Prevent Cancer: The Pesticide Connection

We know that up to 50% of cancers can be prevented by healthy living and healthy public policies. More and more, people are making the connection between cancer and the environment. Protecting ourselves and our families from cosmetic (non-essential) pesticide exposure is an example of a healthy public policy that is good for us, good for the environment and popular with the public. In Nanaimo alone, 80% of residents said they would support our municipal government passing a bylaw phasing out the use of cosmetic pesticides on private and public properties.

When pesticides are used simply to enhance the appearance of lawns and gardens, it is referred to as the cosmetic or ornamental use of pesticides. Pesticides include a wide array of chemicals from bug spray to weed killers that are available over-the-counter or as special formulations not readily available to the public.

There is growing scientific evidence linking pesticide exposure to both adult and childhood cancers. That list includes adult and childhood leukemias, childhood brain cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, neuroblastoma, prostate cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer and some lung cancers.

Young children are more vulnerable to the effects of pesticide exposure because of their developing immune systems, proximity to lawns and for very young children, their habit of putting their hands in their mouths.

For these reasons the Canadian Cancer Society (, along with many other organizations and concerned citizens, is advocating for the passage of municipal bylaws restricting the cosmetic use of pesticides. Key to any successful regulation of pesticide use is education. We need to know there are alternatives and we need to engage in changing expectations and habits about what is considered a beautiful or healthy garden or lawn.

A recent conversation with a girlfriend of mine highlighted the importance of education if we are going to realize real change in the amount of pesticides in our lives. As an environmental educator and a parent of two young children, she is concerned about the human health hazards and damage to our environment that the use of toxic substances can pose. She wanted to share with her father the fact that Nanaimo (along with other Island communities) is considering passing a bylaw that would restrict what chemical products we can use on our home lawns and gardens.

On our next meeting, she laughed, shaking her head in disbelief. His reply to her raising the pesticide bylaw issue was: "Does this mean I’ll have to stop spraying your mom’s bamboo with herbicides?” Yes, Dad, that’s what it would mean. As with any dimension of human activity, there are social meanings attached to pesticide use. What my friend wanted to convey to her father was that, out of concern for her children’s health, she would like for her father to not use toxic lawn and garden products. But she appreciates that she has to factor in his current beliefs and habits to find some common ground (her kid’s health) to get the conversation going.

If this is an issue you would like to take action on, I would invite you to engage your family, friends and neighbours in a conversation about why we need to stop using chemical pesticides on our lawns and gardens.

Things you can do to cultivate a cosmetic-pesticide free community:
Examine your own gardening habits: Do you use weed and feed products (combination herbicide/fertilizer) on your lawn or other chemical formulations to maintain your lawn and garden? If so, there are non-toxic alternative products and practices that will help you go pesticide free. Visit our website for tips and links to more information.

1. Distribute a "Dear Neighbour” letter (available on our website) in your neighbourhood to raise awareness of the hazards of pesticide use.

2. Send a letter to your mayor and council informing them you would like to see a strong cosmetic pesticide bylaw passed in your city (visit our website for a letter template) 3. Join Pesticide Abatement Nanaimo, email for more information and to join our mailing list.

4. Visit our web site: for toxic-free gardening tips and information about upcoming meetings and events.

Adriane Schroeder is the Canadian Cancer Society’s Community Action Coordinator for Vancouver Island and a member of the Pesticide Abatement Nanaimo Coalition.