Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Risk, Science and Politics: Alachlor Regulation in Canada and the United States*

  • George Hoberg (a1)

This article is a comparative case study of environmental regulation in Canada and the United States, focussing on one important area of environmental regulation, pesticides, and on the treatment of North America's most commercially important pesticide, alachlor. Alachlor is a clear case of policy divergence: Canadians have banned the substance while the US has decided to keep it on the market with minimal restrictions. Three major explanations for the divergence are explored: science, interest group politics, and legal and institutional arrangements. The article concludes that while different interpretations of the risks posed by alachlor contributed to the different decisions, they can only be explained with reference to the economic importance of alachlor and the need to maintain the legitimacy of current institutional arrangements. The concluding section outlines a framework for explaining similarities and differences in environmental, health and safety regulations across nations.


Cet article est une étude comparative de la réglementation concernant l'environnement au Canada et aux États-Unis. Il se concentre sur un important domaine de cette réglementation, notamment sur celle des pesticides, et sur les mesures prises par chaque nation contre alachlor, l'un des plus importants pesticides sur le marché nordaméricain. Alachlor nous offre un exemple manifeste de désaccord politique: les Canadiens ont interdit la circulation de ce produit alors que les Américains ont décidé de le laisser sur le marché tout en y imposant quelques restrictions minimes. L'article analyse trois types d'explication de ces divergences: l'exploitation scientifique, l'exploitation par le jeu des groupes d'intérêt, et l'exploitation par la loi et les institutions. L'article conclut que si même des interprétations différentes des risques posés par alachlor ont contribué à ces divergences, on ne saurait les expliquer convenablement que si ces divergences sont analysées dans le contexte politique le plus large, contexte dont tiennent compte l'importance économique d'alachlor et le besoin de maintenir la légitimité des organisations institutionnelles impliquées. Se basant sur le cas d'alachlor, l'article esquisse un cadre d'analyse pouvant expliquer au niveau international les ressemblances et les différences dans la réglementation de l'environnement, de la santé et du bien-être, et des mesures de sécurité.

Hide All

1 See Brickman Ronald, Jasanoff Sheila and Ilgen Thomas, Controlling Chemicals (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985); Vogel David, National Styles of Regulation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986); Badaracco Joseph, Loading the Dice: A Five Country Case Study of Vinyl Chloride Regulation (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1985); Kelman Steven, Regulating America, Regulating Sweden (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981): Lundqvist Lennart, The Hare and the Tortoise (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980); and Wilson Graham, The Politics of Safety and Health (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).

2 See Hoberg George Jr., “Technology, Political Structure and Social Regulation: A Cross-National Analysis,” Comparative Politics 18 (1986), 357–76.

3 The exceptions are Ilgen Thomas, “Between Europe and America, Ottawa and the Provinces: Regulating Toxic Substances in Canada,” Canadian Public Policy 11 (1985), 578–90; Nemetz Peter, Stanbury W. T. and Thompson Fred, “Social Regulation in Canada,” Policy Studies Journal 14 (1986), 580603; and Nemetz Peter, “Federal Environmental Regulation in Canada,” Natural Resources Journal 26 (1986), 552608.

4 For a description of the environmental problems posed by pesticides, see Castrilli J. F. and Vigod Toby, Pesticides in Canada: An Examination of Federal Law and Policy, Study Paper, Protection of Life Series (Ottawa: Law Reform Commission of Canada, 1987), chap. 1.

5 For a discussion of these problems, see Jasanoff Sheila, Risk Management and Political Culture (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1986); and Salter Liora, Mandated Science: Science and Scientists in the Making of Standards (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988).

6 7 U.S.C. 136. For an overview of the US regulatory framework, see United States, General Accounting Office, Pesticides: EPA's Formidable Task to Assess and Regulate Their Risks, RCED-86–125 (Washington: General Accounting Office, 1986).

7 Pest Control Products Act, 1968–69, chap. 50, sec. 1. For an overview of the Canadian regulatory framework, see Castrilli and Vigod, Pesticides in Canada.

8 Jurisdiction over pesticide regulation originally resided in the US Department of Agriculture, but was transferred to EPA following its creation in 1970.

9 Canada, Alachlor Review Board, Report of the Alachlor Review Board (Ottawa: Alachlor Review Board, 1987), 23.

10 Pest Control Products Regulations, C.R.C., c. 1253, sec. 20.

11 50 F.R. 1115.

12 52 F.R. 49,480.

