Agent Orange has left deadly legacy Fight continues to ban pesticides and herbicides across Canada

Times & Transcript Staff
 July 4, 2005

OTTAWA - They sprayed each other with Agent Orange.

Young workers clearing brush from power lines for NB Power sprayed each other to stay cool and keep the bugs away. They didn't know any better. They were told it was safe enough to drink, says former worker Robyn Gregory. They had no idea exposure to the defoliant made infamous by the Vietnam War would someday be linked to cancer.

It was the 1950s and 1960s and a type of blind faith had gripped a modern society enamoured by its ingenuity.

Around the same time Agent Orange was believed safe enough to drink, DDT was employed to kill spruce budworm and other tree-destroying insects. Around 500,000 pounds of the insecticide was sprayed in the province. Its use in New Brunswick killed off the Peregrine falcon in the 1950s, turning its egg shells to mush. The bird has only recently returned to the province. DDT also found uses around the home, not only in the garden, but in plastic kitchen shelf linings to keep weevils away from food and in carpets to prevent fleas.

In 1989, DDT was fully banned in Canada, though its use had been highly restricted since the late 1970s.

After the Second World War, the potent and highly toxic insecticide was primarily used to kill mosquitoes and lice to stem the spread of malaria and typhoid. The World Health Organization estimated that it had saved millions of lives, but the accumulative environmental and health damage was staggering. DDT remained in the environment and spread throughout the ecological web, endangering species and seeping into food on the plate at the dinner table.

A year after the DDT ban, Canada outlawed leaded gasoline which was used because it was good for engines, but turned out to be bad for children's developing brains. Cars had been spewing millions of tonnes of lead into the environment since it was first introduced to gasoline in the 1920s. As a result, worldwide exposure to lead is 300 to 500 times the natural background levels.

However, lead levels in city air have now dropped below detectable levels, according to Health Canada.

There were polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), their manufacture and importation banned in 1977. PCBs were ingredients in inks and paint additives and also used to make coolants and lubricants for electrical equipment, including transformers and capacitors. Traces of PCBs are found all over the world, in our food and in human bodies.

In the 1980s, Canada stopped the use of alachlor, an insecticide primarily employed in apple orchards, after it was found to have a link to cancer. Canada also phased out chlordane in 1995, a DDT-like insecticide mainly used to kill termites, but also used on crops, lawns since the 1950s. A probable carcinogen, it can damage the liver and nervous system and can remain in the environment for decades.

"A lot of these chemicals came out after the Second World War. They were heralded as modern and the wave of the future. There was a real faith in science. There was a belief these things were a miracle cure.

Put them on and you don't have to worry about food crop failure. But they were harmful to the environment in ways that were unforeseen," said Gideon Foreman, executive director for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

According to Foreman, we haven't learned from our toxic mistakes.

His organization has been lobbying municipalities to ban cosmetic pesticide and herbicide use. Around 70 municipalities have already implemented pesticide restrictions including Halifax, Toronto and Montreal. Moncton city council has adopted a policy for curbing pesticide use. But not everyone agrees. Forman spent a day this week at Ottawa city hall and made little headway in converting the majority of councillors.

Forman predicts one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, 2,4-D, which can be bought at the local hardware store, will eventually go the way of DDT. He compares current government, public and industry attitudes toward herbicides like those toward cigarettes 20 years ago.

"2,4-D is a slightly milder version of Agent Orange," said Foreman. "It is very effective, but at what cost? Doctors are saying the cost is very high."

One of the most widely used herbicides in the world, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid is first absorbed by plants and mimics hormones which control the plant's growth and development, blocking nutrients and causing abnormalities.

"It causes a kind of explosion of cells in a plant," said Foreman. "Almost like causing cancer. It's frightening stuff."

Some medical research has linked exposure to 2, 4-D to sterility, respiratory problems, atrophy and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Studies on lab animals have shown it to cause birth defects and cell mutation.

The chemical can remain in the environment for some time and according to some research it can have a half-life or up to 200 days.

A report released by the Ontario College of Family Physicians found studies linking 2, 4-D exposure during pregnancy and childhood to a two-fold increase in the incidence of leukemia.

A leading chemical industry lobby group, however, has questioned the report and said an independent review has found its conclusions to be erroneous.

"We found a number of huge flaws in their methodology and the conclusions were not supported by evidence in report," said Peter MacLeod, head scientist at Crop Protection, which is a division of Crop Life Canada.

MacLeod said the industry follows established regulatory processes and said safeguards are much stiffer today than they were 20 years ago.

The herbicide and pesticide industry was worth $1.3 billion in 2003.

The federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency has deemed the 2,4-D herbicide safe for home lawn care use, but continues to study the impacts of heavy use in agricultural and other settings like clearing paths for roads and rail road tracks.

"It can continue to be used, but we are re-evaluating to make sure," said Richard Aucoin, acting chief registrar for the agency. "In the urban environment it can be used safely in the way it is currently being used. It is not used in the same quantity as in agriculture, we are responding to the public concern."

The herbicide has been used repeatedly in heavy doses since the late 1950s to clear vegetation for military training sites at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, which is at the centre of major controversy as a result of U.S. and Canadian military tests of Agent Orange and Agent Purple there in the mid-1960s.

The federal regulatory agency is nearing the end of a 10 year review of around 200 chemicals currently in use to kill bugs and weeds. It has already decided to ban several chemicals including the herbicides propanil and pyridate.

Once the review ends in 2008, Aucoin said the agency will begin again.

"We hope to get ahead of the game and catch any problems," he said.

The agency is still waiting for the federal government to enact a two year-old law that would give the agency more power. Aucoin said the law could come into affect by the end of the year.

The law will require manufacturers to report adverse reactions to pesticides and submit levels of sales for individual products to the agency.

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