Agent Orange Ingredient Could Soon Be Used to Kill Superweeds

Dow Chemical is pushing a product that contains a component used as an herbicidal weapon in the Vietnam War.

TELTOW, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 13: Stalks of corn stand under a blue sky during harvest on September 13, 2012 near Teltow, Germany. The annual corn harvest is underway in the German state of Brandenburg, where corn is widely planted and used for animal feed as well as the produciton of biofuels. Analysts recently predicted that German corn farmers are likely to benefit from global warming, as higher temperatures will mean an earlier planting season.
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
July 10, 2014, 1 a.m.

Dow Chem­ic­al is seek­ing fed­er­al ap­prov­al for an herb­i­cide con­tain­ing one of the main in­gredi­ents in Agent Or­ange.

The com­pany is billing the com­pound as farm­ers’ best bet in the battle against a new strain of “su­per­weeds” — in­vas­ive plants that can’t be killed by tra­di­tion­al herb­i­cides and choke crops.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, which is tasked with re­view­ing Dow’s ap­plic­a­tion, says that if the chem­ic­al, known as 2,4-D, is used in fields, trace amounts could end up in food and drink­ing wa­ter.

Agency of­fi­cials in­sist, however, that any amount of the weed-crush­ing chem­ic­al that shows up in food or wa­ter would be so small that it would not pose a threat to pub­lic health. And Dow says its product bears little re­semb­lance to the Vi­et­nam War-era weapon, which caused a host of med­ic­al prob­lems for the troops ex­posed to it.

But pesti­cide watch­dogs are up in arms, ask­ing EPA to keep the pro­posed pesti­cide off the mar­ket. Green groups say wide­spread use of the weed zap­per could cause last­ing en­vir­on­ment­al dam­age, while chem­ic­al-safety ad­voc­ates warn of its po­ten­tially dev­ast­at­ing pub­lic health im­pact.

“If this gets onto the mar­ket, it could cre­ate a highly dan­ger­ous situ­ation,” said Linda Wells, the as­so­ci­ate or­gan­iz­ing dir­ect­or at the Pesti­cide Ac­tion Net­work.

Thus far, however, EPA ap­pears more likely to side with the chem­ic­al firm. The agency has already un­veiled a pro­pos­al to green­light the chem­ic­al com­pound, and is ex­pec­ted to make a fi­nal de­cision as early as this sum­mer.

The de­bate hinges on two ques­tions: Does Dow’s weed whack­er carry any of the health risks of the war­time weapon? And, long term, would the pesti­cide cre­ate a big­ger prob­lem: a new gen­er­a­tion of stronger, even harder-to-kill su­per­weeds?

U.S. sol­diers sprayed Agent Or­ange — a mix of two herb­i­cides — over South Vi­et­nam as part of a plan to decim­ate the jungle and re­duce ground cov­er for North Vi­et­namese guer­ril­las. But Agent Or­ange proved tox­ic largely be­cause it con­tained a can­cer-caus­ing con­tam­in­ant that formed when it was man­u­fac­tured.

Dow says its newly min­ted product won’t be sim­il­arly tain­ted. The com­pany also points out that the Agent Or­ange in­gredi­ent it plans to use has been ap­proved by fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ors for ag­ri­cul­tur­al use for years.

“The idea that this product is any­thing like Agent Or­ange just doesn’t hold up,” Garry Ham­lin, a spokes­man for Dow said. “That had a unique con­tam­in­ant, and it was phased out of use in the U.S. in the 1980s be­cause of those con­cerns.”

Test­ing con­duc­ted by an Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment re­search­er us­ing samples col­lec­ted in the mid-1990s showed that the chem­ic­al that plays a star­ring role in Dow’s product can still con­tain con­tam­in­ants sim­il­ar to those found in Agent Or­ange. The study con­cluded that there was a “need for more in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to pos­sible hu­man health ef­fects.”  

In 2005, EPA con­cluded a multi-year re­view of stud­ies in­to the health and en­vir­on­ment­al im­pacts of 2,4-D. The agency de­term­ined that, when ap­plied prop­erly, the her­be­cide met re­quired safety thresholds. In 2014, EPA also stated that con­tam­in­a­tion con­cerns were no longer a factor in the man­u­fac­ture of the chem­ic­al.   

But the Agent Or­ange in­gredi­ent in ques­tion has been linked to thyroid prob­lems. And in April, the In­ter­na­tion­al Re­search Agency on Can­cer pub­lished a re­view of epi­demi­olo­gic­al stud­ies show­ing that ex­pos­ure to the chem­ic­al was as­so­ci­ated with a sig­ni­fic­ant risk of de­vel­op­ing non-Hodgkin lymph­oma, a form of can­cer that af­fects the lymph­at­ic sys­tem.

EPA, mean­while, has not done a can­cer risk as­sess­ment of the weed killer be­cause the chem­ic­al is not clas­si­fied as a car­ci­no­gen. 

“We need to be very cau­tious when we’re re­gis­ter­ing chem­ic­als, and at this point we really don’t have all the data,” Ted Schet­tler, the sci­ence dir­ect­or for the Sci­ence and En­vir­on­ment­al Health Net­work said.

Green groups also warn that use of the product could spur the cre­ation of the next-gen­er­a­tion of su­per­weeds. 

Ex­tens­ive use of a Monsanto-man­u­fac­tured weed killer called Roundup has giv­en rise to herb­i­cide-res­ist­ant su­per­weeds that are ravaging farm­land across the coun­try. 

Dow mar­kets its product as the an­ti­dote. The com­pany says the re­lease of new herb­i­cides like its own will de­crease chem­ic­al res­ist­ance in plants by mul­tiply­ing the op­tions farm­ers have to at­tack mon­ster weeds.

But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists and some farm­ers say that all of this won’t stop su­per­weeds, it will cre­ate even more of them.

“Weeds evolve to tol­er­ate the chem­ic­als you use to get rid of them, and then they be­come much harder to deal with,” said Lisa Grif­fith, the out­reach dir­ect­or for the Na­tion­al Fam­ily Farm Co­ali­tion. “This has already happened, and if we in­crease the use of these products, the prob­lem is go­ing to get much worse.”

Story has been up­dated with ad­di­tion­al EPA data. 

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