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PEI: Pesticide Exposure Island

By Sharon Labchuk

PHOTO: Potato producer spraying pesticides next to tourist cottages. Note the children’s playground equipment in the background.

Even the most conservative health professionals recommend we reduce our exposure to pesticides. And many Canadians have – after forcing their provincial governments to ban cosmetic lawn pesticides. But in Prince Edward Island, the most intensively sprayed province in the country according to Environment Canada, people inhale a cocktail of cancer-causing agricultural pesticides with every breath.

It’s been that way for decades and in spite of citizen agitation, massive fish kills, bad press and high cancer rates, government continues to support and subsidize farmers and the agriculture industry. The main crop in PEI is potatoes and much of it is processed into greasy, fattening, heart-clogging frozen products like french fries and sold under the McCain and Cavendish Farms brands.

The problem with potatoes is their susceptibility to potato blight when they’re grown in industrial monocultures. Blight spores floating in the air will land on leaf surfaces and if the weather conditions are warm and humid – typical of PEI summers – the spores proliferate and kill the plants. Industrial growers deal with this by keeping potato plants continually coated in a layer of pesticide so that blight spores are killed on contact.

These pesticides are three fungicides and represent 80% of PEI agricultural pesticide use, by weight of active ingredient. All three – mancozeb, chlorothalonil and metiram – are classed as carcinogens by various agencies, including the State of California on its list of “Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer or Reproductive Toxicity”.

Compounding the problem is the population density of PEI. Everyone lives near a potato field. In the late 1980’s when subsidies were rampant, the number of potato acres increased by 70%. All of a sudden potatoes were grown in municipalities, next to schools, daycares and tourist cottages, and near almost every home in rural PEI. Fields are sprayed more than 20 times most summers, mainly to keep plants coated in poison.

The spray blows around on the wind and vapourizes from leaf surfaces for days after spraying so the air remains contaminated throughout the growing season. Environment Canada tested the air and found it was laced with pesticides, even in their control area on the end of a wharf away from potato fields. Chlorothalonil, especially, was found everywhere and in very high concentrations.

Inhalation isn’t the only avenue of exposure. Because the spray drifts and contaminated soil blows in the wind, the chemicals can end up in dust inside homes and on playground equipment, outdoor furniture, lawns and clothes on the line.

PEI is 100% dependent on groundwater for drinking water but the soil is sandy and overlies fractured sandstone bedrock, making the water highly vulnerable to contamination from above. Virtually all PEI groundwater is contaminated with nitrate, mostly from chemical fertilizer applied to potato fields. It’s been a serious problem for decades but government refuses to rein in the agriculture industry. Even if the use of chemical fertilizer ended today, it would take decades for the water to clear up. A Royal Commission on the Land in 1990 called nitrates in PEI water a “ticking time bomb”. Increasingly, exposure to nitrate-contaminated water is linked to cancer risk.

One doctor, new to the province, tried to draw attention to the high level of rare childhood cancers he observed in his patients in western PEI, a heavily sprayed potato region. He said in a Globe and Mail interview that he had never seen anything like the cancer in PEI. He eventually left the Island in frustration and sadness when government and the medical community gave him the brush off.

People in cities are worried about the amount of pesticide that might be on their food – and rightly so. But here in rural PEI, we breathe the poison right off the sprayers. Our drinking water is contaminated with nitrates and there is no reason not to believe that pesticides are also making their way into our water.

Successive PEI governments enable the contamination of our air, water, soil, and food with cancer-causing chemicals. They brag about building new cancer treatment facilities, but in May the sprayers will be out again, bold as brass, spraying their toxic loads into the air we breathe, knowing that government backs them every step of the way.

Sharon Labchuk is the coordinator of Earth Action and leader of the Green Party of PEI. Sharon is also a former member of the PCN Board.

Also in the Spring 2012 Issue of An Ounce

Published: May 14th, 2012