Saturday, May 05, 2007

2,4-D Redux

As we head into summer a number of Waterloo Region residents are up in arms about new by-laws that restrict the use of chemicals on lawns. How times have changed. Parents battled for decades to stop the government from spraying 2,4-D on schoolyards. Here's an article I wrote about the issue nearly 30 years ago, detailing what I saw to be a concerted effort by government to dismiss citizens' concerns.

Spraying with 2,4-D
The Sun tries to get to the bottom of the 2,4-D weed spray controversy and finds only one thing for certain: The Ministry of the Environment hasn't been much help.
by Ruth Haworth, Kawartha Sun, July 3, 1979

School is over, and the controversy raging over 2,4-D spraying in local schoolyards will probably fade into memory as another lost cause.

Parents in the Northumberland-Newcastle School District battled all spring with the Board of Education and Ontario Ministry of the Environment, trying to protect their children from the shortrun effects (nausea, fever, pain) and longrun effects (cancer, birth defects) that are the suspected results of 2,4-D herbicide poisoning. The Ministry repeatedly claimed that there is no evidence that 2,4-D is harmful, and so refused to take action.

The Ministry's attitude shocked and puzzled many concerned parents. Environment Minister Harry Parrott not only refused to take action - he refused to take seriously reports of the harmful effects of the schoolyard spraying. The Warkworth-based group PASS (Parents Against Senseless Spraying) compiled and publicized a list of students who became ill after spraying took place, and documented an instance of spray blowing off the school property and on to nearby gardens. They informed Parrott of their findings, but the Ministry has still not investigated.

The battle reached provincial proportion when NDP leader Mike Cassidy argued in the Ontario Legislature this spring that 2,4-D spraying was an unnecessary hazard to children and urged Dr Parrott to restrict its use in schoolyards. Dr Parrott retaliated by accusing Cassidy of arguing without evidence. So PASS sent a questionnaire out to parents in the Warkworth area and received 20 reports of children who became ill after spraying - with symptoms of headaches, fevers, swollen eyes, nausea and sore throats. Mr. Cassidy presented the list to Dr Parrott in the Legislature and asked for an investigation.

Dr Mikel, Health Officer for the Haliburtion-Kawartha-Pine Ridge district, was supposed to undertake the investigation, but he needed the list of names. He said he expected Nick Whitehead, the leader of PASS, to send him the list. Dr Mikel said he waited and waited, but now it's too late to check the children because their symptoms will have disappeared. He still doesn't know who they are.

The Sun asked Dr Mikel why he didn't obtain the list from Dr Parrott. His reply: Dr Parrott told him that the list he had been given was completely illegible - not a single name could be understood. But when the Sun phoned Mike Cassidy's office, we were told that the list Cassidy gave Dr Parrot was fully legible - "and in any event, if they were really serious they could have got the names from us - we have them."

So the Ministry, who has throughout the debate been arguing that 2,4-D spraying should continue because there is no evidence that it is harmful, did not follow up on concrete reports of children suffering from herbicide poisoning.

Dr Mikel argues that the issue really wasn't very serious, anyway. He said that children probably only had the flu, since herbicide poisoning doesn't usually entail fever (which seven of the twenty children had); that the progress of technological society necessitates some risks ("If we worried about the risk of rooves falling on our heads, we'd still be in mud huts," he said); that parents complain about weeds that children are allergic to, and then about the means of killing the weeds ("We can't win"); and that the parents are just troublemakers ("If they were really concerned about hazards to their children... they'd be campaigning against drunk drivers and that sort of thing").

Dr Parrott at one point argued that the children probably only had the flu, and on another occasion accused parents of deliberately subjecting their children to 2,4-D spray so they would develop symptoms.

Dr D.N. Huntley is the chairman of the Ministry of the Environment's Pesticides Advisory Committee. Dr Huntley told the Sun that he had concluded that 2,4-D was safe. He emphasized that the herbicide was legal, had been widely used for 30 years, and that none of the dozens of studies concluding that 2,4-D can lead to cancer or genetic defects are conclusive.

The other investigation urged by PASS concerned the spraying of 2,4-D in high winds. Whitehead has alleged that "the whole town stank after one spraying." One of the Ministry guidelines on the use of herbicides is that spraying be done in winds no higher than seven miles per hour to prevent the drifting of the chemical on to other property. But the Ministry's Pesticide Division Supervisor, Doug Wilson, told reporters that if a licensed applicator does the spraying, "then we can't stop it. He's doing nothing illegal."

PASS continues to fight 2,4-D spraying because it believes that there is evidence that it is harmful.

David Carlisle, a scientist with the federal ministry Environment Canada, has conducted tests in the Warkworth region and concluded that children who played on the grass within 48 hours of of spraying were exposed to 1,000 times the acceptable limit. Warkworth area doctor George Astaphan has commented that doctors would not suspect children they examined to be suffering from herbicide poisoning unless they knew of exposure because the symptoms are not unlike dermatological rashes and the flu - spraying has never been publicized before, so related illnesses likely went unnoticed.

2,4-D is primarily used in agriculture, and particularly in grain production. Saskatchewan's Minister of Agriculture, Edgar Kaeding, has announced that because of the herbicide's suspected hazards he will act to ban 2,4-D when a substitute is available.

The irony of the situation is that only one of the Northumberland-Newcastle District's 55 schools is sprayed for a serious weed - and that is poison ivy. In the other 54 playgrounds, 2,4-D is used to kill dandelions. PASS and the NDP have emphasized that they are not trying to get 2,4-D banned: they simply want to restrict its use on playgrounds. Whitehead has argued that, after accidents, the number one killer of children is cancer, and numerous studies indicate that 2,4-D causes cancer.

The Warkworth Journal recently wrote, "We feel quite strongly that if there is any doubt, or any possibility of harm... then the spraying should be halted." Linda Bird, the Warkworth mother of one of the sick children, has commented, "I don't see why they don't just mow the lawn. There would be no danger in that."

PASS has not given up. on July 11 the group will meet with Mike Cassidy at NDP candidate Hugh Jenney's Warkworth home and discuss their plans. As Mr. Whitehead says, "There's always next year."


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