THE HERBICIDE 2,4-D: problems old and new-a personal story and the formation of a surprising coalition
Old Problems: One of the chemicals that Rachel Carson discussed in Silent Spring was the herbicide, 2,4-D. RCC has provided information on 2,4-D toxicity in response to requests from members of the public who have endeavored with varying degrees of success to keep themselves and their neighbors from being exposed to 2,4-D. This information is reflected on the RCC web site and in our brochures. Our research has indicated that this chemical is linked to both immediate toxicity and long term chronic conditions: including neurological disorders, cancer and endocrine disrupting effects in people. Scientific data has shown that dogs are significantly more sensitive than many people to the adverse effects of 2,4-D due to a slow excretion rate of this chemical from their bodies. A healthy young dog developed life-threatening kidney failure following exposure to a lawn freshly treated with a product consisting of 2,4-D and two related herbicides. (Nera's medical records) Signs of immediate 2,4-D poisoning in dogs have included: digestive problems such as vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and oral ulceration; neurological signs such as depression, incoordination and weakness; as well as myotonia (muscle stiffness) of the rear legs. (Blodgett, D., DVM July 1986) "In humans, prolonged breathing of 2,4-D causes coughing, burning, dizziness, and temporary loss of muscle coordination. Other symptoms of poisoning can be fatigue and weakness, with... nausea." (Kamrin, Pesticide Profiles, 1997)
We recently investigated a widely used product that was being proposed for application to residential turf and is available to members of the public (it is not restricted). It is a combination of 2,4-D and two related herbicides, in the following proportions: 2,4-D (30.56%), dicamba (2.77%) and MCPP (mecoprop) (8.17%). This formulation's label bears the signal word: "DANGER." This is the highest toxicity designation by the USEPA for a pesticide label and indicates that the product is hazardous to people—yet it was and is being used on community turf! Were residents aware of this product's toxic potential?
The chlorophenoxy herbicides including 2,4-D and dicamba are known to drift and to damage certain garden plants whether they are ornamentals, vegetables or fruits. These chemicals also are hazardous to commercial crops including tomatoes, grapes and others. More about this under A New Problem.
A Personal story from concerned pet owner Nancy Dillon: "Fifty years after Rachel Carson's warnings, it's still a toxic spring."
"If you choose to live in an apartment or condo complex due to its pet-friendly allure, make certain to insist that management does not use phenoxy herbicides such as 2,4-D, on the lawns where you walk, play or breathe. Most phenoxy herbicides, including 2,4-D, must be disposed of in the same manner as toxic waste should be; yet this same toxic substance is liberally sprayed on the lawns where dogs and children walk and play. And remember that these hazardous products are tracked inside on shoes and paws and are brought inside through the air via doors and windows.
As Dr. Oz advised in "O" [The Oprah Magazine] (January 2011), we should always remove our shoes before coming inside because lawn chemicals (herbicides) have been linked to certain cancers and neurological and reproductive disorders. Dogs and cats can't leave their shoes at the door.
A half-century ago, the noted biologist Rachel Carson alerted the world to hazards associated with pesticide usage in her landmark book, Silent Spring. Her concerns inspired the American public and led to the formation of the modern-day environmental movement. Carson warned, "we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us we must fill our world with chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us" (Silent Spring, pp. 277-8).
We can debate the studies regarding the safety of lawn chemicals (and pesticide product ingredients) for years more to come just as the cigarette controversy continued decades after Sir Richard Doll linked cigarettes to lung cancer back in 1949. Only recently have we banned cigarette smoking in public places because of the hazards of second-hand smoke. Shouldn't there be rights to being free from the health risks of phenoxy herbicide and other 'cosmetic lawn products'?
Such pesticides cannot be called 'safe'. When my landlord used 2,4-D on our lawns and my Irish setter died of cutaneous lymphosarcoma, I had to wonder about the connection. When my cousin's working dog, a German shepherd used to patrol the grounds at the Wexner estate, developed nasal sarcoma, my cousin's wife wondered if it could have been due to pesticides. When my other setter, Gracie, suffered ataxia, stumbling and collapsing with muscle weakness due to pesticides, I didn't have to wonder what caused it: I knew. Gracie was perfectly fine when she wasn't on or around pesticide-treated areas.
