Agent Orange: A Tragic Legacy

In an effort to help tip the scales for the United States during the Vietnam War, Agent Orange was developed by biotechnological companies in order to help clear dense fields, giving soldiers a clearer vision of their targets.  Along with the loss of vegetation, the was an additional hope that Vietnamese farmers would relocate to U.S. occupied cities, and no longer be able to grow and provide for the Vietnamese troops. 

It was known as Operation Ranch Hand and lasted from 1962 to 1971; during this time, the United States military dropped millions of gallons of this synthetic herbicide over large areas of the country—spraying some areas multiple times over.  It was named Agent Orange after the colored bands that were used to mark the drums that it was stored in (others were considered Agent White, Blue, Pink, Green, and Purple).

And with the effectiveness of the chemical, came a life threatening by-product, dioxin.  According to the American Cancer Society, the particular dioxin contained in Agent Orange is “one of the most toxic” man-made chemicals existing today—a weapon no doubt.  High levels of dioxin rained down on the land and people of Vietnam, becoming absorbed in the soil and contaminating it completely during the war and for generations to come.

In one of the most obvious displays of chemical warfare, Agent Orange has left a debilitating mark on hundreds of thousands of people, both Vietnamese and Americans alike.  In the 50 years since its first use, various types of cancer (including prostate and leukemia) birth defects, and other high-risk diseases have been cropping up from one generation to the next.  And that is not the least of it.

The damage done to the land is practically irreversible and threatens all who continue to live off of and on it.  “With the sole exception of nuclear weapons, never has such an inhuman fate ever before been reserved for the survivors…” explains Dr. Ton That Tung.  To this day, many victims and their families have had the minimal of financial support from the parties responsible.  Whenever pressed for an explanation, governmental bodies and biotechnological companies, like Monsanto Company and The Dow Chemical Company who were both behind Agent Orange’s development, have skirted around a real answer and real compensation.  Sums so far received by victims and their families have been laughably minimal.

In 1978, Paul Rheutershan was, like many other service members, told not to worry about Agent Orange—that it was all “relatively nontoxic to humans and animals.”  Skeptical that that was actually the case, Rheutershan created Agent Orange Victims International to act as a voice for the numerous victims in a similar situation to his, and took his case to court. He eventually passed away due to the cancer that quickly spread its way throughout his body.  And with that, his case was soon laid to rest as well.

For many years after this effort, the Veterans Administration denied claims that Agent Orange was negatively affecting the health of so many people.  Additionally, the U.S. Department of Defense has expressed the unlikelihood that Agent Orange would affect the health of military personnel, stating that by the time troops entered these areas that were excessively sprayed, it was no longer considered a reasonable threat.    

In 2004, Vietnamese victims filed a class action lawsuit against Monsanto, Dow, and other chemical engineering companies responsible for the creation of Agent Orange. The case was practically looked at like it was a joke and a minimal settlement was reached between the victims and these multi-billion dollar corporation, barely providing the bare minimum for each sufferer—and nothing for their family.

Today, there are still numerous victims fighting for what they deserve, and the future of their family, and quietly being turned away. It is unacceptable to think that such an atrocious act can go by unacknowledged and without the proper amends for as long as this has.  In no logical way, can an instance of genocide (which this is) of this magnitude be pushed under the rug, but it has. Only the minimal amount of help has been offered to the victims and nothing more.  When it comes to Agent Orange and the victims it has claimed, and continues to claim, no real progress has been made for the benefit of the victims.   

Until the United States government and the responsible corporations are held accountable in their role of this bioterrorism war crime, these countless victims will continue to be overlooked and unassisted. To urge President Obama and members of Congress to acknowledge the country’s use of Agent Orange sign the petition here.  In addition to that, help hold Monsanto Company and The Dow Chemical Company financially responsible for the victims by signing this petition.

Photo Credit: blogs.va.gov/VAntage/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/agent-orange1-xa.jpg

Agricultural Pesticides Threatening Great Barrier Reef

A new water quality survey conducted by the Australian government shows that agricultural pesticides are harming the Great Barrier Reef in a significant way. 

Pesticides were found as far as 38 miles into the reef at levels deemed toxic for coral. 

