• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Herbicide Spraying in the Pacific Northwest

Air Date: Week of

Alan Siporen of member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon reports on a battle over the spraying of the herbicide 2,4-D on private Oregon timberlands. Local residents are concerned about possible health effects from the herbicide, which has been linked to miscarriages and birth defects. The controversy over spraying is fueling a debate in Oregon over the relationship of private forest owners and their neighbors.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

How safe for people and the environment are synthetic chemicals, especially pesticides and herbicides? It's been hotly debated since the end of World War II, when these compounds were developed, and the disagreement continues. In the Pacific Northwest, the controversy has erupted in logging country. In young, second-growth forests, herbicides are often used to kill vegetation that competes with newly-planted trees. Now some people who live near plantations where herbicide spraying is planned fear that their health may be compromised. They've organized, and won a delay in the spraying. Alan Siporin of member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon has our report.

(Sound of stream running)

SIPORIN: Melinda and Danny Blackwell's place, just a short distance from the Oregon coast, is surrounded by high trees and thick growth. The water that bubbles out of the ground and meanders along their land is clear and tasty. And it's almost certainly safe to drink, too. But the Blackwells fear that could change. Earlier this spring, a neighbor informed Melinda Blackwell that timberlands nearby were going to be sprayed with the herbicide 2, 4D.

BLACKWELL: I felt terrified that within a day or so there was a chance that an airplane or a helicopter was gonna come flying overhead squirting out 2,4D.

SIPORIN: It was just about 10 years ago, Melinda Blackwell says, that helicopters flew over, spraying herbicides on nearby clearcuts.

BLACKWELL: So I would leave, I would get the phone call or I would hear the helicopter and we would get in our cars and we'd leave and come back. You know, you can only stay away from your home for so long. And I miscarried. I was 8 weeks pregnant, and I remember thinking to myself, I wonder if this is why, if I was poisoned?

SIPORIN: 2,4D is a common defoliant used in products ranging from lawn sprays to Agent Orange. It has been linked to fetal problems in several studies, including reviews at the California Department of Agriculture and at Stanford University. Ten years ago, the Blackwells say, it was difficult to find more than 10 people who were willing to fight to stop the spraying. Last month, after word spread, more than 70 people showed up for a meeting in the nearby town of Seal Rock. And the list of concerned citizens was soon topping 300. Some people, in an attempt to document the health effects of 2,4D, are taking blood tests now, for comparison later. The main emphasis, though, is to stop the spraying. And the efforts may be having an effect. Jim Wick, the vice president of Woodland Management, the company that plans on spraying, agreed to delay his plans till next spring. but Wick says he remains convinced that 2,4D is safe.

WICK: I been working in the woods since about 1968 and I've been using herbicides for the last 25 years, and during that time I've come in contact with 2,4D on my hands. At one point I actually got sprayed. I was underneath when the booms went over and have never been sick and have no ill health effects.

GREER: The characterization that it hasn't hurt me and therefore it shouldn't hurt society is preposterous.

SIPORIN: Norma Greer is with NCAP, the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

GREER: Pet dogs are getting cancer. People are having all kinds of health effects, some of it gets documented and some of it doesn't. The problem with something like 2,4D, a lot of the short-term health effects are ones that are fairly non-specific. It's like getting the flu. You get dizzy, you get nauseous, you feel weak. How is someone going to say that that's because their neighbor sprayed 2,4D and they happened to be over in that area and may have gotten exposed?

SIPORIN: In 1984, residents not far from Beaver Creek were able to convince a Federal court that 2,4D was the likely culprit in a rash of miscarriages. The ruling resulted in a ban of 2,4D on all Federal lands in the Pacific Northwest. But the ban does not apply to private, state, or county lands. That's because Federal law applies a stricter environmental control on Federal land. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates all herbicide use, and Jill Bloom, who is with EPA's Pesticide Office in Washington, DC says her agency doesn't really know if 2,4D is safe or not.

BLOOM: But we're making every effort to both require the data that would help us understand and evaluate the data that we already have to understand what the risks would be.

SIPORIN: Bloom says the EPA hopes to have the results of an expert panel in about 6 months. But NCAP's Norma Greer says the EPA's effort isn't good enough. She says it's been twelve years since the agency ordered industry to conduct cancer tests on 2,4D. Greer says industry still hasn't complied. But Jim Wick says we don't need more tests.

WICK: 2,4D has been around for over 40 years, has had thousands of tests done. The scientific community accepts the fact that 2,4D is a safe chemical to use.

SIPORIN: Until the EPA resolves the issue, the use of 2,4D will be permitted. According to EPA figures, more than 50 million pounds a year are applied throughout the US. Jim Wick says he's willing to forego its use on Beaver Creek, if the residents will clear the land for him or pay the difference. The Beaver Creek residents don't think they should have to pay just to keep their own property safe. Meanwhile, Oregon's Attorney General ruled that timber companies can be prosecuted if they endanger people with unsafe practices. However, timber interests are fighting back. They've introduced state legislation in an attempt to exempt timber companies from such lawsuits. For Living on Earth, this is Alan Siporin reporting.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth