Bonnie Hill: Oregon Environmental Activist

Bonnie Hill describes how she became an environmental activist in the late 1970s—when she and other local residents of coastal Oregon noticed a connection between herbicide spraying and miscarriages—and chose to stay involved in the issue.

| November/December 1981

072 bonnie hill environmental activist

Oregon resident Bonnie Hill became an environmental activist in the last 1970s as a result of miscarriages linked to herbicide spraying.


On June 22, 1981 a Chicago federal grand jury indicted four former officials of Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories, charging that they had knowingly given the government false information involving the results of safety tests run on pesticides and related chemicals. On the basis of the supposedly false reports, the active ingredients of some 218 pesticides were registered by the EPA. Agency investigators have since detected serious deficiencies in the work of some 25 other U.S. laboratories that are responsible for determining the health effects of such substances.  

Several of the chemicals whose approval for widespread use may have resulted—at least in part—from questionable testing, have proved to contain dioxins, a group of extremely toxic substances formed in the manufacture of chlorinated phenols. Of the 75 known dioxins (which cannot be seen, smelled, or sensed in any way), the most poisonous is 2,3,7,8- tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, commonly known as TCDD. Such herbicides as 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) and Silvex contain traces of the poison.  

Agent Orange (a name you're probably familiar with, thanks to the attention given it by the national press) is a 50/50 mix of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D (a similar phenoxy herbicide), and its extensive use in Vietnam has resulted in thousands of reported health problems ranging from nervous disorders and liver damage to cancer and birth defects. In Texas, for example, out of the first 100 individuals interviewed by the Brotherhood of Vietnam Veterans, 24 had fathered a total of 35 deformed children, including six who died.  

Help has not been quick in coming to these ex-soldiers. Other herbicide victimsfrom railroad workers to farm laborers—are finding that government and big business all too often seem inclined to put corporate profits before the health of human beings. Probably the most callous response to the problem occurred in Ashford, Washington, where the toxic effects of 2,4-D allegedly contributed to the fact that only one child out of 12 pregnancies is alive and healthy today. (Of the group, nine women miscarried, one baby was stillborn, and one died of a heart defect after 16 days.) There, a timber company chemist told an assembly of concerned women that "babies are replaceable," and that they should "plan their pregnancies around the spray schedule ."  

Faced with that kind of corporate/government attitude, there would seem to be little that one individual can do. Yet Bonnie Hill—a high school English teacher and the mother of one son and three daughters—found the time, energy, and courage to change the herbicide habits of our entire country! As a direct result of her concern over miscarriages in Oregon, the Environmental Protection Agencyon March 1, 1979declared a temporary suspension of 2,4,5-T and Silvex spraying, an order which is still in effect.  

The agency then set out to obtain a permanent ban on the use of the two chemicals, by demonstrating the relationship of the substances to a host of health problems. After almost a yearof testimony, however, during which the EPA produced scores of studies and witnesses (including Bonnie Hill), the manufacturer—Dow Chemical—suddenly asked Administrative Law Judge Edward B. Finch to recess the hearing indefinitely. Behind closed doors, the agency and the firm have begun to negotiate a "compromise solution"... which may result in nothing more than a change in the wording on the herbicide labels!  

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