(Disponible en français : L’homologation des pesticides au Canada)
Pesticides – or pest control products – are substances used to control living organisms that are considered harmful. For this reason, these substances can sometimes pose health and environmental risks. In Canada, pesticide use is subject to a registration process to mitigate those risks.
How are pesticides used, and who regulates their use?
The most frequently used types of pesticides approved in Canada are designed to control insects, plants or other harmful organisms. While nearly three-quarters of all pesticides sold in Canada are used in the agriculture sector, they also have other applications, such as protecting forests and maintaining green spaces and golf courses. In addition, many products used in the home are considered pesticides, including household cleaning products, pool maintenance products, mosquito repellants and tick treatments for pets. While household pesticides account for a small percentage of total pesticide sales, they nonetheless make up nearly half of the pesticides registered in Canada (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 – Pesticides Registered in Canada, by Main Target Pests and Marketing Type
Notes: a. Percentage of registered pesticides that target the pest in question. A single pesticide can be used on multiple pests, such as insects and fungi.
b. A “technical grade active ingredient” is a product used to formulate other pest control products.
Source: Figure prepared by the author based on data obtained from Government of Canada, Pesticide Product Information Database.
In Canada, the regulation of pesticides is a shared responsibility of the federal and provincial/territorial governments. The federal government is responsible for enforcing the Pest Control Products Act, which provides for the registration, labelling and marketing of these products. Provincial/territorial governments are responsible for the rules governing the transportation, storage and disposal of pesticides. They can also implement certification and licensing systems for the use of pesticides and restrict or prohibit pesticide use within their boundaries. However, the provinces and territories are not empowered to adopt weaker measures than those imposed by the federal government. For example, they cannot approve unregistered products. Finally, provincial/territorial governments may delegate to municipalities the authority to restrict the use of pesticides within their boundaries.
How are pesticides registered in Canada?
Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) is responsible for administering the Pest Control Products Act. It receives registration submissions, reviews them and decides whether to approve the products in question. This process generally operates as follows:
- The applicant prepares a submission that must provide relevant information on a product’s effectiveness and the potential risks associated with its use. The PMRA does not conduct its own studies on products submitted for registration; this task is the applicant’s responsibility. The studies provided must document the potential risks to human and animal health, the way the product degrades in the environment, the residues that could be left on foods and the product’s compatibility with other pesticides. The PMRA then screens the submission to ensure it meets the requirements before performing a detailed evaluation.
- Based on the information provided by the applicant, the PMRA assesses the value of the product and the risks it poses. To be approved, the product must not pose “unacceptable risks to individuals and the environment,” as required by the Pest Control Products Act. A risk is deemed “acceptable” if there is “reasonable certainty that no harm to human health, future generations or the environment will result from exposure to or use of the product.” Before issuing its decision on a registration submission, the PMRA publishes a consultation document and presents the arguments supporting its decision. At this point, the public can make comments.
- The PMRA then makes its decision: if it determines that the product serves a useful purpose for pest control and does not pose unacceptable risks, the product is registered for a maximum of five years. In its decision, the PMRA sets out detailed use instructions and labelling requirements for the product. It also establishes a maximum residue limit (MRL) for the amount of product that can remain on a food without posing a risk to human health.
Once a pesticide is registered, it may be re-evaluated to ensure that it continues to meet standards in light of the latest scientific advances. Following such a re-evaluation, the PMRA decides whether the product can remain registered given current value and risk assessment criteria, and it can update the information on the label if new requirements are necessary. In addition, the PMRA can undertake a special review before a product’s registration expires if new information indicates that the product may pose an unacceptable risk. Special reviews are also initiated when the PMRA receives new information from other federal or provincial/territorial departments, member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or the public. The PMRA can issue emergency registrations to temporarily approve a product in order to control a seriously detrimental infestation. Finally, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency monitors pesticide residues in foods and can remove a food product from the market if an MRL is exceeded.
Is Canada’s registration system effective?
In 2015, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development audited pesticide safety in Canada. In her report, the Commissioner noted that the PMRA considers health and environmental risks in its re-evaluation process but often takes too long to complete its work. As a result, some neonicotinoids were conditionally registered for many years despite being suspected of causing serious ecological damage, particularly to bee populations. The PMRA has since ended conditional registrations for pesticides, but it was not until April 2019 that the agency issued a decision upholding the registrations of neonicotinoid pesticides while cancelling some uses of them.
Author: Corentin Bialais, Library of Parliament