Top health officials say there is no proof that pesticides cause cancer, despite a recent ruling by the Supreme Court that allows municipalities to ban the use of residential pesticides for cosmetic use.

Len Ritter, executive director of the Canadian Network of Toxicology Centres, says environmental and citizens’ groups that are pushing for such bans shouldn’t be so quick to claim victory. This decision isn’t an affirmation from Canada’s highest court that pesticides are a health concern.

“We should be aware that the Supreme Court decision is not about toxicology,” he says. “Courts don’t review toxicology, they review laws.”

The case originated in Hudson, Quebec, ten years ago, when the municipality passed a bylaw prohibiting the cosmetic use of pesticides. Since then, other communities have been waiting for the outcome of the Supreme Court decision before creating similar laws.

Recent studies that have been covered in the mainstream media warn that pesticide exposure is linked to respiratory illnesses, birth defects and various types of cancer. Yet Ritter says pesticides are relatively safe when used properly, and there is no evidence proving they cause cancer. Canadian Cancer Statistics for 2001 reveals that cancer rates, even in children, are not on the increase.

But are pesticides safe? Ritter says he would never answer that question, because they could be. On the other hand, there are a lot of situations where they wouldn’t be. Ritter maintains that they can be used safely, though. “Show me that these products in this setting, can simply not be used safely, and I’ll be at the front of the line pushing for their ban,” he says.

In 1997, Ritter sat on the Ad Hoc Panel on Pesticides and Cancer, for the National Cancer Institute of Canada. Other members of the panel were from the Canadian Cancer Society, the American Cancer Society and Health Canada. The panel reviewed a range of studies and examined the regulatory framework in place to protect the public from potentially carcinogenic pesticides. According to the report, “the panel concluded that it was not aware of any definitive evidence to suggest that synthetic pesticides contribute significantly to overall cancer mortality.”

With no definitive evidence that pesticides cause cancer, why are the chemicals so widely feared? Angela Rickman, deputy director of the Sierra Club of Canada, is frustrated that there is no evidence, but she isn’t convinced that there’s no connection. She says it’s nearly impossible to prove that pesticides cause cancer, or other illnesses, because there are too many contributing factors.

Of the few animal and epidemiological studies that have been done, some suggest that pesticide exposures can have long-term effects on behaviour and neurological function, but there are still many gaps in the knowledge. The best evidence some studies can provide only suggest that people with various health problems – including different types of cancer – are more likely to have been exposed to pesticides. Not even skyrocketing asthma rates can be definitively attributed to pesticide use. Rickman hopes that, eventually, enough linkages will surface to make people take the issue more seriously.

Already, it looks like many people are taking pesticides seriously. The Sierra Club is currently working with forty-six different communities in anti-pesticide campaigns, spanning geographically from Victoria to Corner Brook.

“Lots of people don’t want their kids exposed to pesticides,” Rickman says. “There are communities that are considering stopping pesticide use because they are concerned about the health effects for children and for vulnerable populations of people with chemical sensitivities.”

Ritter says the decision to ban pesticides is acceptable, if that’s what people want – but it should be based on fact, not popularity. “As a Canadian, I am very concerned that a municipality like Hudson has made a decision which I know full well is not based on any factual information,” he says. “It’s based on rhetoric, it’s based on misrepresentation, and it’s based on public hype.”

Ritter acknowledges that pesticides are inherently designed to have destructive properties. He says that this is the reason behind the products’ warning labels. People using pesticides need to treat chemicals with respect. And Ritter is quick to point out that the process to approve a pesticide in Canada is elaborate – products must be demonstrated as safe for human and environmental health.

Ritter claims that much of the information regarding pesticides is out of date and, to a very significant extent, often misrepresents fact. In his opinion, this only feeds rhetoric and promotes fear, which is not a foundation for rational discussion.

On the other side of the debate, Rickman admits it’s entirely possible that, although pesticides are being linked with cancer, they may not be the cause. “But the truth is, nobody knows. With pesticides and chemicals, you should be able to have the choice of whether you want them in your body.”

She says we have 500 more chemicals in our bodies today than we did in 1920. She says the laws that regulate pesticides are outdated and desperately need to be changed. According to Rickman, we need to look after those in our society who may be most vulnerable to the chemicals, especially children, unborn fetuses and family pets.

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” Rickman says. “It worked for a long time with the tobacco industry, and we can see it now with the pesticide industry. I think your freedom to do what you want ends where somebody else’s freedom starts. And if you can be sure that you’re not contaminating anyone else’s environment by using pesticides, then go ahead and do it.”

Lisa Caines is a freelance journalist currently completing her undergraduate degree in English at the University of Guelph. She is an active contributing member of student media as a writer and editor. Currently, she is working for the University of Guelph, specializing in research writing.