Pesticide controls — an update from France

Published 03/03/14

In January the French Assemblee Nationale1 confirmed the Senate law banning pesticide use in public open spaces by 2020 and, by 2022, their sale to or possession by non-professional users. The law was discussed in December’s Indigenotes. Pesticides can still be used against noxious organisms as well as on railways, airports runways and freeways. Public areas such as public forests and National Parks trails can still be treated but must be closed for specified durations.

In the context of 90% of French waterways having pesticide residues, the worrying collapse of bee colonies etc, this law is the next step in efforts to clean the French environment. The law is part of a movement towards favouring agro-ecology as it addresses barriers to the development of nonchemical alternatives, and aims to address pesticiderelated health concerns. The law has broad support, building on many French towns’ successes in achieving ‘Zerophyto’ in their openspace management. Overall, this law only affects 10% of pesticide use in France.

In the early 2000, awareness rose that many pesticide residues in waterways came from urban surfaces sprayed for weeds2. This kick-started the urban ‘Zerophyto’ movement; not simply a ‘No pesticides’ stance but a holistic rethink of open-space management coupled with acceptance of ‘wild herbs’. The less manicured look balances some extra manual labour and changes towards mulches and heat treatments.

In 2007, spraying became illegal within one metre of footpaths curbs or stormwater inlets, then in places like schools and hospitals in 2011. Physical exclusion for several days in public spaces to protect vulnerable persons (children, elderly, gravely sick people) is also required.

Recent events have brought pesticides into the media: 
• February 2012, a French farmer won against Monsanto for his pesticide related illness 3. 
• June 2013, an authoritative review of scientific findings on pesticides and health was published 4 (see box).
• November 2013, a petition ‘Appel de Montpellier’ 5. spearheaded by 50 scientists (including a paediatric endocrinologist) and politicians was launched which is to be followed by a conference in January 2014 6.

The French Zerophyto experience may be readily transferable to the horticultural treatment of Australian urban parks and gardens. However it may represent specific challenges for urban conservation management given Australia has a wider biodiversity and terrain mix to contend with, and because some control options like mulching are not always suitable in conservation areas. More manual handling and the use of steam could generate new OHS challenges. A reluctance to initiate revegetation near some public spaces like playgrounds and (more) negative reactions from (sections of) public towards professional herbicide use may develop.

However it could have positive aspects: lower herbicide usage (limited to absolute need rather than convenience or aesthetics), further professionalisation of herbicide use, better health protection of both the general public and professional users, and less waterway and biodiversity impacts. Finally the promotion of a ‘natural’ look can be aligned with the promotion of indigenous Flora and Fauna. Pascale Pitot

The French research body for medicine and health (Institut National de la Santé et Recherche Médicale or INSERM) carried out a multidisciplinary review of the last 30 years’ literature on the impacts of pesticides on health. Two main themes were investigated: occupational exposure and early exposure.

INSERM’s press release of June 2013 draws “a positive link between occupational exposure to pesticides and certain pathologies in adults: Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer, hematopoietic [particular blood] cancers.”

Further concerns are for exposed workers who become mothers, citing “significant increase in the risk of … miscarriages and an increased risk of congenital malformations” as well as later impacts in the child’s life.

This concurs with their warning call about early contact: “exposure to pesticides during the prenatal and postnatal periods and in infancy appears to be a particularly risk for the development of the child”, even at low levels.

INSERM’s group of experts also noted that ‘many active substances have not been subjected to epidemiological studies’, hence cannot be assumed safe. The same comment was made about pesticide ‘mixtures and low doses’. From INSERM Press Release ‘Pesticides and their effect on health: An INSERM group of experts’ Paris June 12 2013

  2. Etude de transfert en milieu urbain de glyphosate, de l’amminotriazole et du flazasulfuron dans les eaux de ruissellement, FEREDEC Bretagne (1999-2000-2001) et Suivi des pesticides utilisés en milieu urbain: l’Expérimentation de Vezin le Coquet, RENNES METROPOLE, AUDIAR, FEREDEC Bretagne (2000-2003)
  4. highlights links with Parkinson disease, some cancers and genetic defects