A major cleanup in the way pesticides are used in Quebec’s fields is necessary, if only thanks to the victory of a foreign worker suffering from a rare form of cancer before the Administrative Labor Tribunal, judge experts.
The recent victory of a Mexican farm worker, who developed cancer after years of spraying pesticides in Quebec, sets the stage for major changes in the way these dangerous products are used in the province.
“It’s the start of something, that’s for sure,” said Michel Pilon, coordinator of the Network for the Assistance of Migrant Agricultural Workers of Quebec (RATTMAQ), who pleaded the case before the Administrative Labor Tribunal ( tat).
The man in question, Armando Lazo Bautista, worked in Quebec from 2012 to 2016. He notably handled pesticides containing glyphosate and malathion, products that probably caused his rare cancer, the TAT ruled in its decision. The worker recently won his case, while the Commission for Standards, Equity, Health and Safety at Work (CNESST) refused to examine his claim, claiming that it had not been filed within the prescribed deadlines.
“Here, we are talking about a non-Hodgkin’s cancer, but there is also Parkinson’s, there will be other diseases that will eventually appear,” points out Mr. Pilon.
I wouldn’t say that causes will be easier to win, but I think we will be able to win more. [grâce à] that decision.
Michel Pilon, RATTMAQ coordinator
To this day, these products continue to be used in conditions that can pose a hazard to workers handling them, he says.
“I think the CNESST would benefit from reviewing practices and ensuring that employers and workers who use these products are adequately protected. Let’s not forget that there are also farmers who spread this. At some point, they too will have this cancer. »
Pesticides “as a last resort”
Maryse Bouchard, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Montreal and researcher at the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Center Research Center, notes that the judgment is hopeful.
“It can also give hope to workers who have developed other pathologies, such as Parkinson’s disease, which has been linked by many studies to occupational exposure to pesticides,” she underlines.
Mme Bouchard hopes the judgment will send a signal of the importance of reducing the use of pesticides. “Too often, pesticides are used preventively, when they should rather be used as a last resort. Just because a product is legal or approved by Health Canada does not necessarily mean it is safe. »
Following the unveiling in 2017 of thousands of internal documents by the American firm Monsanto, the “Monsanto Papers”, we know that public authorities do not have all the information to evaluate a product, because the pesticide industry hides information, says M.me Bouchard.
There’s a certain amount of malice in that. There have been several judgments in the United States against Monsanto and Bayer. The fact that they hid information weighed heavily in the balance of these judgments.
Maryse Bouchard, professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at the Université de Montréal
Applying these pesticides safely is often an illusion, she believes.
“Workers are expected to wear big rubber boots, rubber raincoats, masks, gloves… All that, on a 35 degree day, in fields with full sun exposure and often no running water to wash your hands afterwards… In practice, personal protective equipment has its limits. This is why we must reduce at the source. »
To apply pesticides safely, workers should wear dry suits and masks that provide oxygen, points out Michel Pilon. “Also, it’s often unmanageable. The workers should take a shower every time they handle these products, because it can end up in their sandwiches, in the water they drink… It’s not fair to breathe it, it could be on the skin. »
“Abandoned to their fate”
Elsewhere in the world, producers and agricultural workers who contract illnesses due to their exposure to pesticides are still often left to fend for themselves. The French newspaper The world recently underlined that in Europe, these workers are “left to their fate, victims of failing recognition and compensation systems”.
Michel Pilon notes that Armando Lazo Bautista, who is in his fifties and who has returned to live in his home in Mexico, is very ill today.
“He is followed at the hospital, he takes medication to contain the cancer. It’s not a cancer that will go away, unfortunately. It’s full of little spots all over his lungs, it’s not operable. »
Mr. Pilon suspects that Mr. Bautista will eventually be declared unfit to work and that the CNESST will have to pay him compensation for life.
Let’s also include agricultural producers, asks the UPA
Martin Caron, president of the Union des producteurs agricole (UPA), points out that the Union had asked the Quebec government to recognize occupational diseases related to the spreading of pesticides within the framework of the Act to modernize the occupational health and safety system, which was adopted last fall. “We are going to follow these files,” he said, regarding the decision rendered on Armando Lazo Bautista. Another problem with the current system, he notes, is that the employees of agricultural producers are protected by the CNESST, while the producers themselves are not. “Producers represent 62% of people working in agriculture. These people are not eligible. A producer who wants to take out insurance for himself is quite expensive. There is clearly a lack in this respect. »
- Targeted reduction in the quantities of pesticides used in agriculture for the year 2025 by the Government of Quebec, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Plan 2020-2030
source: Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
- Number of complaints received by the CNESST for non-compliance with preventive measures in the agricultural sector in the last five years, i.e. from 2016 to 2020. The classification system does not allow the breakdown of data related to use of pesticides.