The Mother Of Canada’s Pesticide Bans Leaves Mixed Legacy


Dr. June Irwin, a practicing dermatologist who tended a 79-acre farm populated with chickens, sheep and geese, died this past June 22 at the age of 83. Irwin is more famous (notorious in some circles) for other reasons, of course.

She was the individual in Hudson in Quebec Province, that sparked the movement that eventually led to the banning of practically all commonly-used lawn care chemicals in much of Canada.

Irwin, beginning in the 1980s, campaigned relentlessly — writing letters, contacting newspapers and appearing at government hearings — warning of the health dangers associated with lawn care pesticides.

Mostly at her urging, in 1991 Hudson passed a bylaw banning residential pesticides. The action by this community of 3,000 people located just west of Montreal turned out to have far-reaching consequences. It was the spark that dramatically changed the chemical lawn care industry in much of Canada.

And this in spite of efforts by the lawn care industry, supported by product manufacturers, to squelch it before it spread.

In 1993, two lawn care companies, ChemLawn and Spray Tech Lawn Care sued Hudson to strike down the bylaw. But it wasn’t until December 2000 that the case reached the Supreme Court and that following June they voted unanimously to uphold Hudson’s bylaw.

By that time, more than 35 other Quebec municipalities had passed similar bylaws. The anti-lawn care movement got another huge boost in 2008 when the Province of Ontario, by far the most populous region in Canada, prohibited 80 lawn care chemicals and 300 products that experts say pose a potential health risk.

Since then other communities in Canada have debated the health effects of lawn care chemicals – some municipalities instituting bans even in the face of studies showing the safety of commonly used products such as 2,4-D.

Although confining herself mostly to her practice and her farm, June Irwin nevertheless became an environmental hero thanks a 70-minute documentary video named “A Chemical Reaction,” that chronicled her efforts by organic lawn care activist, author, filmmaker, etc. Paul Tukey.

News of Irwin’s passing unleashed a barrage of articles and commentaries lauding her efforts on behalf of the environment and health of Canada’s citizens.

This comes in spite of solid evidence based on study after study that the products outlawed in much of Canada do not present an unacceptable risk to the environment or humans. Many of these same products are still commonly used on golf courses and on farmland while they are outlawed for lawn care.

Also lost in the praise for Dr. Irwin, although undeniably sincere and passionate in her beliefs, is the harm resulting from her efforts to the Canadian lawn care industry in terms of size, revenues and jobs.

Add to that the increased costs and labor needed to maintain attractive parks and sports fields, not to mention residential and commercial lawns and landscapes, and it’s not difficult to understand why not everybody is enamored with her legacy.

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  1. It would be interesting to look at the productivity, revenue and net profit growth for landscape companies in Canada since the legislation was enacted. I would guess that landscape care companies are more profitable than ever and that the “industry” concern about inability to apply these kinds of products is borne more from the suppliers side than the appliers side. As longstanding green industry members, many of us are tired of the manipulative advertorial screeds that wholly support any and all ‘legal’ chemical applications, bemoan any restrictions and deride public concerns. As environmental stewards, many of us would like to see ‘our’ trade magazines take a reasoned and open-minded stand regarding these issues, rather than siding with RISE and serving really as industry shills. While I will normally and wholeheartedly support the foremost Landscape organization nationally, I found the recent NALP announcement in support of the new EPA head very disturbing. I can’t understand why we, as Landscape industry members, cannot support any kind of lawn and landscape chemical regulation. We would all agree that these kind of chemicals need to be treated very carefully and understood fully, applied by trained professionals and used with an IPM understanding. The most disturbing development to me about this is not that the chemicals are used, but that we have lost our true voice and allowed ourselves to be manipulated into an environment in which these kinds of products are presented as a panacea. Their regulation in any form is condemned by people that purport to represent us, while the glories of their use are lauded in trade magazines that claim to reflect our thinking. The overflowing endcap displays at the big box stores each Spring market myriad poisons to the public to be used without any real care or training. Our support as environmental stewards for magazines and manufacturers that resist any and all regulation, point out a distorted and unreasonable marketplace. It’s a shame and a scandal that our own state landscape (WALP in Washington) and national organizations (NALP) represent more fully the characteristics of the chemical industry on this issue than the workers that pay dues to support them. Witness the the recent “Landscape industry” applause for the new EPA head, a person that takes the helm only to then take steps to destroy the agency that he is appointed to manage. Where is the editorial outrage? Nowhere to be found. We’d hate, after all – to bite the hand that feeds us.

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