The Most Important Day in Pesticide History? That Would be June 28
Today Marks 10th Anniversary of Supreme Court Decision
Search on-line on one of those this-day-in-history lists and you won’t find my nomination for the MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT’S EVER HAPPENED on the 179th day of the year (not counting leap years).
All sorts of other important stuff shares a June 28 anniversary. I didn’t know, for example, that Labor Day became a federal holiday by an act of Congress on this day in 1894, and I didn’t remember that on June 28, 1914, that Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated with his wife, thereby setting off World War I.
Let’s see . . . we had the Treaty of Versailles signed in France, ending World War I, on June 28, 1919, and the Citadel, that military bastion of the South, finally admitting women through its corridors, on this day in 1996.
Other ignominious events have since followed on the third from the last day of the sixth month. In 1997, boxer Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear during their heavyweight title fight, and in 2000 the little Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, was returned to his father in Cuba. Remember Elian? He’ll be 18 in December.
On this day in the following year, however, an event occurred that should be on those lists. Sure, it’s great to end World Wars and break down gender inequalities, and I’m a big fan of Labor Day barbecues with friends and family. But a day that allowed 30 million people to begin to live free from pesticides ought to get a mention from the pop-culture historians.
Just before noontime on June 28, 2001, in the remarkably cozy chambers in Ottawa, Ontario, Supreme Court Justice Claire L’Heureux Dube read aloud the basis for her unanimous 9-0 opinion in the David vs. Goliath case of Chemlawn and Spraytech v. Hudson. Her words were simple, yet far reaching. They looked back, yet forward. They returned a basic human right, self government, to the people. They sent a billion dollar company, ChemLawn, into a name change (TruGreen) and a tailspin that continues to this day. And Madame Dube didn’t do it to be vindictive, or to put a company out of business. She wrote her words to protect children, hers, yours, mine. Everyone’s.
“The context of this appeal includes the realization that our common future, that of every Canadian community, depends on a healthy environment. In the words of the Superior Court judge: ‘Twenty years ago, there was very little concern over the effect of chemicals such as pesticides on the population. Today, we are more conscious of what type of an environment we wish to live in, and what quality of life we wish to expose our children [to]” This Court has recognized that everyone is aware that individually and collectively, we are responsible for preserving the natural environment . . . environmental protection [has] emerged as a fundamental value in Canadian society.”
Justice Dube went on to invoke, for the first time in legal history in the world, the Precautionary Principle — which is the notion that you don’t need absolute proof of harm in every instance before you take action to protect people or the environment. In her view, putting down lawn pesticides for the aesthetic purpose of killing dandelions or clover was not a good enough reason to bear the risks associated with those pesticides.
In giving the town of Hudson the right to ban pesticides from its public and private properties, the Canadian Supreme Court set off the ultimate domino effect. Town by town, province by province, the pesticide bans for cosmetic purposes have swept across the nation to our north. The latest figures show that 80 percent of the population is now protected from weed-killing products like 2,4-D (a major component of Agent Orange) or Roundup (also known to cause birth defects).
Because of the Hudson case, decided 10 years ago today, giant retailer Home Depot stopped selling weed ‘n feed and other synthetic chemical gardening pesticide products in its stores across Canada.
And, yet, Home Depot still sells all those same products in the United States. I once visited the Atlanta, Georgia, headquarters to ask the men in charge of making such decisions about what was going on in Canada. Most of the vice presidents didn’t even know that their northern counterparts couldn’t sell Miracle Gro laced with nerve toxins that double as weed killers. A more senior in-the-know official of the company offered a more candid response:
“In Canada, people didn’t want to buy those products anymore for the most part because of all the negative publicity associated with pesticides,” he said. “Here, in the United States, people still want to buy them. So we’ll keep selling them. Next question?”
And, so, 10 years after what those of us in the pesticide movement know to be the most significant legal decision in environmental history, most folks in the United States remain blissfully unaware that Miracle Gro and Turf Builder Plus 2 are even a problem. Sure, we’re making gains. New York and Connecticut have banned pesticide applications on school grounds. More than 30 New Jersey towns have banned pesticides on public parks.
In the age of the Internet, tens of thousands of people can ban together to keep ChemLawn from sponsoring Earth Day. That was a victory.
But today, June 28, on the most important day in pesticide history, millions more people remember a little Cuban boy and a chewed off ear.
That needs to change.