Today’s report from Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Office of the Auditor General, sheds light on the extent to which the federal government has neglected to protect human health and the environment in recent years.
The Commissioner’s report presents a damning portrait of Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency’s (PMRA) failure to fulfill its statutory objective of preventing “unacceptable risks” to Canadians and the environment from the unsafe use of pesticides.
Key areas where the PMRA has fallen short include conditional registrations, a loophole that allows pesticides to be registered without adequate health and safety data being submitted first, and unreasonable delays in cancelling registrations when pesticides are shown to have unacceptable risks. In some cases it took up to 11 years to remove pesticides with unacceptable risks from the market. The PMRA has also failed to take into account cumulative risks from pesticides when conducting risk assessments; cumulative risks are important to consider because pesticides can be persistent in the environment, building up over time. Case in point: the bee-harming pesticide imidacloprid builds up over three years, creating long-term risks for pollinators.
The federal government’s failings on this file are especially disconcerting given that pesticide use is increasing. According to Statistics Canada, the area of farmland treated with herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides increased by 3 per cent, 42 per cent, and 114 per cent, respectively, between 2001 and 2011. Some pesticides are known to cause cancer in humans, and neonic pesticides like imidacloprid have been shown to play a major role in bee die-offs, which threatens Canada’s food security.
In 2015, I testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health on the need to end repeated conditional registrations of pesticides, which kept neonics and other pesticides on the market for many years without adequate safety data being submitted. Last week Health Canada announced a plan to end conditional registrations, which is a step in the right direction. Environmental Defence applauds the move to end the practice – no data, no market. But more needs to be done to prevent further harm to the health of Canadians and the environment from exposure to pesticides that remain on the market long after scientists confirm that they are toxic.
The report also looked at pipelines and the National Energy Board’s failure to meet its duty to protect Canadians and the environment from undue risks.
The federal government has a duty to weigh the risks when granting companies permission to undertake activities that have the potential to threaten human life and the ecosystems we depend on. It is not enough to present the evidence of these failures for discussion. Now it is up to the newly elected government to learn from the mistakes of the past and set things right.