Although coral bleaching has been touted as the biggest threat to the reef in recent years, this is the first government report conducted on water quality in the area and it indicates significant risks to the health of coral in the region as a result of agricultural runoff. 

While the reef is “in moderate condition overall,” the study found that nearly 25 percent of horticulture producers and 12 percent of pastoral farmers were “using practices deemed unacceptable by the industry,” reported the BBC. 

The Herald Sun explained that 14 million tons of sediment from human activities wash into the coral reef annually, originating primarily from cattle farms in the northeast regions of Australia. 

Cyclone Yasi, which swept through the region earlier this year, is thought to have exacerbated the dissemination of sediment and toxins when it churned up waters off the coast of Australia.  Environmental groups, however, point out that the study’s findings are not based upon data from this year, so severe weather cannot fully explain the breadth of the pollutants’ dispersal. 

Similarly, the agriculture industry claimed the dated nature of the information, collected from 2008 to 2009, renders it an inaccurate reflection of current practices they claim are now more eco-friendly.  The data does not show what Steve Greenwood of Canegrowers called, “signs of very, very significant change” in the reef. 

The sugar cane industry has been particularly targeted by environmentalists as one of the primary sources of agricultural runoff and pollution in Australia’s waters. 

“The majority of the 28,000 kilograms of pesticide runoff comes from the Mackay and Whitsunday sugarcane farming region in north Queensland,” reported The Herald Sun. 

Sugar cane farmers claim that no real alternatives to pesticides and weed killers exist to protect their crops, and that banning such chemicals would cause a “major setback” to their industry. 

In particularly hot contention is the chemical Diuron, a weed-killing pesticide currently suspended from use by farmers while the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority decide whether its harm to waterways is significant enough to justify a ban on its usage. 

The decision will be made by September 30, giving sugar cane growers and other industry representatives just over a month to present a compelling case for its continued application. 

“The Queensland government is investing $175 million over five years to implement a reef plan, including $50 million to implement reef protection laws and research.”

The World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups are advocating for the ban to protect what is considered the world’s largest collection of barrier reefs, housing 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 species of mollusk. 

In recent years, conservation efforts to protect this prized natural wonder have concentrated upon mitigating the threat of coral bleaching caused by climate change.  Coral bleaching occurs when corals expel colorful algal cells from their tissue as a result of stress.  Their white skeletons are then visible through their transparent outer tissue. 

Sources of stress include changes in water temperature, salinity, extreme light, toxic exposure, and more factors associated with climate change.  Although coral can recover from bleaching if a healthy environment is restored, many also are unable to recuperate and eventually die. 

Conservation efforts are, thus, crucial to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, which is listed as a World Heritage Site and is considered one of the great natural wonders of the world.

Photo credit: farm6.static.flickr.com/5015/5565696408_8819b64a61.jpg

Countries to Phase Out Toxic Endosulfan

endosulfan-cotton-ban-StockholmLast week the 127 nations participating in the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty on limiting the use of dangerous and persistent pollutants, agreed to phase out the use of the toxic pesticide endosulfan by 2017.  Endosulfan, which is used to control pest insects on crops like cotton and coffee, has been linked to health problems like neurological damage, endocrine disruption, and birth defects in humans.  Exposure to large amounts of endosulfan can result in seizures, unconsciousness and death.  Environmental and health organizations like the Pesticide Action Network hailed the global phase-out of endosulfan as a major victory.

Starting next year, endosulfan’s uses will be limited in countries that participate in the Stockholm Convention.  Exceptions will be made for application on certain crops, until it is phased out completely in 2017.  The United States, one of the few major economies and users of endosulfan that has not ratified the Stockholm Convention, will not be bound by the international agreement.  However the US already has plans to phase out endosulfan, with the Environmental Protection Agency announcing last year that the pesticide’s use in the US will end by 2016.  Around eighty other countries had also announced bans on endosulfan before last week.

Still, an international agreement to eliminate endosulfan didn’t come easily.  The idea was at first strongly opposed by India, which is one of the biggest users of the pesticide and manufactures about half of the endosulfan produced on the planet.  Endosulfan in India is produced by the government-owned company Hindustan Insecticides Ltd.  The Indian government was persuaded to sign onto the endosulfan phase-out only after temporary exemptions for use on certain crops were added. 

Endosulfan is an organochlorine, meaning it belongs to the same group of chemicals as the infamous DDT.  Until now it has been one of the few organochlorines still used in the United States and large parts of the rest of the world.  In fact it has been used in such large quantities that it has spread throughout the atmosphere and across the planet, finding its way into the air we breathe and the water we drink.  Endosulfan can be found at varying concentrations even in the Arctic and other parts of the world far away from where it is actually used. 

Endosulfan shares many traits in common with DDT, including the ability to persist for long periods of time in the environment and to accumulate in the bodies of animals as it moves up the food chain.  Endosulfan has been blamed with contributing to declining populations of fish, amphibians, and other wildlife.  The impacts on people are especially severe in the developing world, where farmers who lack access to protective equipment spray their fields with the deadly chemical. 

Groups like the Pesticide Action Network have fought to end the use of endosulfan for years, but only recently have they come close to victory.  Last year’s announcement that the United States would phase out endosulfan was a major milestone, as was a similar decision on the part of the Brazilian government to end the pesticide’s use.  These victories at the national level helped build the momentum needed for a global phase-out of endosulfan.  When participants in the Stockholm Convention met last month, they took up the issue amidst widespread support for a ban.  It was unclear until late in the process whether India would consent to any kind of phase-out, but concessions made at the request of the Indian government were enough to eventually get the country on board.

It is now up to countries around the world to follow through on their commitments to ending the use of endosulfan.  If this is done successfully, the next six years will see this hazardous and pervasive chemical relegated to the history bin.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/flydime/2892507142/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Ban Urged for Bee-Killing Pesticide

January 11, 2011

By: Nick Engelfried 

A sharp decline in the populations of several bee species threatens to affect the health of important US food crops by depriving them of the pollination service bees provide.  Since 2005 bees in the US have been declining due to a once-mysterious illness known as colony collapse disorder.  Not all the news is grim however: recent scientific studies suggest banning the use of certain pesticides could help bees recover and go on pollinating crops for years to come.  In response to these findings, environmentalists have launched a campaign pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban chemicals linked to bee die-offs.

US bee keepers and researchers first began noticing large-scale honey bee die-offs in the in 2005, and the name “colony collapse disorder” was coined soon afterwards.  For years scientists were unable to pin down the cause of the die-offs, though parasites and chemical pesticides were regarded as the most likely suspects.  Meanwhile the severity of the problem has continued to grow: there is now evidence that colony collapse disorder or a similar malady is affecting not only honey bees, but at least four bumble bee species that are also important plant pollinators.  Today researchers suspect bee declines are caused by a combination of factors, including parasites and habitat loss.  But the most important contributor of all may be a group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

Based on the chemical nicotine, neonicotinoids were first applied to crop fields in the United States in the late 1990s, and since that time their use has increased steadily.  In 2003 the German-based company Bayer applied to the EPA for permission to sell a neonicotinoid called clothianidin on the US market.  Now used on corn, sugar beets, canola, wheat, and other crops, clothianidin interferes with the nervous systems of insects and is meant to kill insect pests.  However deadly compounds from the pesticide also end up in the nectar and pollen of crops, where they affect bees and other pollinators that come to the flowers to feed.

Unbeknownst to the public in 2003, EPA scientists expressed concern that clothianidin could seriously harm the honey bees that pollinate important crops.  However the EPA granted “conditional approval” for Bayer to sell the pesticide anyway, allowing its application on vast stretches of US farmland.  Since then Bayer has conducted studies it says show the pesticide has no significant effect on bee populations. 

But independent researchers, like entomologist James Frazier of Pennsylvania State University, say the studies were flawed.  According to Frazier, Bayer attempted to compare the health of bee colonies exposed to clothianidin with those not exposed to the chemical.  But Bayer’s methodology failed to ensure the bee populations were kept separate, invalidating the conclusions drawn from the study.

