Three recent news stories prompted my thoughts on this issue: the Environmental Protection Agency’s release last month of its long-awaited report on the health effects of dioxins, which notes that Americans usually eat their dioxins; the Monsanto settlement of a class-action suit brought by the residents of Nitro, WVa., home of a former plant that manufactured Agent Orange and poisoned the area’s land and water; and Monsanto’s partnership with Dow AgroSciences to use a new/old form of chemical warfare to combat superweeds (which are, ironically, the result of previous heavy pesticide applications).
Taken together, these stories reflect America’s schizophrenic attitude toward these chemical cocktails that affect our health, our planet and everyone’s food. The dioxins in question are pernicious, persistent pollutants that lodge in animal fat and remain in the environment for decades, even longer.
They’re linked to cancers and diseases of most every corner of the human body: reproductive, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine, nervous and immune. Dioxins stunt growth and contribute to lower IQs. They harm living creatures at the tiniest doses, leading at least some health experts to say there is no safe level of dioxin exposure. (Others have set slightly different standards.) Dioxins are byproducts of combustion from—among other sources—garbage fires, paper mills and chemical plants that produce pesticides and herbicides.
That’s why Nitro residents fought to win 30 years worth of medical testing for people exposed to the mess Monsanto left in their town. The people won, and now Monsanto is footing a $93 million bill. (To put that in perspective, the company reported in January unexpectedly high quarterly profits of $126 million and a predicted 2012 free cash flow that could hit $1.5 billion.)
Yet, at the same time, Truthout reports the agrochemical giant is working with partner Dow to market a new form of genetically modified corn (Dow’s invention) that will withstand double doses of the herbicide 2,4-D combined with Roundup (Monsanto’s invention). If all goes according to plan, nothing but the GM corn will survive in the sprayed fields.
2,4-D was introduced to farmers as an herbicide in the 1940s. Scientists soon discovered that when mixed with another substance, 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), the result formed a quick and potent defoliant. That combination was eventually given the catchy name Agent Orange for the colored bands around the 55-gallon drums in which it was stored during the Vietnam War. At that time, military scientists didn’t realize Agent Orange contained toxic dioxins that have since poisoned unknown numbers of veterans and civilians.
Today, 2,4-D is commonly used with other chemicals to help make our lawns weed-free. Granted, 2,4-D alone isn’t as heavily dioxin-laden as Agent Orange. But it has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, hormone disruption, birth defects, neurologic problems and lowered sperm counts. Fans say 2,4-D meets all safety guidelines, but foes say it’s a toxin that indeed contains dioxins (keeping in mind that at least some scientists say there is no safe level of dioxin exposure). Whom to believe?
The contradictions smack of past debates over who knew what when about how bad Agent Orange was or wasn’t.
Today, pretty much everyone agrees: it was bad. Really, really bad. American companies made the stuff (agents Orange, Pink, Green, Purple, White and Blue). And US forces used a lot of the stuff (21 million gallons or more between 1961 and 1971). An estimated two-thirds of those herbicides contained dioxin. They keep up to 2 million acres in southern Vietnam barren today.
“There is no doubt that certain parts of Vietnam are still contaminated with dioxin from Agent Orange and that there are an unknown number of people living in Vietnam who have elevated levels of dioxin,” Arnold Schecter, professor of Environmental and Occupational Medical Sciences at the University of Texas, told a House subcommittee in 2008. “We have documented elevated dioxins in Vietnam in over 100 articles published in the Western scientific literature.”
But what about Laos?
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