Posted on January 24, 2022 (updated: January 24, 2022)

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

Healthy crops in a field
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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 regarding harmful chemicals that impact the health of Canadians. 

In a lawsuit filed on Thursday, the groups challenge the PMRA’s Second Phaseout Decision regarding the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos. This decision maintains the three-year phaseout period set out in a previous decision from the PMRA, also being challenged by the groups in court. By maintaining the three-year phaseout, chlorpyrifos pest control products will continue to be used, including on food, until December 2023. 

Health Canada first cancelled all uses of chlorpyrifos in May 2021 with a three-year phaseout, due to a failure of registrants to provide essential human health data for determining exposure risks to Canadians. Completed risk assessments in Europe and the United States relied on this data to find that the risks were unacceptable. Despite this, the PMRA never completed their own human health risk assessment and allowed the product to be used on imported foods indefinitely and on Canadian grown foods until December 2023. There is an ongoing lawsuit challenging that decision.  

As a result of the previously existing lawsuit, the PMRA admitted it acted unreasonably and that the first phaseout decision should be set aside. The PMRA has also recently agreed to review its cancellation policies and amended the way it displays cancelled products on the public registry. 

The groups say the PMRA’s second phaseout decision for chlorpyrifos highlights contradictions, inconsistencies, and a lack of transparency in the agency’s decision-making process. Among other issues, the groups say:  

  • The PMRA ignored laws and policies on required risk assessment methodology, relying on the serious and imminent risk standard to justify a three-year phaseout of chlorpyrifos rather than the reasonable certainty of no harm standard of the Pest Control Products Act, which is applicable and has a higher evaluation threshold.  
  • The decision relies on an outdated 2000 dietary risk assessment which PMRA scientists repeatedly questioned the validity of. 
  • A drinking water assessment conducted by PMRA scientists identified unacceptable risks to human health. This assessment was not factored into the decision and the assessment has been hidden from the public. 
  • The second phaseout decision further contradicts findings from PRMA staff about the pesticide’s unacceptable risks to human health, as well as the serious limitations of the information before the PMRA. 
  • The PMRA’s rationale dismisses the relevance and applicability of the United States EPA and European Food Safety Authority risk assessments (where the use of chlorpyrifos on food has subsequently been banned).  

The groups released the following statements: 

Laura Bowman, lawyer, Ecojustice said: 

Canadians have a right to know how decisions are made regarding harmful chemicals that impact our environment and public health. 

Exposure to chlorpyrifos can pose serious risks to human health. It is notorious for its potential to cause brain damage in children.Health Canada already knows that chlorpyrifos is dangerous, yet it decided to allow the use of this dangerous toxic chemical on Canadian food until December 2023, a decision that ignores the state of the science on this ingredient. 

“The PMRA has a disturbing history and pattern of contradicting its internal scientific assessments and cherry-picking evidence to support its desired outcome. We are going to court to fight for the accountability and transparency Canadians deserve from their government.” 

Mary Lou McDonald, president, Safe Food Matters remarked: 

“The PMRA dropped the ball on doing a proper risk assessment of chlorpyrifos, then moved to cancel it on a technicality. When we challenged their decision, they admitted they messed up, so now they want a ‘Do-Over.’ They have created brand new, reverse-engineered reasons to allow ‘cancelled’ chlorpyrifos to be used in Canada for a three-year phaseout period.  

“This is deplorable behaviour from our regulator who is supposed to be protecting Canadians. It keeps a dangerous chemical, neurotoxic to infants, on the market. We hope that our case and PMRA’s new ‘Transformation Agenda’ will bring us a new PMRA; one that can actually assess pesticides in a timely fashion, then act quickly to take them off the market when needed. This foot-dragging has got to stop.” 

Meg Sears, chairperson, Prevent Cancer Now stated: 

Chlorpyrifos is one of many nerve agents from World War II chemistry, that causes long term human harms starting before birth, during development, through to later years. It is unscientific, illogical, not precautionary, and does not protect public health to conclude that three years of continuing exposure is acceptable, without properly assessing risks to health. A regulatory loophole is being used to act only on the basis of ‘imminent’ risk. This practice disregards cancers and chronic diseases. 

“As the PMRA and the Pest Control Products Act are revisited in 2022, we hope to see a shift to timely reassessments with adequate data, and rapid phase-outs making way for least-toxic pest control strategies.” 

Background 

Chlorpyrifos is an extremely controversial organophosphate pesticide. During the past two decades it has become more and more clear that chlorpyrifos poses dangers to both human health and the environment. Most notably, it has become notorious for its potential to cause brain damage in children at low levels. 

In Canada, chlorpyrifos is commonly used on crops such as wheat, garlic, canola and potatoes.The continued use of chlorpyrifos puts Canadians at risk through residues on food and the presence of the pesticide in drinking water. Farm workers in Canada are also at an increased risk of exposure to the pesticide.  

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) has been re-evaluating the use of chlorpyrifos since 1999 and has already restricted its use in certain circumstances due to the dangers the pesticide poses to human health. 

On May 13, 2021 the PMRA decided to cancel all uses of chlorpyrifos. Despite acknowledging that the pesticide is harmful to human health, Health Canada gave chemical manufacturers and the agricultural industry three years (until December 2023) to phase out the and use of this toxic chemical. Ecojustice, on behalf of Safe Food Matters and Prevent Cancer Now, challenged this decision in court, calling instead for an immediate cancellation of chlorpyrifos. 

The Second Phaseout Decision released in December 2021, purports to replace or ‘supersede’ the First Phaseout Decision and ‘confirm’ it; the decision maintains the same extended phaseout until December 2023. The first decision had no supporting reasons. The second decision provides a risk management rationale, based on a lack of serious and imminent risks. 

The groups are now challenging the second decision, arguing the PMRA’s choice to continue with a three-year phaseout is unreasonable because the PMRA misapprehended the evidence available to the agency and reverse-engineered a decision.  

In January 2020, the European Union decided not to renew the approvals of chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos-methyl. The decision was based on evidence related to human health impacts including possible genotoxicity and developmental neurotoxicity.In August 2021, the United States Environmental Protection Agency announced it would stop the use of chlorpyrifos on all food to better protect human health. 

Health Canada has never conducted a complete risk assessment of chlorpyrifos that included information on food residues, diet and drinking water. Chlorpyrifos manufacturers failed to provide the required human health data on some uses for 13 years. Health Canada did not move to update its human health risk assessment until other major OECD countries had banned or proposed major bans of chlorpyrifos. When Health Canada asked for the data that was used in the European and US assessments it was not provided. 

For media inquiries

Zoryana Cherwick, communications specialist | Ecojustice
1-800-926-7744 ext. 277, zcherwick@ecojustice.ca  

Meg Sears, Chairperson | Prevent Cancer Now
1-613 297-6042 (Phone or Text) 

Media Relations| Safe Food Matters Inc.
905 467-8531, SafeFoodMatters@gmail.com 

 

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