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‘False sense of security’: B.C. scientist quits as national pesticide watchdog

Pesticide regulation ‘obsolete,’ protects industry, scientific adviser says in resignation
An independent scientific adviser has resigned from a Health Canada committee on pesticide management, citing a lack of transparency and scientific oversight. A giant Canadian flag hangs on the side of a government office building in downtown Ottawa, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The co-chair of Canada’s scientific advisory committee has resigned his post over concerns about a lack of transparency and scientific oversight in pesticide management.

Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University, stepped down as the co-chair of the Health Canada scientific advisory committee on pest control products on June 27.

In his three-page resignation letter, Lanphear said he worries the committee, and his role as co-chair, “provides a false sense of security” that Health Canada is protecting Canadians from toxic pesticides.

“Based on my experience over the past year, I cannot provide that assurance,” he wrote in the letter to the director general of the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, an arm of Health Canada.

The committee gives Health Canada independent scientific advice on the health and environmental risks of pesticides, and does evaluations for new products and reviews.

It launched in July 2022 as part of a reform effort to improve transparency at the regulatory agency and has so far met five times.

Lanphear said the table of scientists had a more limited role and scope of work than the agency’s other advisory board, the pest management advisory council, which includes members of the pesticide industry.

Given the wider role of industry advisers, he wrote he had “little or no confidence” the science committee could help the agency “become more transparent or assure that Canadians are protected from toxic pesticides.”

In a statement, Health Canada said the Pest Management Regulatory Agency takes its role as a regulator seriously and the pesticide review process “remains fully rooted in science.”

The two advisory committees have different roles, the department said. While the science table is expected to give scientific and technical advice to help the agency make evidence-based decisions, the pest management advisory council advises the health minister on policies and issues related to pest management.

“This is a council of people whose interests and concerns are affected by this act and currently include pesticide manufacturers, growers, environmental and health groups, and individuals from academia or with relevant expertise,” the department said.

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency takes the advice of both committees into consideration but is responsible for all decisions.

Lanphear said he struggled to get certain data and answers from Health Canada staff about contentious products and how the department monitors exposure to toxic pesticides.

In one example, he said he asked how Health Canada uses biomonitoring studies — which look at human exposure to chemicals — in its decision making, but never received an “adequate answer.”

In another, he asked to review the 1970 approval process for the controversial insecticide chlorpyrifos, which is now being phased out in Canada. The goal was to look at the original approval and compare it to data gathered over the following decades.

Concerns about the effects of chlorpyrifos were raised in human studies for decades before it was banned by Health Canada. The insecticide can have several effects on the nervous system, ranging from headaches and blurred vision to comas and death.

“My requests — which were amplified by other scientific advisory committee members — were denied,” he wrote. He said legal constraints may have prevented the committee from looking at contentious pesticides, raising questions about transparency.

His parting words were a call for a complete overhaul of the “obsolete” way Canada regulates pesticides in Canada.

The regulatory agency relies mainly on toxicological studies, which are typically done in a lab, over human studies, he said.

“It is convenient to rely on toxicological studies because they conform to existing methods used by (the Pest Management Regulatory Agency) but many regulatory decisions have been upended by human studies,” he said.

Situations where approved pesticides are later proven to be toxic have convinced him that Canada “can no longer continue to rely on an obsolete regulatory system that protects the pesticide industry more than it protects Canadians.”

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