13 Pest Control Products Regulations, sees. 23–25.

14 “Blue-Ribbon Panel Seems Well-Equipped,” The Globe and Mail, August 20, 1986.

15 Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Minister of Agriculture [1988] Federal Court of Appeal, A-149–88.

16 For an overview of the assessment process, see National Research Council, Risk Assessment in the Federal Government (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1983); and Leiss William, The Risk Management Process, working paper (Ottawa: Pesticides Directorate, Agriculture Canada, October 1985).

17 Vogel, National Styles of Regulation.

18 52 F.R. 49,483; and Alachlor Review Board, Report, 51.

19 This policy can be found in the Carcinogenic Risk Assessment Guidelines of the Environmental Protection Agency [1986], 51 F.R. 33,992.

20 In the case of alachlor, EPA derived a Q* of 0.08 (milligrams per kilogram per day)−1. See 52 F.R. 49,485.

21 Castrilli and Vigod, Pesticides in Canada, 59. Health and Welfare officials indicate that they are seriously considering the adoption of a more formal cancer policy.

22 Exposure to alachlor can also occur through food and groundwater, but for reasons of space this analysis will focus only on applicator exposure.

23 For instance, Health and Welfare did not consider that applicators are only exposed to alachlor a certain number of days per year (approximately 15). It also assumed a 100 per cent dermal absorption level, almost certainly an overestimate, and assumed that applicators would not use protective gloves or that gloves were not effective (Alachlor Review Board, Report, 65–68).

24 This estimate is derived from EPA's estimate of 0.018–1.8 milligrams per kilogram per year, divided by 15 days of application per year by commercial applicators. See 52 F.R. 49,486.

25 Alachlor Review Board, Report, 60.

26 Letter from A. J. Liston, Assistant Deputy Minister, Health Protection Branch, Health and Welfare Canada to Dr. J. B. Morrissey, Assistant Deputy Minister, Food Production and Inspection Branch, Agriculture Canada, November 26, 1987.

28 Castrilli and Vigod, Pesticides in Canada, 54–55.

29 The minister of agriculture's final decision states “It is the Minister's responsibility to judge the acceptability of the risks associated with alachlor use, based on the advice received regarding both the risks and the benefits” ( Agriculture Canada, “Alachlor [Lasso],” CAPCO Note 88–04, January 27, 1988, 3).

30 The ARB was highly critical of the ad hoc manner in which Agriculture Canada assessed benefits (Alachlor Review Board, Report, 45–47).

31 Agriculture Canada, CAPCO Note 88–04, 3.

32 Alachlor Review Board, Report, 108.

33 52 F.R. 49,495.

34 National Research Council, Regulating Pesticides in Food: The Delaney Paradox (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1987), 54.

35 Agriculture Canada, CAPCO Note 88–04.

36 52 F.R. 49,500.

37 Interview with EPA official, May 3, 1989.

38 This is one of the factors used to explain the large of amount of convergence observed by Brickman, Jasanoff and Ilgen, Controlling Chemicals. See also Haas Peter, “Do Regimes Matter? Epistemic Communities and Evolving Policies to Control Mediterranean Pollution,” International Organization 43 (1989), 377403.

39 Evidence of this interaction can be found throughout the Alachlor Review Board Report.

40 This is a question addressed in Gillespie Brendan, Eva Dave and Johnston Ron, “Carcinogenic Risk Assessment in the United States and Great Britain: The Case of Aldrin/Dieldrin,” Social Studies of Science 9 (1979), 265301.

41 For an excellent treatment of these issues in the context of comparative regulation, see Jasanoff, Risk Management and Political Culture. See also Brickman et al., Controlling Chemicals; and Salter, Mandated Science.

42 Wayne Ormrod, an Agriculture official, testified that his department has no capacity to evaluate independently the recommendations made by Health and Welfare (Alachlor Review Board, Report, 43).

43 There are other societal interests with stakes in pesticide regulation, the most important being farmworkers. In general they have been poorly organized and not well represented in regulatory disputes, although they appear to be better represented in the US than in Canada.

44 Recent Canadian works on interest groups include Pross Paul, Group Politics and Public Policy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986), and Coleman William D., Business and Politics (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988). A classic American statement can be found in Latham Earl, “The Group Basis of Politics,” American Political Science Review 65 (1952), 376–97. For more recent American literature emphasizing the importance of groups in determining policy, see Noll Roger and Owen Bruce, The Political Economy of Deregulation: Interest Groups in the Regulatory Process (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1983).

