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Views on cancer and pesticides finally changing
by Suzanne Elston

Perhaps the greatest strength of grassroots environmentalists is their remarkable tenacity. Raising public awareness about issues of concern can often take years. Changing political and institutional direction can take decades.

Such has been the battle to change our perception about the cosmetic use of pesticides. Since Rachel Carson first sounded the alarm about DDT in 1962, environmentalists have expressed their concern that anything that can kill other living organisms must also have an impact on human health.

They have patiently gathered evidence while encouraging the scientific community to do the same. They have tried to persuade the cancer establishment that the goal shouldn't be to beat cancer - it should be to prevent it. They have educated their neighbours about the safe alternatives to pesticides and have endured the wrath of the major chemical companies that felt threatened by their efforts.

After years of little perceptible movement on this issue, the walls of the pesticide establishment are beginning to fall down. Last year, after a 10-year legal battle, The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously upheld the town of Hudson, Que.'s right to legislate the use of pesticides. In handing down its decision, the court also encouraged other municipalities to follow the Hudson example within the broad domain of Canadian and international law.

The Supreme Court's decision immediately opened a floodgate of political activity across the country. Hundreds of municipalities that were awaiting the Hudson decision are now proceeding with their own pesticide legislation.

The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) has also made what appears to be a shift in its policy toward pesticides. Moving away from the "Cancer Can Be Beaten" philosophy - its trademark for decades - the CCS is beginning to recognize the importance of the precautionary principle states, "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or to the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."

In a Pesticide Symposium held last month in Caledon, the CCS gave this statement: "The Canadian Cancer Society does not support the use of carcinogenic chemical pesticides for cosmetic purposes. The Canadian Cancer Society accepts convincing evidence that some commonly used pesticides cause cancer. We call for a ban on the use for cosmetic purposes of chemicals that have been identified by IARC (International Agency on Research on Cancer) as known or probable carcinogens."

Much of this "convincing evidence" has come from cancer patients themselves. While struggling with their own disease, they have fought to prevent others from suffering the same fate.

One such crusader was Dr. Nicole Bruinsma, a family doctor from Chelsea, Que., who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. Bruinsma began to make the connection between her disease and pesticides after viewing the documentary, Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer. What she learned drove her to spearhead efforts in her own community and throughout Canada. Last year an article about Bruinsma in Saturday Night magazine caught the attention of Peter Cantley, head of lawn and garden supplies for Loblaws.

What followed is nothing short of a modern-day corporate miracle. Last week, in a news release that has delighted health and environmental activists across the country, Loblaw Companies Limited announced that it will be chemical-pesticide-free by 2003 in all of its 440 garden stores across Canada.

"In response to overwhelming consumer demand to eliminate cosmetic use of pesticides in home gardens, Loblaw Companies Limited has decided to discontinue the sale of chemical pesticides in our garden centres, starting with the Spring season 2003", Loblaw spokesperson Geoff Wilson said.

Sadly, the catalyst for Loblaw's decision didn't live to hear the company's announcement. Bruinsma died on February 27, 2002 at the age of 42.

Meanwhile, in our National Capital, Bruinsma's legacy and the legacy of those who inspired her lives on. Forty years after Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published, the federal government finally announced its long awaited legislation to limit use of pesticides late last month.

Excerpt from the Western Catholic Reporter, April 8th, 2002 edition