Did you know that Agent Orange, perhaps the most notorious herbicide in history, was once “widely used” in Ontario’s woodlands for decades? Best known for its use clearing jungles in the Vietnam War, the chemical defoliant basically melts plants on contact – especially broad-leafed weeds. In recent weeks, after a number of former workers came forward with health complaints, the Provincial Government has admitted that it was in use, setting up an investigation and hotline to study the issue. That hotline was immediately “swamped” with hundreds of calls. A spokesman for the Minister of Natural Resources is now warning that “this is a lot bigger than people realize”.

why would our own government and corporations use a highly-toxic, weapons-grade defoliant on our own forests? Because it’s far cheaper than clearing land the old-fashioned way (with people and saws). This meant that tree plantations for logging could be grown without any other forest life creeping in to steal their sunlight or soil, and it meant that train tracks could be easily kept clear of forest growth. Workers were not always told about the risks, and now many face serious cancers and other health problems as a result. Similar concerns also exploded a few years ago about spraying New Brunswick.

Agent Orange is a 1:1 mixture of two chemicals, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. While the latter, a highly toxic dioxin-laden chemical has been banned in Canada and the US for decades, 2,4-D is still the world’s most widely used herbicide (third in North America), for use on lawns, crops and tree farms under names like “Killex”. It’s also suspected to cause cancer, and known to cause blindness, reproductive anomalies and neurotoxicity. And citing the failures of genetically engineering crops to take larger amounts of Roundup (glysophate – another cancer-linked herbicide) which has simply led to more Roundup-resistant weeds, Dow Chemical is now seeking to produce GE crops which can tolerate larger doses of 2,4-D.

These chemicals are not “cheap”. They cause long-term health and environmental problems. Simply because a government ministry or logging company is not immediately paying this price does not mean that nobody is or will. The widespread use of any chemical like this is always a gamble – “proving” that something is wrong can only long after it’s too late. Finding a statistically significant number of cancers or other rare but terrifying diseases requires huge numbers of cases, and things that are harmless to lab rats aren’t always harmless to humans. New technologies which aren’t totally understood always show nearly unlimited potential to optimists – especially those with something to gain. What will our own grandchildren look back on as our greatest failure in this way? Genetic Engineering? Climate change (or attempts to “reverse” it)? Or will we learn from the mistakes of our fore-bearers before our grandchildren have to learn from ours?