Chronicles

Chemical Use
By Mike Lushington

    In last week's column, I initiated discussion on the recent Ontario College of Physicians report on the dangers of chemical uses in the home and around private properties. I indicated that this group was, in effect, issuing a serious warning to users of such products because of what they considered to be overwhelming evidence of their hazards to health, particularly to children.

    Predictably, the response from the producers of these products was swift. Within a day of the release, I heard several opinion pieces on the radio as well as an interview with one of the spokesmen for the industry. It came as no surprise that he was defending these products. However, I found his comments sad as well as predictable. I found them sad because one of his most important lines of defence was that these products are tested and regulated by Health Canada and, to paraphrase his remarks, "Everyone knows that Health Canada would not approve the use of a product if there were the slightest possibility that it was hazardous to the public."

    Would that that were true! Unfortunately, I have a long memory and I remember the same arguments being put forth in defence of Dioxins and Fenitrothion (sp?), of Malathion and other agricultural pesticides in the 1970's and 1980's. I assume that the same "rigorous" testing applied to the original licensing of DDT in the 1960's. (All of this is not to mention the similar processes that led to the uses of Thalidomide, again, as memory serves, in the 1960's) In each of these cases, and, tragically, in a great many others over the years, Health Canada and its predecessors have always come down firmly on the side of the producer and not on the side of the potential consumer or the innocent bystander. It is only when serious health problems begin to emerge that it takes action to remove the product from the market.

    Health Canada and the producers both insist that these products are "safe when used as directed." I go out and buy some noxious poison to kill dandelions on my lawn. I read the directions and take all of the appropriate care in applying it. Then I take a few little signs and stick them into my lawn, supposedly to inform everyone that I have used this product and that due care should be exercised by everyone else in the area. Unfortunately my neighbour's dog doesn't read very well. He comes over to investigate something that is of interest to him, rolls around for awhile and then returns home where he is patted, tousled, and played with by the children in that house. Or the children themselves, who may not read very well either, or who may not take the time to read, pass by and pick up the residue from my carefully applied treatment. Or a heavy, unpredicted rain comes along and flushes a good deal of it into the water table where it runs into my neighbour's well. Or ... Or ... Or...!

    The Ontario physicians did not issue this report lightly or carelessly. Together the members of the committee reviewed some 12 000 reports dealing with the hazardous uses of domestic chemicals. They based their findings and their cautions on what they considered to be the most important, the most detailed and well documented 250 of them. For anyone, from Health Canada or from the chemical industry itself, to dismiss this report as being "one-sided" or "unfair" or "biased" is acting in a way that can only be described as criminally irresponsible. The fact that their response was so easily predictable only illustrates the old agage that those who ignore the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them.

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