US Married to 2,4-D

Someone posted a comment on Schneier’s blog about the supposed risk of in-breeding. I might be biased, after reading some of the research on this topic, but it seems to me that in the big scheme of risks to life there are more important things for people to object to on moral or even scientific grounds (e.g. poverty or pollutants found to cause death and mutations) than who you *want* to marry.

For example, we have hard evidence that forms of the herbicide 2,4-D cause harm to humans. Agent Orange, which some might try to argue is not the same as the 2,4-D variant sold and used today in America, continues to be a nightmare for tens of thousands of veterans and their families. I am not a chemist, but here is some compelling information that suggests it is really the same thing:

As a result of the veterans exposure to 2,4-D in Vietnam, veterans are being diagnosed 20 years later with rare cancers, sarcomas, immune deficiencies and Central Nervous System disorders. Children of exposed veterans are born with Learning Disabilities, Birth Defects and deficiencies.

Today, herbicide 2,4-D is being used for weed control across the United States; at National Cemeteries, school yards, golf courses and hospitals. It’s used by utility companies, the Department of Transportation and railroads. Additionally, 2,4-D is being used by farmers which in turn is contaminating food crops, cattle, pigs, chickens etc. In addition to 2,4-D being used to eliminate the growth of plant life in our lakes thereby contaminating our freshwater and saltwater fish.

Aside from that contoversy, the NSF quite simply says that any form of 2,4-D has to be below 0.07 mg/L to prevent “Liver and kidney damage”. Seems pretty clear, no? Don’t drink the water if it has more than 0.07 mg/L…

Apparently this does not wash with the site, which proudly says the US is practically covered in the stuff and we, as consumers, should be greatful:

After 60 years of use, 2,4-D is still the third most widely used herbicide in the United States and Canada, and the most widely used worldwide. Its major uses in agriculture are on wheat and small grains, sorghum, corn, rice, sugar cane, low-till soybeans, rangeland, and pasture. It is also used on rights-of-way, roadsides, non-crop areas, forestry, lawn and turf care, and on aquatic weeds. A 1996 U.S. Department of Agriculture study concluded that, should 2,4-D no longer be available, the cost to growers and other users, in terms of higher weed control expenses, and to consumers, in the form of higher food and fiber prices, would total $1,683 million annually in the U.S. alone.

Yes, that is right, the US is risking liver and kidney damage of perhaps tens of millions of Americans in order to avoid less than $2 billion in higher food prices. Hmmm, what’s the annual cost of liver and kidney treatment? Have to look that one up. Oh, and just for good measure, since obviously there is no reason to be worried, the site happens to reassure us that there is no reason to be worried:

The study also reviewed the 2,4-D epidemiology and toxicology data packages and concluded (page 2) that after several decades of extensive use, “The phenoxy herbicides are low in toxicity to humans and animals (1,9). No scientifically documented health risks, either acute or chronic, exist from the approved uses of the phenoxy herbicides.”?

Oh, um, could someone perhaps clarify what “the approved uses” are? Sneaky, eh? Are you worried now? I see this all the time in information security. People say they were approved to do one thing with their code, and then suddenly you find the stuff all over the place. Even if it is only allowed for a very specific need, bug-riddled code can sometimes spread like wild-fire.

The obvious question, thus, is what percentage of use today of 2,4-D would be included by in the approved category. Does it include things that end up in drinking water? The next question is what is done to detect unapproved use and prevent harm to people? The comparison with infosec gets even closer when the appears to say “business is good, we can make it sound like bad things are really good, so please don’t force us to innovate”. Here’s a classic quote from the same page:

2,4-D has for the past sixty years, been a major tool in the continuing fight to reduce world hunger.

Don’t know about you but that kind of reasoning gives me the creeps. Could they really be saying that they are reducing world hunger by killing people who are hungry? Probably wasn’t meant to come out that way, but the language is vague. Major tool? Are they trying to suggest that toxic chemicals are a good way to reduce world hunger, as if there is no safer and more effective/beneficial alternative that would provide a better balance/trade-off?

This reminds me of a discussion where a large company had a theory about getting successful login attempt numbers up by making passwords a little less secure. “I can get you to 100% login success by removing passwords altogether” I told them, “but alas we must ensure that the login is by the right person.” In other words, failure rates could in fact be a good thing since it shows attackers are being repelled (a vulnerability is closed). Of course attackers (the threat) should be reduced as well, if possible, but opening up vulnerabilities is not usually a good way to change the measurement of attacks. Sometimes people fixate on one and only one metric/value and ignore or forget the big picture and the greater consequences…forest, trees, etc.

