It's hard to wrap your head around pesticide talk when all things green have long been withering under a thick crust of ice, but let's. Especially since lindane, the pesticide in question, has a penchant for drifting into northern countries and lodging itself in the fatty tissue of animals and people, and the company that distributes it is aggressively fighting to have Canada's ban on the DDT-like seed coating overturned.
The situation might not trigger a great deal of alarm if environmentalists had much faith in the agency whose job it is to defend the ban. But just last week the Sierra Club of Canada walked away from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency's (PMRA) official review of the persistent pollutant, saying the hearing is shamefully stacked in favour of the U.S. based pesticide company, Crompton Corp.
The group says fears of a NAFTA lawsuit might be influencing the Health Canada offshoot agency's position on the seizure-inducing pesticide. Indeed, Crompton seems so confident of its imminent success in coercing Canuck regulators, it's already claiming victory.
So while the review board deliberates about whether the agency was wrong to ban the toxin in the first place, one question hangs in the air: is Canada's historically secretive and chemical-friendly pesticide regulator capable of standing up to corporate interests and doing what's right? ***
It you don't know it by name, you know its work. For the last half-century, lindane has been used on everything from California cucumbers to Canadian corn. Its main use on our side of the border has been in preventing beetle larvae from borrowing through our top crops (prized grains like wheat, canola, oats and barley) by "treating" the seeds. Then evidence started pouring in about lindane's downside. The substance was linked to poisonings, seizures and breast cancer. Soon it was recognized internationally as a persistent neurotoxin that doesn't readily break down and builds up in the food chain. Treaties targeted its reduction. Major canola processors started raising their eyebrows over lindane residues. And by the end of the 1990s, the U.S. outlawed its use on canola, joining 33 countries that have restricted the substance for various crops and 52 that have banned it outright.
That's when Canadian canola growers started having trouble selling their potentially lindane-contaminated goods south of the border and pressured the PMRA to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, it was time for us to consider banning the pesticide, too.
Now, five years later, all our crops have been lindane-free for, oh, about a month (though, strangely enough, it's still permitted in lice shampoos) and we're already ensnared in efforts to overturn the ban.
Turns out Crompton has asked for a new review of the PMRA's decision before an independent tribunal. Trouble is, say activists, the tribunal doesn't seem all that independent.
Of its three members, one runs an American consulting firm with plenty of litigation experience in defending pesticide company data. And another, a Canadian scientist, has been quoted defending the safety of both DDT and the much-maligned bovine growth hormone. "The selection of the review board was a mystery to everyone," says Sierra Club environment campaigner Katie Albright.
But why would the PMRA, which chose the board, shoot itself in the foot, selecting pesticide-friendly board members who would presumably side with Crompton and recommend overturning the agency's own ban? Sounds a smudge twisted.
Albright blames it all on the Chapter 11 suit Crompton initiated over the lindane ban before it asked for the new review back in 2002.
"It's had an effect in terms of the creation of the board and who's on it. I think the fact that [the lawsuit] is there slightly adjusts the decision-making for the whole process."
Of course, the PMRA denies the allegation, saying the selection of the tribunal members was based strictly on their experience in the field. Coincidence or not, the panel members aren't the only thing the company has going for it.
Turns out the hearing is so narrow in focus that it's only mandated to weigh material in one area, occupational risk. All the other evidence related to its persistence in the environment, bioaccumulation in the food chain and general health risks used to back other countries' bans isn't admissible.
Aarin Bronson, a spokesperson for the PMRA, says these restrictions weren't the agency's call, but rather the review board's. Marvellous. Bronson adds that the narrow spotlight does, however, reflect the scope of the PMRA'S original lindane review of 1999, which led to the ban. "[At the time] we identified a particular concern for workers handling these seeds during treatment," explains Bronson.
Now Crompton is hinging its case on what it says was an inadequate investigation of lindane. "We had expected a [complete] review of the product, and they didn't perform that assessment," says Mary Ann Dunnell, Crompton's VP of corporate and investor relations. "The PMRA did not meet its side of the bargain."
No doubt the company has a vested interest in making sure it wins - but its motivation goes well beyond accessing the Canadian market.
"From Crompton's perspective, if it can reverse that decision in Canada, it makes it much easier for the re-registration of lindane for canola use in the U.S.," says the Pesticide Action Network's Kristin Shafer. The U.S., after all, is one of the only Western countries that still allows the use of lindane on its crops, with the exception of canola. And the company is pulling out all the stops to reverse that ban, too.
For its part, the PMRA says that even if the review board sides with Crompton, the agency isn't bound to overturn the ban. It's simply, says Bronson, a recommendation.
Even so, says Albright, "the fact that a recommendation has been made would provide evidence for Crompton's NAFTA suit."
And that, critics say, is a legal battle the pesticide agency seems much too eager to avoid.