Tips for drinking common herbicidesPosted by Tom Fletcher
I’ve had a few readers upset about my column about “cosmetic pesticide” bans, the clumsy terminology used by do-gooders to target federally-approved lawn and garden herbicides at the municipal and provincial level.
It’s often difficult to get these vocal critics to specify what chemicals they’re talking about. They’d rather lecture about the precautionary principle, undemonstrated synergistic effects or the practice of making manufacturers pay for product testing. Some even resort to analyzing the English usage in reports they disagree with.
A key target for the last 30 years has been Roundup and its maker, Monsanto. Note that the fight has recently been carried from lawns, gardens and golf courses to farms, where the vast majority of chemical herbicides are used. The city of Richmond ignored its own staff advice last week and wandered into federal jurisdiction, declaring a ban on genetically modified crops, which in Canada consist mainly of “Roundup-ready” corn and canola.
One reader wasn’t shy about mentioning Roundup. Neil Madsen is Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Alberta, now retired in Oak Bay. He writes:
I enjoyed your column on the hysterical reactions to any chemical use. With regard to Roundup, this compound is a very specific inhibitor of an enzyme unique to photosynthesis. Therefore it affects only photosynthesizing organisms, typically green plants.
It has even gone through phase one clinical trials (which test safety for humans) because there was some idea that it might help with arthritis. No such luck. In other words, you could drink the stuff with no ill effect.
When Oak Bay council proposed banning all “pesticides” including Roundup, I wrote them pointing out these facts. To no avail; they just went along with the herd, and copied the type of ban that Saanich has. Well, keep up the good work of speaking truth to ignorance. It might eventually help.
Which brings us to the photo above. That’s BC Hydro chairman Gordon Shrum in 1970, taking up the Vancouver media’s challenge to drink a glass of water containing the herbicide marketed as Tordon, whose active ingredient was 2,4-D. This was the target of an early environmental activist group, SPEC, which in those days stood for Society for Pollution and Environmental Control.
As he related in his autobiography, Shrum made a speech in which he rejected SPEC claims that there was a risk to human health from BC Hydro spraying power line rights-of-way with 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, which SPEC literature described as a threat to cause birth defects. Shrum writes:
“In my speech, I emphasized that power line spraying did not represent a poisonous threat to animals and humans, and I pointed out that SPEC was guilty of misusing scientific data by extrapolating to human beings the results of massive defoliant injections given to mice and rats. ‘On the basis of injections given to a mouse,’ I told the meeting, ‘you would have to give a pregnant woman two injections a day, every day for 150 years.’ I then said I would not be afraid to drink the chemicals myself.”
Shrum did so in a televised demonstration, as did BC Hydro’s staff chemist. Their Tordon cocktail was mixed at 10 times the strength being used for spraying. He later obliged still-skeptical reporters by doing the same with a mixture of 2,4,5-T.
Of course 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T were the notorious components of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam. Most people don’t appreciate the detail that it wasn’t these short-lived chemicals that proved so damaging, but rather dioxin that was produced when production of the herbicides was ramped up for use by the U.S. military.
This misconception persists today, encouraged by activists. CTV recently did a scientifically-challenged report on herbicide use in B.C. forests, referring to the chemicals they applied as “Agent Orange.”