So, anyway, I’m just saying if you want to find ways to help reduce deformity and death in the world, in-breeding probably isn’t the top of the list, if it’s on the list at all. There is some evidence that people are starting to understand this.

4 thoughts on “US Married to 2,4-D”

  1. “$1,683 million…

    Yes, that is right, the US is risking liver and kidney damage of perhaps tens of millions of Americans in order to avoid less than $2 million in higher food prices.”

    Looks like a typo in one place or the other.

  2. Ooops. Thanks for catching that typo. Fixed now. Incidentally, I was just reading that total food sales in the US for 2005 is estimated to be just shy of 1 trillion dollars ($995.6 billion).

    Fiddling around with some random numbers for curiosity sake I noticed that in 2002 a liver transplant cost $314,500 and 5,329 were completed, with another 17,327 candidates on a national waiting list. Don’t know how many livers are replaced due to herbicide poisoning (Hep C is apparently the primary cause), or whether it is even relevant, but it seems interesting that in one year the cost of transplants was about $1,675 million.

    But more to the point, there seem to be many studies that say the jury is still out on how dangerous 2,4-D is since many people are exposed to it at the same time as other toxins:

    Epidemiological data indicate a potential for tumorigenic and developmental effects of phenoxy herbicides, but the association of increased tumor rates or birth defects with 2,4-D has been weak and inconsistent. The reported adverse effect rates in epidemiological studies have not, in general, been corrected for other risk factors.

    Isolating factors are hard to come by when there are so many things attacking our health, apparently. Unfortunately, by that logic, the herbicide companies may be encouraged to release more toxins into the market to reduce the chances of any one of them being found to be a primary cause of health risks. Arguing over false negatives and positives is nontrivial, which the herbicide manufacturers and Agent Orange victims know all too well….

  3. No comment, but a question. Where might I find info on Agent Orange/24D used at Naval Air Station, Whidbey Island, Wa. 1960 to 1970. They were always spraying the runways and edges of runways.

  4. Jerry, Good question. The military seems almost as secretive about their environmental issues as the developers who later try to sell the land around or even on the bases. Without going into the motives and reasons why this happens (most are probably obvious, anyway) I found one reference on the Quilt of Tears (Agent Orange Veterans) site that has an unqualified note about Whidbey Island:

    The ground water could be contaminated. Waste oil, solvents, fuel, and caustic rinse water containing heavy metals have been discharged through the storm sewer system and into Dugella Bay. Waterfowl and fish that feed or live in drainage’s may be affected. Subsurface migration at the seaplane base may have affected fish or shellfish in Oak and Crescent Harbors. A backup well at Ault Field is threatened by potential migration of contaminants.

    I also found an interesting 2004 reference to massive reduction of herbicide use by the WSDOT:

    The Washington State Department of Transportation reduced herbicide use at the pavement edge on Whidbey Island nearly 90 percent in 2004. Preliminary data indicates we used nearly 200 fewer pounds of herbicides this year than in previous years. The herbicides are used to control weeds and maintain roadside plants within a three-foot section next to the highway.

    This is likely to have been related to Island County petitions like this one from 2001:

    1. Whereas: EPA has acknowledged that the pesticides and herbicides
    it registers are not thoroughly tested, and
    2. Whereas: We are learning regularly that these toxic substances
    are, in fact, toxic to humans, and
    3. Whereas: There are well-known, safe, effective, and
    cost-effective alternatives available…

    I suggest contacting some of the people who worked on that petition as they probably have more local pointers, or even some test results. I think it is important to note, also, that the county did not exactly roll over, as evidenced by the language in these 2002 meeting minutes:

    Theresa Ghandi, Coupeville, representing The Green Party, addressed the Board with respect to herbicide use, asking what it would take besides the petitions already submitted or legal action for the County to decide not to use herbicides or pesticides for roadside vegetation control. Her group has $5,000 in a legal defense fund to bring legal action.

    Perhaps it would take a comparable action by members of the armed forces to document, review and clean up the base they live(d) on, due to the “security” procedures that prevent more transparency to the public?

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