For the past year and a half or more, they haven't treated the grass. Now our condominium community is gearing up to treat its vast lawns and green spaces with 2,4-D. I'd bet that if all the residents there were to study and debate the risk/benefit of having 2,4-D sprayed around their homes, they'd insist that the property management and new landscapers not use the phenoxy herbicide. The parents and dog lovers I've spoken to are certainly not in favor of 2,4-D being used. Residents should have informed consent about such matters.
Wouldn't it be wonderful in the springtime to be able to open your doors and windows and breathe air that doesn't harbor 2,4-D? Isn't that everybody's right? Bless the children and dogs, those most vulnerable to the hazardous effects of lawn chemicals, our innocent miners' canaries in yet another toxic spring of misguided lawn vanity. Maintaining our lawns ought not to expose anyone to health risks." 1
A New Problem: An industrial agricultural company has created a major crop plant that is genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide 2,4-D (as well as the herbicide glyphosate). Dow AgroSciences is asking our government to deregulate its genetically engineered corn, soybean and cotton crop varieties that tolerate applications of the 2,4-D herbicide (these restrictions currently prevent their marketing these seeds) as a partial solution to the increasing amount of weed resistance to glyphosate.2 Greatly expanded use of 2,4-D is anticipated and the threats to home gardens as well as to specialty commercial crops such as tomatoes, green beans etc. are viewed as substantial. Environmentalists have objected to the introduction of these new genetically engineered crops with their tolerances for multiple herbicides, in part due to their potential for increasing the use of these toxic chemicals.
A Coalition is Formed: From an unexpected agricultural source has come strong opposition to major crops genetically engineered to tolerate 2,4-D. These are the growers and processors of other vegetable crops. They anticipate increased use of 2,4-D if seed for corn, soy and cotton, tolerant of this and similar herbicides come to the market. These farmers have created the Save our Crops Coalition to object to greater use of 2,4-D and dicamba because, as many of our supporters already know, these chlorophenoxy chemical herbicides, "...have high potential to drift and volatize and can cause significant damage to non-target specialty crops [tomatoes, green beans, grapes, etc.] even at very low application rates." (Pearl, Larry, "Ag coalition petitions EPA, USDA for further review of herbicide-tolerant GM crops, Pesticide & Chemical Policy, 4-20-12)
This Coalition of growers has petitioned the USDA to do an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) "on the cumulative impacts associated with the deregulation of such herbicide-tolerant GM crops, as opposed to just doing the less detailed environmental assessments on a crop-by-crop basis..." They also have petitioned the USEPA. (Pearl, Larry, "Ag coalition petitions EPA, USDA for further review of herbicide-tolerant GM crops," Pesticide & Chemical Policy, 4-20-12)
Tomato farmer, Jody Herr blamed the chlorophenoxy herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba for poisoning his crop in 2009 when these powerful herbicides drifted to his fields from farms nearly two miles away. (Pollack, A., "A Battle Over an Engineered Crop: Groups Oppose a Corn Impervious to a Weed Killer," The New York Times, 4-26-12) What about tomatoes in kitchen garden plots exposed to 2,4-D?
For years we at RCC have been informing the public about the dangers of 2,4-D to many ornamental and garden vegetable plants, including some of our most beloved plants. "Save Our Crops Coalition," by its very existence, shows farmers' awareness of what we have been trying to tell gardeners about the adverse effects of chlorophenoxy herbicides. The farmers' knowledge of the hazards of these herbicides is derived from their own bitter experiences, often involving loss of produce and income. It seems unfortunate that, 50 years after Silent Spring's publication the public has to re-learn what Rachel Carson told us, "The herbicides then, like the insecticides, include some very dangerous chemicals and their careless use in the belief that they are "safe" can have disastrous results." (Silent Spring)
In April 2012, in solidarity with the Save Our Crops Coalition and in the public interest, RCC wrote to USDA opposing the granting of nonregulated status for corn genetically modified to tolerate 2,4-D and other chlorophenoxy herbicides.
Here is an idea for friends of RCC to consider: What about homeowners forming a "Save Our Gardens Coalition" to protect tomatoes and other edible plants (as well as ornamentals) from 2,4-D applications in the neighborhood. This could also help to keep pets and people safe.
- Excerpts from publication by Nancy Dillon appearing in The Free Press, Columbus, Ohio., May 10, 2012.
- The herbicide glyphosate has been used in conjunction with crops genetically engineered to tolerate the glyphosate-containing product Roundup. As a result of long term exposure, resistance has been noted in various weeds that previously had been susceptible to glyphosate.