Finally in December of 2010, leaked emails and other documents highlighted instances where the EPA ignored the advice of its own scientists so Bayer would be allowed to sell clothianidin in the United States.  During the same time period other countries where bees have declined have been banning use of the chemical.  France, Slovenia, Italy, and Germany—the country where Bayer is based—have all outlawed the use of clothianidin.  Since banning the pesticide these countries have seen dramatic improvements in their bee populations.  Environmental organizations like the Pesticide Action Network are now calling on the EPA to ban clothianidin in the United States.  The online activism group Avaaz.org has launched a petition asking EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to end the use of the chemical.

Losing the most important pollinator bees in the US would affect not only crops grown for food, but natural ecosystems from woodlands to alpine meadows.  Particularly worrying from the standpoint of native plant and animal life is the fact that bumble bees as well as honey bees are showing signs of decline.  Populations of four bumble bee species studied by researchers have already declined by 96% leading to fears that these species could disappear completely.  Part of the importance of bumble bees is they remain active at lower temperatures than most other insect pollinators, and emerge from hibernation to pollinate the first flowers of spring before other bees are out and about.

“Bees are dying off and our entire food chain is in peril,” says Avaaz.org.  “If we urgently get the [US] government to join the ban [on clothianidin] we could save bees from extinction.”

Photo credit: Andy Hay

California Approves Toxic Pesticide for Strawberries

In a move strongly criticized by environmental groups and scientific experts on chemical pollution, California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation has approved the use of a chemical known to cause cancer, brain damage, and other diseases in people who handle it.  The pesticide methyl iodide may soon be sprayed on strawberry fields across the state of California, which supplies 90% of the strawberries grown in the United States.  In an effort to keep this from happening, environmental and health groups like Pesticide Action Network North America are urging that California governor-elect Jerry Brown pledge to reverse the decision on methyl iodide as soon as he takes office on January 3. 

California’s strawberry industry isn’t new to controversy over pesticides.  For decades industrial-scale strawberry growers in California have sprayed their crops with methyl bromide—a chemical which contributes to depletion of the planet’s protective ozone layer.  Methyl iodide is an alternative pesticide that agricultural companies have proposed as a replacement for methyl bromide.  But while methyl iodide does not deplete the ozone layer, it is even more dangerous to human health than methyl bromide.  Farm workers who harvest or handle strawberries, and people in communities located near strawberry fields, are at particularly high risk when it is used. 

“The science on this chemical speaks for itself,” says the Pesticide Action Network.  “Methyl iodide is a known carcinogen, neurotoxin and thyroid toxicant.”  In 2007 six Nobel Prize-winning scientists spoke against approving use of the chemical at a federal level, but were overruled the next year by the George W. Bush administration.  In 2008 the Bush Environmental Protection Agency approved the practice of using methyl iodide as a soil fumigant.

After that federal decision, individual states had to decide whether they would allow the chemical’s use in their fields.  This prompted the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) in California to open a public comment period on the issue.  The DPR received 53,000 comments from Californians—most of which, according the Pesticide Action Network, opposed the idea of approving methyl iodide.  Meanwhile California’s industrial strawberry growing industry and a Japan-based company that makes methyl iodide lobbied hard for the chemical’s approval. 

Last week those in favor of the chemical won their case, and the DPR gave permission for methyl iodide to be used on strawberry fields.  “Scientific warnings were no match for an intense lobbying effort…and a full-court press by the state’s powerful $2 billion per year strawberry-growing industry,” said the online activist group Change.org in an email. 

Now environmental groups hope a sustained public outcry can persuade California’s elected officials to put the breaks on methyl iodide before it reaches the country’s most important strawberry fields.  When incoming governor Jerry Brown—who also served as governor of California from 1975 to 1983—takes office he could order a moratorium on the use of methyl iodide.  An email from Change.org expressed hope that Brown might act to stop the use of this chemical, because Brown “has a solid environmental track record.” 

When used by industrial strawberry growers, methyl iodide is applied to fields to sterilize the soil and kill off weeds and disease organisms before strawberries are planted.  Pesticides formerly used to grow strawberries, like methyl bromide, are used in the same way.  While small-scale organic strawberry growers produce this popular fruit without pesticides, no method for raising the crop on an industrial scale without soil sterilization has caught on in the United States.  The California Strawberry Commission, a group with concerns about the impacts of pesticides on those who handle strawberries, is investigating ways the fruit might be grown on a large scale without use of toxic chemicals like methyl iodide.    

Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus