This essay has important information about the effects of chemicals we commonly use to kill weeds in our forests, campgrounds, parks, lawns, and in fields where we grow much of our food. Please put your feet up and take the time to read it. It includes links to the sources from which I got my information. The links take you right to the reference.
Please share this post with others.
Our War on Weeds - The Price We Pay
by Randi de Santa Anna
On a recent hike my friend ripped knapweed and daisy plants out of the ground with surprising anger. “I hate these plants!” she spat out. “They make me so mad!” I looked at her dumbfounded. How could anyone hate a plant?
Having worked as a botanist for the US Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service I am very familiar with the native/nonnative discussion, but our culture’s eagerness to cast judgments upon plants has always perplexed me. In my mind, judgments such as good or bad, friend or foe, invasive or noninvasive, or worse, noxious, apply to humans, not plants.
The human species has impacted the planet more than any species ever has. We compact the soil, cut in roads, defoliate, build, plow, log, pave, pollute, and degrade. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that we, in fact, are the invasive ones. Once the ground is compromised nature sends in the only plant species that can survive in such depleted and traumatized soil. Rather than being grateful for their ability to grow on land we ruined, we call them noxious and wage chemical warfare on them. It’s as if on a subliminal level we know the plants are a testament to our cruelty and we want to eliminate their damning evidence, fast.
I know people’s efforts to eradicate weeds come from good intentions on behalf of the environment. Saving genetic diversity in the botanical kingdom is valid effort but does it justify spraying chemicals across the land? I don’t think so. We’ve already learned our lesson from DDT. We know the entire ecosystem, from single-celled organisms up through the food chain to our children, takes the hit when we use poisons. The truth is in our noble effort to save genetic diversity by spraying weeds we are, in fact, reducing diversity on a global scale by maiming future generations of insects, birds, amphibians, mammals, and yes – ourselves.
For those who remain skeptical, here are some facts about herbicides we spray on weeds:
2,4-D was first registered in the United States in 1948. Hundreds of millions of pounds of 2,4-D have been used throughout the world. In fact, a new combo of 2,4-D and Roundup, called Enlist Duo, was approved in 2014 by the EPA for use on GMO crops, so its use will increase. It kills plants by mimicking hormones called auxins, which control an array of plant growth and developmental processes. It is a component of Agent Orange and contains highly toxic dioxin (Journal of Pesticide Reform, Northwest Coalition For Alternatives to Pesticides/NCAP ). www.pesticide.org/journal_of_pesticide_reform
According to Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect public health and the environment, 2,4-D has been linked in humans to "non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, endocrine disruption, reproductive and developmental effects, as well as water contamination and toxicity to aquatic organisms. Studies have found that farmers exposed to 2,4-D have low-quality sperm. In addition, farmer-applicators in areas of high 2,4-D use have more children with birth defects than unexposed men.”
According to EPA’s Industry Sales and Usage data, herbicides containing 2,4-D are one of the two most widely used herbicides for “home and garden, industrial, commercial, and governmental market sectors,” which means golf courses, lawns, campgrounds, and parks where our children and pets play are being sprayed with 2,4-D. According to EPA reviews 2,4-D is considered a “persistent” herbicide, lasting up to fourteen months. (Caroline Cox, Journal of Pesticide Reform)
Roundup, containing the active ingredient Glyphosate, is the second-most-used herbicide for home and gardens in the United States. (EPA Industry Sales and Usage Report) Despite the fact that on two occasions research laboratories hired by Monsanto were convicted of falsifying test results on Glyphosate, it remains an over-the-counter herbicide accessible to everyone (Caroline Cox, Journal of Pesticide Reform/ US Dept. of Justice. United States Attorney. Western District of Texas 1992. "Texas laboratory, its president, 3 employees indicted on 20 felony counts in connection with pesticide testing". Austin TX Sept 29)).
