By Martin Mittelstaedt

From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail – April 23, 2008 at 4:54 AM EDT

Home Depot, one of Canada’s largest retailers, says it will voluntarily stop selling traditional pesticides and herbicides by the end of the year and will replace these products with less environmentally harmful alternatives.

The move coincided with the announcement yesterday that Ontario will join Quebec to become the second province to formally ban the so-called “cosmetic use” of pest control products on residential lawns, gardens and parks.

Public health advocates who have been lobbying for an end to spraying to kill weeds and bugs around homes say the twin moves – by the country’s most populous province and by major retailers – hold out a strong likelihood that Canada has reached a kind of tipping point on pesticides, and will eventually become a nation of organic gardeners, at least for residential areas.

“I would say that now that we have Quebec and Ontario, there is huge pressure on the other provinces,” said Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “The next obvious one would be British Columbia.”

There are also an estimated 140 local communities that have tried to eliminate pesticide use through municipal bylaw restrictions, according to a running count by environmentalists, and PEI has also discussed instituting a ban.

Canadian Tire, the country’s largest garden supplier, also said yesterday it would pull pest control products from its Ontario stores by the end of the summer, a step it has already taken in Quebec, and intends to phase out sales elsewhere in the country where they are not banned.

Retailers say the market is shifting away from these products. “This is just the next evolution for the Home Depot in terms of always providing our customers and our consumers with environmentally friendly products,” said Gino DiGioacchino, the company’s vice-president of merchandising.

For much of the past decade, Canada has been the scene of unusual turf wars occurring almost nowhere else in the world over whether homeowners should be allowed to spray their lawns – mainly to kill dandelions for the sake of appearances. The activity had become almost a right of spring in many areas before it became enmeshed in controversy.

The fight over spraying has pitted environmental and public health advocates against pesticide manufacturers and lawn care companies, and also embroiled the federal government. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency says home pesticides “pose no unacceptable health or environmental risks” if label directions are followed, even though two major provinces now disagree, along with a number of the country’s most influential public health groups, such as the Canadian Cancer Society. The PMRA refused to comment yesterday, but it is expected to issue within days a new assessment vouching for the safety of 2,4-D, one of the most commonly used lawn herbicides, and the main chemical affected by the various provincial and municipal bans.

The Ontario College of Family Physicians has also rejected Health Canada’s position, and issued an influential study in 2004 linking pesticides to such illnesses as leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, while more recently, other research has associated pesticide exposure with Parkinson’s disease.

“There is no health benefit to these products and there is a lot of science that shows they are connected with really serious illness,” Mr. Forman said. “In terms of a cost-benefit analysis, there is zero health benefit and the potential risk is enormous.”

The actions in Canada are also in stark contrast to the United States, where Home Depot’s U.S. parent continues to sell these products nationally, although it does face some local restrictions.

Loblaw Cos. Ltd. food chain was the first retailer to remove the pesticide products from its garden centres, in 2003, but until yesterday, no other chains had followed suit. Canadian Tire says is trying to discourage pesticide use by promoting gardening and lawn care practices that are less reliant on chemical sprays. “We actually have been phasing out” the use of traditional pesticides and “introducing a lot of eco-friendly options,” said Lisa Gibson, a spokeswoman.