By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
What does commercially produced corn have in common with many Vietnam War survivors? Soon, both will have been exposed to a weed killer that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified as a possible human carcinogen. The herbicide at issue is 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, commonly referred to as “2,4-D.” For several decades, 2,4-D has been used in the U.S. on farms, as well as on grassy areas like lawns, golf courses, and parks, and its use is expected to significantly increase if Dow Chemical is granted federal approval to sell corn seeds genetically modified to withstand it. 2,4-D was also once part of a deadly mix called Agent Orange, which the U.S. used during the Vietnam War to kill plants that provided enemy cover.
Agent Orange during the Vietnam War
Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. sprayed millions of gallons of herbicides (mostly Agent Orange) over parts of Vietnam and Laos as part of Operation Ranch Hand, a mission to eliminate enemy crops as well as all vegetation that enemy forces could hide within near U.S. bases.After veterans who returned to the U.S. in the 1970s began to report health problems such as cancer, skin rashes, reproductive consequences (birth defects and handicaps in their children) and psychological issues, scientific studies and various programs were commenced to address the link between Agent Orange and such health complications.
In 1984, a large class-action lawsuit against herbicide manufacturers was settled out of court, resulting in the establishment of the Agent Orange Settlement Fund, which provided veterans with $200 million in compensatory funds between 1988 and 1996. Today, since certain cancers, ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, type II diabetes and birth defects are presumed to be associated with exposure to herbicides like Agent Orange, many Vietnam War veterans and their survivors are eligible for related disability benefits.The tragedy caused by the use of Agent Orangeto U.S. Veterans and Vietnamese survivors alike was colossal.
In all fairness, most Agent Orange was an equal mix of 2,4-D, and another herbicide called 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, known as “2,4,5-T.” The 2,4,5-T chemical proved to be the more problematic because it contained dioxins: chemicals that were unintentionally created during the herbicide manufacturing process. The main dioxin byproduct of 2,4,5-T was the highly toxic 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD. However, many individuals and organizations are also concerned about the effects of 2,4-D on human health.
Environmental Group Tries to Get 2,4-D Banned
In 2008, The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), referred to by the New York Times as “One of the nation’s most powerful environmental groups,” filed a petition with the EPA asking the agency to ban the use of 2,4-D and to revoke the permitted tolerances of the chemical that are allowed in food.In addition to the fact that the EPA classifies 2,4-D as a hazardous air pollutant and that the chemical has been detected as a contaminant in ground and surface water, the NRDC asserts there are “dozens of scientific studies that have long demonstrated 2,4-D’s link to cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cell damage, severe hormonal disruption, reproductive problems and birth defects.”
The NRDC is especially concerned now about an expected increase in the use of 2,4-D on commercially grown crops:
Unfortunately, on April 9, 2012, the EPA denied the NRDC’s petition, finding that since 2,4-D does not cause unreasonable adverse effects to the environment, there was no basis to change existing regulations.In a nutshell, the agency said that the NRDC needed to show more than the herbicide’s potential for harm, and conduct a more thorough risk-benefit analysis. As reported by the New York Times, the EPA, in support of its decision, cited a study that had been conducted by Dow, was financed by the manufacturers of 2,4-D, and which showed that feeding the herbicide to rats did not result in reproductive problems due to disrupted hormone activity.
How am I Exposed to 2,4-D?
According to the NRDC, if you spray your lawn with it, it can be easily tracked into your home via shoes and pets. Young children who play on carpets indoors are the most vulnerable in terms of both exposure through the mouth, lungs and skin, and potential resulting health effects. Even if you don’t use 2,4-D on your property, others nearby who do subject your air and water to its toxic effects. Additionally, much the food you and your children eat may soon contain heavy 2,4-D residues if the USDA approves the use of GMO seeds designed to withstand it.
Unfortunately, corn and soy make up much of the typical American diet. With almost 73 million acres of land dedicated to harvesting corn, the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of corn. About 80 percent of this corn is used to feed livestock, poultry and fish, and the rest goes to corn-based foods or anything containing high fructose corn syrup. The U.S. also grows soy on roughly the same amount of land. Soybean oil accounts for 79 percent of all oils people consume in the U.S. and soy is also fed to livestock in significant amounts.Hence, while corn and soy are found in most processed and fast foods, they are also indirectly passed to us through commercially produced dairy products, eggs, meat, and poultry, as well as some farm-raised fish.
Currently, there are no federal guidelines which mandate that foods containing GMO ingredients be labeled as such. The only way to avoid consuming GMO corn or soy and herbicide residues is to eat organically produced food and produce (look for the USDA organic label). Even if the EPA’s position is that pesticide residues in food do not pose risk of harm that is unreasonable in relation to the benefits of pesticide use, do you really want to be slowly poisoning yourself with weed killer? As I always say, prevention is so much easier than cure…
References and Resources:
- Pollack, Andrew. “EPA Denies an Environmental Group’s Request to Ban a Widely Used Weed Killer.” NYTimes.com, April 9, 2012.
- The American Cancer Society. “Agent Orange and Cancer.” ACS.org, accessed April 11, 2012.
- U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. “Veterans Diseases Associated with Agent Orange.” Publichealth.va.gov, accessed April 11, 2012.
- National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Press Release: “NRDC Lawsuit Seeks to Ban Agent Orange Ingredient from Weed and Feed Products.” NRDC.org, Feb. 23, 2012.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Press Release: “EPA Denies Petition 2,4-D Pesticide.” EPA.gov, April 9, 2011.
- EPA. “Major Crops Grown in the United States.” EPA.gov, accessed April 11, 2012.
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