interest in putting products out on the market that would somehow present an unacceptable risk,” says Hepworth. “And that’s the word you have to use. I can’t say that there’s zero risk in life, whether it’s pesticides or anything else. The key here is registered products, [tested] properly and safely used.” He points out that the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), an arm of Health Canada, established in 1995, demands stringent testing and must approve products before they are sold. It takes an average of ten years for a pesticide to be approved by the federal government.
But the PMRA has not inspired public confidence. Two of its primary goals are to protect human health and the environment, and to support the competitiveness of the agriculture, forestry, and manufacturing sectors. To many people, this is a stark conflict of interest. A 1999 audit of the pmra conducted by the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development and presented at the Commons hearings found major shortcomings in its safety standards. Of the 500 active ingredients in pesticides, it said, over 300 were registered before 1981 and over 150 before 1960. Many pesticides, including 2,4-D, were approved according to far less stringent standards than are in use today. In fact, products believed to be harmful by some are still on the market. Rotenone, a naturally occurring pesticide used across Canada, has been found in at least one study to cause symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in rats – although some critics have pointed out that the researchers injected high concentrations of the chemical directly into the bloodstream, which would not normally occur.
Another study presented last year at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting found Parkinson’s patients were twice as likely to have been exposed to home pesticides. While the debate over the safety of pesticides continues, it is clear we are ingesting them. As one witness at the hearings noted, “There is a U.S. pesticides and groundwater database, and it reviews data from over 68,000 wells in forty-five states. Pesticides were found in more than 16,000 of these wells.” In Canada, the only groundwater survey officials knew of, the Ontario Well Water Survey of 1998, found concentrations of the pesticide atrazine at 210 parts per billion in one sample – forty times the Canadian guideline. Recently, the federal Liberals have supported a ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides, though they haven’t actually created any laws to enforce it. During the last legislative session, a Montreal-area MP, Marlene Jennings, tabled a bill calling for a moratorium on the use of pesticides on lawns, gardens, golf courses, and parks.
Indeed, riding associations across Canada gave it such strong support it was adopted as official Liberal party policy. However, Jennings’s bill died on the Order Paper when Jean Chretien called the election last fall. Likewise, the House of Commons report, after days of hearings, seemed to disappear off the political radar screen. At the commons committee hearings, Bruinsma did not give the impression that she’d recently had cancer. She looked healthy. That summer, she had run a 10 km race and a triathlon. She figured her cancer was gone. She did not shrink from MPs’ questions. “Her personality was that of a crusader,” says Mayor Judy Grant, who also testified. “She was not a screamer. She was very logical and made a lot of sense and was very passionate.” But in February, 2000, she developed a dry, persistent cough. In the spring, Bruinsma’s fears were confirmed. Her cancer was back.
Unbelievably, in spite of the radiation, chemotherapy, and the double mastectomy, her cancer had metastasized and sent tiny clones of her tumor throughout her body. She was stunned. “You know, I really thought I had this thing beat,” she says. “I really did. I felt that I had taken absolutely every measure that I could think of that would stack the deck in my favor in terms of a non-recurrence.” Unlike primary breast cancer, metastatic cancer is usually fatal. Bruinsma’s doctor suggested hormonal treatment. Within ten days, Bruinsma had her ovaries removed in an attempt to slow down the disease. She was to wait six weeks to decide on the next step. Coincidentally, Findlay’s aunt, Penny Williams, had recently published a book called Alternatives in Cancer Therapy: The Case for Choice. It questions the use of radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy to treat cancer. It also criticizes the firms that sell cancer treatments.
Historically, many of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies, such as Ciba-Geigy, ici, and Bayer have also been the top pesticide sellers. Taxotere, a drug used by breast-cancer patients who have previously been failed by chemotherapy, is sold by Aventis, a conglomerate that also makes herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. Some patients, including Bruinsma, find this troubling. Williams’s book mentioned a clinic in the Bahamas that offered a vaccine treatment to boost the immune system, amplifying its ability to kill tumor cells. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should just abandon everything I’d learned in the past seventeen years in medicine and just go completely in the other direction,’ ” says Bruinsma. ” ‘What have I got to lose?’ So, I bought a ticket to the Bahamas, I spent six weeks there, and just got worse and worse.” When she returned to Ottawa and underwent a CT scan, her oncologist told her the cancer was “totally out of control.” His words were shattering. It was the first and only time Bruinsma saw her husband, normally stoic, lose his composure during the ordeal.
“It was just despair, complete hopelessness and just crying for twenty-four hours straight, just, what the hell are we going to do now?” she said. The oncologist said she needed chemotherapy. This time, Bruinsma hesitated. Statistically speaking, if she had done nothing to treat the disease when it was first diagnosed – no chemo, no radiation, no surgery – she would have gotten metastatic disease about two and a half years later. “It was almost as if I had done nothing,” she says. “So you can imagine that my thoughts around chemotherapy were pretty negative.” There was something more. A standard regimen of the drug Taxotere, used when primary chemotherapy fails, will only prevent metastatic breast cancer from progressing for about ten months. “I thought, okay, I could be sick as a dog and have all my hair fall out and live for ten months, or I could go and try something else,” she says.
Hoping that a more advanced medical treatment could be found at a German clinic that uses cytokines, proteins that can stimulate an immune response, she and Findlay flew to Germany. But after only two treatments, the sac surrounding Bruinsma’s heart filled with fluid, a potentially fatal condition. She was taken to a hospital where she was injected with Taxotere. The attending physician told Findlay to prepare the family. Unless things improved soon, Nicole was going to die. Instead, she got stronger. The Taxotere, a drug produced by a company that also makes pesticides, had pulled her from the brink. On Valentine’s Day, Marlene Jennings, the Montreal-area MP, tabled her bill again, though it has not yet been debated in the House of Commons. “I think that the health risks outweigh the benefits of having a beautiful lawn,” she says.
In the meantime, other municipalities have begun to impose their own bans. Last summer, after a rancorous four-month debate, Halifax’s regional council passed a bylaw completely phasing out spraying on residential lawns and gardens by April 1, 2003. In December, Chemlawn and Spray-Tech, the two companies involved in the Hudson case, appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Lawyers for the companies argued that a municipal government does not have the jurisdiction to ban products approved by the Canadian government. But court observers say the appeal doesn’t look promising for the companies. After all, city governments already ban the use of tobacco – a product also regulated by Ottawa – in some public places. The judges did not seem friendly to the appellants. “Should a municipality be prevented from protecting the health of its citizens?” asked Justice Charles Gonthier. A ruling is expected this month. Meanwhile, Bruinsma continues to struggle against the tide of her disease. She writes articles and talks to fellow campaigners. She was recently made honorary president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. She exercises when she can, walking and even cross-country skiing in the nearby Gatineau Hills.
But recently, fluid has begun building up in her chest again, a possible toxic effect of her chemotherapy drugs in combination with the cancer. Doctors took her off the drugs several weeks ago to find out, monitoring her progress in hospital. “I try to avoid saying I believe pesticides caused my breast cancer, because I can’t say that at all,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe pesticides can play a role in the development of breast cancer. Just in my personal case I don’t have any proof of it.” Findlay, a diligent researcher, continues to hunt for a better therapy to treat his wife’s illness. He has sent samples of her tumors to several colleagues, hopeful something can be found to destroy her particular cancer, or at least manage it as a chronic disease. Before long, they will endure yet another dark irony. The farm near their house is now being sold, although the buyer has promised it will remain “green.” He’s building a golf course.