As originally published by The Grower, August 2020.
Pests such as insects, diseases, and weeds can affect our quality of life in many different ways. Pests can represent a threat to public health and the environment as well as create substantial negative impacts to the economy if they are not sufficiently managed.
Crop protection products or pesticides play an important role in agriculture and other sectors in managing pests. These products can be very broad in scope; they include, as defined by the federal government:
While dealing with pests is an important aspect of society, crop protection products can also represent a hazard. If not properly managed, their use has the potential to pose risks to the health and well-being of Canadians and to our environment. As such, crop protection products are highly regulated. So how do we ensure the safety of these products in Canada?
The federal government has the responsibility of reviewing and registering pest management products before they can be sold or used in Canada. This is covered by the Pest Control Products Act (PCPA). The primary objective of the PCPA is the prevention of unacceptable risks to human health and the environment resulting from the use of these products. The PCPA also recognizes that pest management is an important factor to both the economy and quality of life in Canada; however, these are considered secondary objectives to health and the environment.
It is the mission of the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) based in Ottawa to execute the implementation of the PCPA and its objectives. Of the 450 employees at PMRA, 73% are scientists, including biologists, toxicologists, epidemiologists, and chemists. Evaluations of products by PMRA are extensive and use a weight of evidence approach that considers the nature and quality of scientific sources in their decision making.
Before the PMRA approves any product for use, regardless of origin, it must undergo a thorough science-based risk assessment and meet strict health and environmental standards. If the proposed use of a product poses unacceptable risks to human health or the environment, it is not registered for use in Canada. It is the responsibility of the company or individual seeking registration to prove their product does not pose unacceptable risks through scientific studies.
During evaluation or re-evaluation of a product, PMRA considers a comprehensive toxicology database to assess potential health effects. Both shorter term and longer-term effects are considered. These include, but are not limited to, studies to characterize acute and chronic toxicity, carcinogenic potential, reproductive and developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, genotoxicity, and endocrine disruption potential. The PMRA assessments are also informed by epidemiological evidence, general scientific knowledge, and published scientific information.
In exposure assessments, sensitive populations and life stages are specifically addressed, including infants, children, and women of child-bearing age. Consideration is given to different activities, dietary habits, food intake, and body weight of children versus adults. A product will only be registered if this estimated exposure raises no concerns. Once this is determined, the PMRA will ensure the label directions indicate the appropriate use instructions to best minimize exposure.
Exposure to a product may occur through different routes (oral, dermal, and inhalation) and pathways (dietary, drinking water, and non-commercial uses). In order to fully assess potential risks, the PMRA conducts aggregate assessments which consider these different pathways and routes. Where it has been demonstrated that a group of pesticides share a common mechanism of toxicity, they are subject to a cumulative risk assessment in which the combined aggregate risks are assessed. In occupational settings such as agriculture and forestry, exposure may occur while handling or applying pesticides. As well, workers re-entering treated areas may be exposed to pesticide residues. These occupational risks are also assessed during the PMRA review.
The PMRA also sets science-based maximum residue limits (MRLs) on food commodities to ensure the food Canadians eat is safe. These limits are enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The MRLs established for each crop are set at levels well below the amount that could pose a health concern.
Environmental risk assessment integrates the environmental exposure and ecotoxicity information to evaluate the potential for adverse effects on non-target species. This integration is achieved by comparing estimated environmental concentrations (EECs) with concentrations at which adverse effects may occur. The EECs are concentrations of product in various environments, such as in food, water, soil, and air. The EECs can be estimated using standard models, which take into consideration the application rate(s), chemical properties, and environmental fate properties, including the dissipation of the product between applications. In re-evaluations of registered products, EECs can be taken from empirical data.
Ecotoxicity information includes acute and chronic toxicity data for various organisms or groups of organisms from both terrestrial and aquatic habitats including invertebrates, vertebrates, and plants. Toxicity endpoints used in risk assessments may be adjusted to account for potential differences in species sensitivity as well as varying protection goals such as protection at the community, population, or individual level.
A vast amount of scientific data is reviewed when evaluating the safety of crop protection products in Canada. These extensive reviews are posted publicly and include consultations where any stakeholders are invited to submit comments. There is good reason to have high confidence that crop protection products are safe for Canadians and the environment under the conditions of registration.
For those who want a more in depth read, check out the PMRA’s guidance document overview.