45 Interview with Toby Vigod of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, April 1989.

46 McLaren Christie, “Millions of dollars riding on pesticide inquiry,” The Globe and Mail, August 20, 1986.

47 US statistics from U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1988 (108th ed.; Washington: Government Printing Office, 1988); Canadian statistics are from Statistics Canada, Census Canada 1986: Agriculture (Catalogue 96–102; Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1987).

48 For a development of the theoretical argument that “state capacity” through policy instruments influences policy outcomes, see Skocpol Theda and Finegold Kenneth, “State Capacity and Economic Organization in the Early New Deal,” Political Science Quarterly 97 (1982), 255–78.

49 Testimony of William Leiss, professor of communication, Simon Fraser University at House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Forestry, April 14, 1988.

50 Pest Control Products Regulations, sec. 27(2) (b) (i).

51 In fact, environmental and farmworker groups in the US have strongly criticized the certification programmes for applicators. See US Congress, House Agriculture Committee, Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, Hearings, Serial no. 99–7, part 1, 99th Congress, 1st session, 473–74.

52 These arguments find support in the so-called “new institutionalism.” See Moe Terry, “The Politics of Bureaucratic Structure,” in Chubb John and Peterson Paul (eds.), Can the Government Govern? (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1989), 267329. This argument has been applied to Canadian environmental regulation in Schrecker Ted, “The Mobilization of Bias in Closed Systems,” Journal of Business Administration 15 (1984–85), 4363.

53 7 U.S.C.A. sec. 136d.

54 See Minister of Finance of Canada et al. v. Finlay [1986], 33 D.L.R. (4th) 321; Energy Probe v. Atomic Energy Control Board et al. [1984], 43 C.P.C. 13; and Western Canada Wilderness Committee v. Minister of Environment and Parks [1988], 25 B.C.L.R. 2nd 93.

55 Agriculture Canada undertook consultations in the autumn of 1984, but environmentalists were apparently not included (Alachlor Review Board, Report, 44).

56 For a bureaucratic politics approach to Canadian public policy, see Schultz Richard, Federalism, Bureaucracy and Public Policy (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1980), and Pal Leslie A., State, Class and Bureaucracy (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988), especially chap. 5. For an argument about bureaucratic interests in a comparative context, see Kelman, Regulating America, Regulating Sweden.

57 This is the theme of Schattschneider E. E., The Semisovereign People (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960).

58 John Wise has retired from politics and has refused repeated requests for interviews regarding his role in the alachlor decision.

59 I thank William Leiss for originally suggesting this insight. Interviews with actors in the alachlor controversy support this conclusion.

60 Hall Ross, A New Approach to Pest Control in Canada, Canadian Environmental Advisory Council, Report No. 10, July 1981.

61 See Bosso Christopher, Pesticides and Politics (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1987), chaps. 6, 7.

62 Descriptions of these events can be found in George Hoberg, Jr., “Reaganism, Pluralism and the Politics of Pesticide Regulation,” Policy Sciences (forthcoming).

63 See Castrilli and Vigod, Pesticides in Canada, 108–11; Salter Liora, “Observations on the Politics of Assessment: The Captan Case,” Canadian Public Policy 11 (1985), 6476.

64 See for instance, “Tuna Casualties Mostly Political,” The Financial Post, September 28, 1985, and Harris Michael, “Ottawa Backtracks on Tuna, Orders Entire Million Cans Seized,” The Globe and Mail, September 20, 1985.

65 This argument is supported by interviews with both government and industry officials.

66 Holden Alfred, “Confusion Reigns over Federal Mussels Ban,” The Toronto Star, December 13, 1987.

67 In cases of pollution control, a fourth factor would need to be included, namely, the cost of technology for controlling the effluents.

68 These conditions and the convergent result are reflected in the case of the occupational hazard vinyl chloride. See Badaracco, Loading the Dice.

* I owe a great debt to William Leiss, professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, who has done extensive work in the area of pesticides and risk assessment and has collected a great deal of documentation of the alachlor case, which he kindly shared with me. He has also provided valuable advice and assistance at various crucial stages of the project. I would also like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for financial support, Geoff Cushon and Tim Collins for research assistance, and Kathryn Harrison and the anonymous reviewers of the Journal for extensive comments on an earlier draft.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique
  • ISSN: 0008-4239
  • EISSN: 1744-9324
  • URL: /core/journals/canadian-journal-of-political-science-revue-canadienne-de-science-politique
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 2 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 88 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.