More on Environmental Health Hazards: Herbicides

article image
At the time of the aerial spraying, our family of six ranged in age from five months to adult . . . and, afterward, our youngest son was not expected to live.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers share feedback on the Bits and Pieces topic of herbicides in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 31, and talk of personal stories and concerns about the environmental health hazards of herbicides.


We’re glad to see that MOTHER is bringing the problem of defoliants to the attention of the public (Bits and Pieces, MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 31).

Our family was sprayed with herbicides in 1969, during a watershed management program here in Arizona, and we’re still battling the ill effects of the poisoning. They include headaches, eye irritation and infections, convulsions, severe edema, lymphocytosis, allergic reactions, unusual tiredness, inability to concentrate, loss of feeling in the fingers and toes, extreme sensitivity to heat, light, and noise, and many other symptoms.

At the time of the aerial spraying, our family of six ranged in age from five months to adult . . . and, afterward, our youngest son was not expected to live. He repeatedly went into convulsions and stopped breathing in his sleep. Even now, at the age of six, he can’t be treated like other children. For example, a single tetanus shot must be administered in installments, and other inoculations must be handled the same way. We’re still in the process of suing Dow Chemical for manufacturing the poisons, and the U.S. Forest Service for using them in our area.

Needless to say, we’re very much aware of the herbicide problem (see MOTHER’s reply to Dennis Wiehl on page 136 of issue No. 34 for a comprehensive statement) and hope, to arouse the public’s fear of these chemicals so that they’ll be permanently banned as too dangerous to use. We really must all stop patronizing businesses and companies which profit from the sale and promotion of herbicides and pesticides. This is the only reliable way to ensure ourselves of protection from further poisoning.


Dennis Wiehl’s letter on herbicides (MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 34, page 136) was of particular interest to me, since I recently spent two years (1972-1974) doing research for my master’s thesis on 2,4-D, 2,4,5T, and their toxic effects on non-target objects. MOTHER’s response regarding the environmental health hazards of herbicides was a very accurate account of some of the problems involved with these chemicals, and prompted me to offer some additional information on the subject.

In any discussion of such topics it’s important to remember a basic principle of toxicology: Toxicity is probably a quantitative characteristic, and not a specific property of certain materials. Anything (water, aspirin, sugar, salt, etc.) can become deadly when taken in sufficient amounts. Therefore, so-called poisons are simply substances of which a relatively small quantity will impair health or endanger life. According to Karnofski’s Law: “Any drug administered at the proper time, at the proper dosage, will be effective in causing disturbances.”

By the above test, the major herbicides — especially in an unpurified form — certainly appear to qualify as “poisonous” to human beings. Research on the ability of 2,4-D, and 2,4,5-T to cause birth defects has been intense, and has centered recently around the deadly production contaminant dioxin. Chemists at Dow Chemical Company (Midland, Michigan) with whom I communicated stated that they believed this substance to be at least 500,000 times as potent as thalidomide. Steps have since been taken to remove most of the dioxin from the finished product, but concern still persists about the remainder . . . as well as about the toxicity of the herbicide itself. Several researchers (myself included) have found the purified forms of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T capable of producing birth defects.

Further information on all aspects of these herbicides is available, and I’ve prepared a comprehensive bibliography citing over 100 references (most of which appeared in scientific journals). Anyone who wishes a copy may send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to me at the Department of Zoology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

I myself earnestly avoid the use of all artificial chemical controls for weeds and insects . . . and if any of MOTHER’s readers purchase weedkillers, I recommend that they entirely avoid 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T formulations (these include many of the “popular” brands available for lawn and garden care) and seek alternative methods. We should all, I believe, ask ourselves the following question: Considering the costs, is any form of a chemical weed control really wise?


We — like many of MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers — live next to the Ozark National Forest and feel that a public hearing is needed on the herbicide program now underway in this area. Although the 1.2 million-acre forest is predominantly hardwood, pines are more profitable as timber . . . and 2,4,5-T, which affects only broadleaved species, is being used in some regions to kill trees which would normally compete with the softwoods. A draft environmental impact statement was filed with the Council on Environmental Quality last spring to permit the continuation of this activity.

As the May 1975. newsletter of the Arkansas Ecology Center pointed out, “it seems that while most people think our national forests are preserves, the truth is that they are government tree farms.”

If you want to oppose the continuation of the spraying program, write to Arkansas National Forest: Ozark St. Francis National Forest, Russellville. Arkansas.