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'Pesticides are what is killing our kids'

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"That defies statistics," Dr. Matsusaki says. The cancers are exceedingly rare, and typically only three or four children out of a million would be diagnosed in Canada in a year with either one. The other cancers were also of the handful-out-of-every-million-children type.

Some of those who are living in the area where Dr. Matsusaki practices and have experienced cancer in their families are convinced that pest sprays are the only plausible explanation because there is little in the way of industrial releases of cancer-causing chemicals.

"I have no doubt about it. Pesticides are what is killing our kids," says Noralee Harper, a mother whose son Brett was diagnosed two years ago at age four with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She says there is so much cancer in PEI among children "it's scary."

Following treatments, Brett is doing fine and is a happy six-year-old in Grade 1. But Ms. Harper says that having a child undergo intensive chemotherapy was the most difficult thing she has experienced. "It was the worst thing I could ever imagine, watching Brett go through what he went through. It was a nightmare from beginning right through to the end."

In children, there is considered to be a link between pesticides and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, along with kidney and brain cancer and leukemia, according to an authoritative review of the scientific literature on pesticide-related illnesses conducted by the Ontario College of Family Physicians in 2004.

Ms. Harper says her family was exposed to crop chemicals throughout the time Brett was a baby and toddler; they lived in a heavily farmed area along the Mill River "where you can't go a mile without seeing a potato field," she said. Their house was on a downhill slope next to a spud field, and she says residues from the spraying of potatoes frequently drifted into her home.

Based on worries about these exposures, the family moved to a house further away from potato cultivation, which accounts for about 90 per cent of all the pesticide used on the island.

That many Prince Edward Islanders experience extremely high pesticide levels compared to other people in Canada was demonstrated in a pair of scientific papers issued earlier this year by researchers at Environment Canada investigating "second-hand" pesticide exposures, a phenomenon similar to second-hand cigarette smoke.

Scientists from the agency have been monitoring agricultural regions for pesticides evaporating or blowing from farm fields into nearby areas. There are no standards in Canada for these airborne emissions and no assessments of the health impacts of chronic, long-term inhalation of the complex mix of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides emanating from farm fields.

Currently, only pesticide exposures in drinking water and food are regulated.

"You can't say that they're totally safe because you haven't done that evaluation," says William Ernst, an Environment Canada toxicologist based in Dartmouth, N.S., who worked on the research, commenting on airborne pesticides.

Here in Kensington, a PEI community surrounded by potato fields, one of the studies found the second-highest pesticide readings in the country. The area had extremely high levels of chlorothalonil, a fungicide widely used on the island, along with 16 other pesticides.

According to the second study, by Mr. Ernst, it is likely that practically the entire PEI population in summer is exposed to airborne pesticides. The use of chlorothalonil in particular is so widespread, its presence "in air is likely to be ubiquitous throughout the atmosphere of PEI during the potato-growing season," the study said. The researchers even reported traces of the fungus killer in the air at a remote monitoring site on a wharf jutting into Northumberland Strait, where there was almost no nearby potato cultivation.

Potatoes are a heavy user of chemicals, needing up to 19 sprays in a single growing season. Farmers often spray potatoes on a weekly basis, or even more frequently to try to prevent blight, the crop-ruining fungus that caused the Irish potato famine, as well as herbicides to kill the tops of the plants at the end of the growing season to make the underground tubers easier to harvest.

There is likely to be more pesticide exposure on the Island in recent years than there once was because potato acreage has expanded dramatically -- doubling since 1980 and up about 40 per cent since 1990, to meet the booming demand from French-fry makers.

Farmers insist that their sprays are safe because all crop chemicals used on the island are approved and regulated by Health Canada, according to Ivan Noonan, general manager of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, a growers' association.

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