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Challenging a lack of transparency and accountability in chlorpyrifos phase-out

Safe Food Matters and Prevent Cancer Now v. Attorney General of Canada and Minister of Health

June 14, 2021

Chlorpyrifos is a dangerous pesticide that is sprayed on crops such as wheat and potatoes and is used to kill mosquitos. Mounting scientific data shows the chemical poses serious risks to human health. It is notorious for its potential to cause brain damage in children. Chlorpyrifos exposure can happen through the air, skin, food, drinking water or at the workplace. Studies have shown that ninety-nine per cent of people in Canada have significant levels of this toxic chemical in their bodies. 

In May 2021, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) announced that the registration of chlorpyrifos would be cancelled. However, the Agency allowed it to continue to be used and sold over three years (until December 2023). This decision fell behind pesticide regulations in the European Union where chlorpyrifos can no longer be sold and used.  The decision to phase-out pesticides allows them to be used up instead of safely disposed of, which benefits chemical companies who save on disposal and recall costs and allows users to stockpile this dangerous product. 

Health Canada’s delayed action to protect Canadians from chlorpyrifos underscores broader issues with how toxic pesticides are managed in Canada. Documents obtained by Ecojustice reveal that the PMRA repeatedly ignored warnings from its own scientists about the health risks posed by chlorpyrifos, with red flags being raised as far back as 2008.   

The agency buried a drinking water model that showed that there were risks to children, and stalled review of the pesticide for close to 20 years while continually disregarding mounting concerns about potential contamination in drinking water dating back many years. These alarming health concerns were never shared publicly until they were released as part of the lawsuit. 

Ecojustice, on behalf of Safe Food Matters and Prevent Cancer Now, launched a lawsuit challenging the extended phaseout. As a result of this lawsuit, Health Canada admitted it acted unreasonably and conceded that the phaseout decision should be set aside.   

Rather than addressing the concerns raised by the lawsuit, the agency instead released a second phaseout decision in December 2021, which maintained the same extended phaseout until December 2023. At the same time, Health Canada announced that it would review the phase-out policy. Canada stands alone in finding that chlorpyrifos poses a “low risk” and the decision lacked supporting evidence. Ecojustice and its clients again challenged the PMRA’s phaseout decision in court.  

CropLife, Canada’s biggest chemical company lobby intervened to defend delayed phase-outs of pesticides. Justice for Migrant Workers intervened to highlight the inability of Health Canada to determine that the product was safe for workers. 

 In November 2023, the court ultimately ruled the PMRA’s second decision was reasonable without addressing the extensive alarms raised by Health Canada’s own scientists, or the recent findings of the international Stockholm convention, which determined that chlorpyrifos is likely to lead to “significant adverse health and environmental effects such that global action is warranted.” Health Canada has not yet initiated the review of the phase-out policy. 

Health Canada put the interests of the chemical industry above the health of Canadians and the environment with its decision to phase-out chlorpyrifos over three-years. Rather than safely disposing of remaining stocks of chlorpyrifos, the chemical continued to be sprayed on crops, causing potential contamination to drinking water and food. The decision also protected pesticide companies from needing to buy back and dispose of unusable products. All the while, people in Canada continued to be exposed to chlorpyrifos contamination. 

Canadians have a right to know how Health Canada makes decisions about toxic chemicals that impact our health and the environment. Rather than disregarding science and catering to industry interests, Health Canada must act proactively to protect the health of people in Canada and the environment. 

Canada’s decision to allow a three-year phase out for the toxic chemical, despite the health concerns posed by this product actively put the health of people in Canada at risk from continued chlorpyrifos exposure. Although Canada’s ban on chlorpyrifos will take effect at the end of December 2023, people in Canada remain at risk of exposure to this dangerous chemical from imported foods. 

Ecojustice will continue to advocate for restrictions on food imports containing chlorpyrifos through other Health Canada processes. We are also submitting Health Canada’s secretive drinking water modeling to the secretariat of the Stockholm Convention in support of a global ban of chlorpyrifos. 

Dec 2023
An aerial view of farmland. Two tractors harvest crops in the field.

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An aerial view of farmland. Two tractors harvest crops in the field.
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Chlorpyrifos phase-out highlights systemic issues with Health Canada’s management of toxic pesticides 

Toxic chemical is banned in EU and US and is known to cause brain damage in children   Toronto, Ont.
Feb 2022
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Chlorpyrifos and the trouble with how Canada manages dangerous pesticides

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Jan 2022
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Lawsuit slams lack of transparency in Health Canada’s management of chlorpyrifos

PMRA sticks to three-year phaseout despite evidence chlorpyrifos causes brain damage in children  OTTAWA/TRADITIONAL, UNCEDED TERRITORY OF THE ALGONQUIN ANISHNAABEG PEOPLE — Ecojustice, on behalf of Safe Food Matters and Prevent Cancer Now, is headed to court to fight for greater transparency, consistency, and accountability in how Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) makes decisions.
Jun 2021
Healthy crops in a field
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Groups going to court to stop continued use of dangerous pesticide

Chlorpyrifos should be banned immediately  OTTAWA/TRADITIONAL, UNCEDED TERRITORY OF THE ALGONQUIN ANISHNAABEG PEOPLE – Ecojustice, on behalf of Safe Food Matters and Prevent Cancer Now, has launched a judicial review of Health Canada’s decision to allow a three-year phase-out of the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos, following its announcement on May 13, 2021 that chlorpyrifos’ use and.