Glyphosate can cause birth defects and spontaneous abortions in humans, is linked to the occurrence of ADHD, kills placental cells, and disrupts the human hormone system. The EPA identified 76 species of birds, fish, honeybees and earthworms endangered by Roundup. (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1997. Herbicide Information Profile: Glyphosate) www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsbdev2_025810.pdf. It also reduces beneficial insect, bird, and small mammal populations by destroying vegetation on which they depend; kills tadpoles (Hileman, B. (2005) Common herbicide kills tadpoles. Chemical & Engineering News); and is linked to the increased incidence of Parkinson’s Disease. (Barbosa et al., 2001. Parkinsonism after glycine-derivative exposure. Mov. Disorder/ The Last Roundup, David Stang/ Pesticide Properties Database) davidstang.com/?p=30
Roundup’s claim to fame is that it binds to soil particles as soon as it’s sprayed, which was supposed to mean it would not contaminate groundwater, but glyphosate was found in over a third of Midwest streams studied in the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2002 National Water-Quality Assessment Program, which surprised everyone. The EPA itself considers Roundup to be "extremely persistent." (Glyphosate Factsheet, Caroline Cox. Journal of Pesticide Reform) www.eastbaypesticidealert.org/Glyphosate%20Factsheet%201.htm
Milestone, an herbicide with the active ingredient, Aminopyralid, is now touted as the safest herbicide to use on knapweed even though no water quality standards have been established to date. It is currently being aerially and manually sprayed. The EPA issued Aminopyralid a conditional registration in 2005 and will not review it again until 2020 despite the fact that in 2008 potatoes, peppers, and tomato plants in thousands of gardens throughout the United Kingdom died off after being mulched with manure-rich compost from cows and horses that had grazed on Milestone-sprayed fields. The chemicals in Milestone had remained intact while passing through the ruminants’ stomachs. (Beyond Pesticide Factsheet – Aminopyralid; beyondpesticides.org)
In response to the die off Dow AgroSciences voluntarily suspended Milestone sales in the UK then reintroduced it with new label warnings telling users not to put Milestone-sprayed straw or manure on their gardens, but how does one accurately trace the source of one’s mulch or manure? Similar die-offs have occurred in the United States since 2009. Though Dow claimed that Milestone would break down after one season, studies have determined it can take up to three years to break down. (Beyond Pesticides, July 2, 2008 Herbicide Contaminates Home Gardens)
With this background information, let’s go back in time to 2005 when the EPA tested Aminopyralid. After running their battery of tests, the EPA determined Aminopyralid to be of low toxicity, therefore an acute reference dose (RfD), (translation – toxic level for humans) was not established. The EPA also concluded that since an RfD was not needed Aminopyralid therefore did not require an acute assessment for drinking water. Since Aminopyralid would be used regularly in campgrounds and parks, the EPA even considered the potential hazard of hand to mouth exposure to children (their term, not mine) but again determined that based on Aminopyralid’s toxicity data an extra safety factor (again, their term) to protect infants and children was not needed. (United States Office of Prevention, Pesticides Environmental Protection and Toxic Substances – Aminopyralid Pesticide Fact Sheet (www3.epa.gov/pesticides/chem_search/reg_actions/registration/fs_PC-005100_10-Aug-05.pdf)
I’m sorry, but how do garden plant die-offs translate into low toxicity? Isn’t it the EPA’s responsibility to retest Aminopyralid immediately rather than waiting until 2020? Who’s got whose back here?
All three of these herbicides and far too many other commonly used chemicals are on the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) International’s list of Highly Hazardous Pesticides. pan-international.org/release/615/ They contribute to the industrial and agricultural chemical soup that is causing feminization of fish and amphibians and reproductive disorders in wildlife. (Beyond Pesticides. December 2, 2010 Estrogenic Compounds in Water Come From Agricultural, Industrial Sources)
As far back as 1991 concerned scientists made a unified statement that synthetic hormone-based chemicals “could interfere with hormones of animals, and possibly people. Fetuses and the young were at the greatest risk for disease, abnormalities, and reproductive problems that were already manifesting in wildlife.” (Wingspread Statement 1991, Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, 1998) sehn.org/wingspread-conference-on-the-precautionary-principle/
According to EPA’s Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage-2006 and 2007 Market Estimates, the most recent free report available, in the year 2007, 531 million pounds of herbicides were used in the United States alone and 2,096 million pounds were used in the world. The sheer tonnage of and persistence of these chemicals in the environment has led the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to regularly test humans for the presence of undesirable chemicals. They have tested 212 chemicals, 44 of which were pesticides, and have found almost all of them in humans. DDT has been found in 99% of the humans tested, despite its ban in 1972. (http://www.panna.org/issues/persistent-poisons/pesticides-in-our-bodies)
The CDC has also found hundreds of chemicals in the cord blood of newborns. According to PAN, the time at which a child is exposed to chemicals either in utero or after birth is critical and even micro doses of toxins can derail a child’s development, causing a higher incidence of:
Unfortunately the best mechanism for a woman of childbearing age to dump toxins from her body is through her breast milk, so babies get hit hard. Children’s bodies grow faster than adults and they also consume more food, water, and air relative to their body weight. They touch dirt, trees, and grass and put things in their mouths regularly, and because of all these factors, scientists maintain that children are far more vulnerable to chemical exposure than adults. Remember, parks and campgrounds, where our kids are bonding with nature, are regularly sprayed for weeds.
My husband and I asked every weed sprayer we have encountered: “Would you let your children or grandchildren play in the field you are spraying?” Each sprayer has said “absolutely not.” All but one continued spraying. Do we really value weed-free grass over our children’s safety? Are we thinking this through?
Even if people choose to deny that chemicals are a health problem, they must still face the fact that use of herbicides to eradicate knapweed and other weeds is not accomplishing its intended goal. Since 1996 weeds have grown more and more herbicide resistant. This was first documented in Australia and has been documented in other countries since then. (Evolution of Herbicide Resistance in Weeds. www.nature.com)
Studies also show that landscape application of herbicides, such as aerial spraying, causes more problems than it resolves, a major one being the arrival of more weedy species. The Forest Service actually budgets in chemical treatment for the second wave of non-native species they know will come. Why would we want to amp up our chemical barrage? (Long Term Effects of Weed Control, Rocky Mountain Research Station 2011)
Studies on native seeds have shown them to be very hardy, remaining viable and intact in the ground for decades, even centuries. Native prairie species have grown back when fenced off from all the negative impacts. Isn’t it reasonable to think that all our native landscapes could recover once the impacts upon them have been removed and the land has regained its health? This takes time and requires patience. Most ranch and farm economies, upon which we all depend, and which themselves depend upon herbicides, would argue they don’t have the time or the patience. But if you truly think this through, isn’t the economy of health and wellbeing for ourselves, for wildlife, and for the environment a priority over all other economies?
Organizations exist that support nonchemical means of controlling weedy species. The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides is one such organization. Green City Blue Lake-The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s site is an example of a city’s concern about the use of chemicals and includes their alternatives. Beyond Pesticides is another good resource.
To sum it all up I maintain that our War-on-Weeds mentality is blinding us; we are missing nature’s metaphor. Just as white blood cells in our body rush to the site of an infection and overpopulate it in order to fight the disease, might weeds be the Earth’s equivalent of white blood cells trying to repair humanity’s infectious impacts upon the land? Could weeds actually be healing the soil? An example: dandelions are one of the Plant Kingdom’s best liver cleansers for humans. Could it be that dandelion’s appearance on the landscape is nature’s way of cleansing the soil? It wouldn’t surprise me if knapweed and spurge were cures for cancer. Is anyone looking into that? Perhaps we are killing the cure.
Ecologists are rethinking the native/non-native concept because no matter how many chemicals we have thrown at the weeds, they keep coming back. Weeds are here to stay. Habitats are changing. Rather than focusing our venom and anger against weeds by administering a steady chemo drip on our environment, on ourselves, and on our children, why not claim our responsibility for being the invasive species. We can change our expectations and behaviors. We can live differently on this planet.
Our environment is an ongoing process, not a finite thing. In time the earth will right itself if we stop making things worse. Modifying our footprint on the planet, ending our chemical warfare, and restoring soil health are far safer ways to proceed.