Toxic Eden

2012-10-29 00:00

LIKE most people, I don’t enjoy conflict. However, I enjoy stupidity even less. More than a decade ago, we lived in a small furnished apartment opposite a superb Henry Moore sculpture in downtown Toronto, where the street signs were all in Chinese. I spent most of my time keeping up with a toddler who liked to cut a swathe across city parks. When he slept, I lingered by a woman playing an erhu or Chinese violin, the unforgettable sound of mist.

On other days, I trotted downstairs to collect milk and a copy of the Globe and Mail from the Korean couple who ran the corner store. Neither spoke English. In gesture, the shopkeeper asked me to bring Gabriel to his wife so that she would smile.

Gabriel also used to delight in the building’s janitor. One day, Gabriel extolled at length in spitty gibberish. After a while, the janitor leant back on his broom, embarrassed, “Sorry, I no speak English.” That’s okay, I replied, neither does he.

I say these things so that you know that I have a sense of humour. And I am able not to feel too strongly about things. I can be light. Until the day I noticed a typed page taped to the door of our building. It was the date that the trees were to be sprayed with pesticide.

These were silvery trees, beautiful trees, that grew outside the building and along the first floor walkway where Gabriel liked to collect bits of bark. They grew abundantly outside our windows.

A few hours later, I found myself in an office in another building, reasoning with a woman who answered implacably in an East European accent. No. These are the rules. They spray the trees every year. Otherwise the trees die. Well, what about people? She didn’t know about people, she’s talking about the trees. Ah.

At the end of the week, the trees were sprayed and I kept our windows closed. When I went downstairs to buy milk, I saw an older man who I always greeted. He was out on the sidewalk in his wheelchair, taking in a bit of air, he said. As we talked, the insecticide dripped off the leaves onto the shoulder of his jacket. I wondered if I should tell him. But he could read. He lived in the building. He’d lived there for years. In the end, I didn’t say anything because he had cancer and I didn’t want to worry him.

Unsurprisingly, my e-mails to the consortium who owned the building went unanswered. And the Toronto Environmental group I’d contacted remained mute until a week later, when they posted me some pamphlets on the dangers of pesticide.

A few weeks later, I had a miscarriage.

And a good few years later, in 2009, the province of Ontario — in which Toronto is located — banned the use and sale of cosmetic pesticides. This legislation equipped Canada’s most populous province with the most thorough restrictions on lawn and garden pesticides in North America.

In South Africa, this debate is light years away. Recently, on a lifestyle estate on the fringe of this city, I revisited my capacity for lightness after the estate manager had a huge area sprayed with the herbicide Roundup, in a quest for the perfect lawn. The worker who sprayed the common wore no protective kit, the numerous construction workers on the adjacent sites were not advised of the spraying, nor were families who lived around the common area, nor were people who walked their dogs there, and nor were the people who jogged past the area.

Once again I found myself reasoning with bluntness, rules, and the dismissal of alternatives as too expensive. I asked him if he’d read the scientific document I’d sent about Roundup. He waved his hand, nah, he didn’t do the Internet. Is that right? Is that right?

Mounting evidence suggests profound consequences to the use of harmful chemicals on our planet. Many green spaces designed for our benefit are treated with pesticides that, with chronic exposure, cause serious illness. These include cancer, neurological diseases and reproductive health issues.

In a better world, industry would have to prove that their products are safe before marketing them: currently, the onus is on the public to prove that these chemicals are harmful.

Increasingly, I find it difficult to keep my tone soft, my words light.

About the writer:

TANIA Spencer is a writer and photographer. She has travelled widely and recently relocated from Hilton, South Africa to Doha, Qatar, where she lives with her family.

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