November 25, 2017

The scapegoat principle

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 10 No. 3, March 1980, by The Editors. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


The phenoxy herbicides are a group that includes 2,4,5-T and 2,4,D. Of the two, 2,4,D is by far the biggest money spinner. According to Jay Lewis, co-author of The Other Face of 2,4,D, over two billion dollars’ worth of 2,4,D are sold each year in North America alone – and that figure is rising as restrictions on the use of 2,4,5-T begin to bite. Indeed 2,4,D is probably the most widely used herbicide in the world – and, not surprisingly, the pesticide industry is more than anxious to prevent its reputation from being tarnished.

Developed in the early forties, the phenoxy herbicides kill by promoting uncontrolled expansion and division of cells. Effectively they give the plants cancer. It was not until the late sixties that the first reports began to trickle out indicating that both 2,4,D and 2,4,5-T might be teratogenic.

By the early seventies, those initial reports had been confirmed by such bodies as the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the US Food and Drug Administration and the Canadian Food and Drug Directorate. The only dissenting voice was Dow Chemicals – a major producer of both herbicides, its scientists claimed that they had found ‘no treatment-related teratogenic responses’ for 2,4,D and 2,4,5-T.

Such a conclusion was somewhat bizarre considering that the Dow research documented evidence of increased subcutaneous oedema (abnormal accumulation of fluid beneath the skin), incomplete bone formation, misplaced ribs and a host of other birth defects amongst rats dosed with small quantities of 2,4,D.

With the evidence accumulating against both 2,4,D and 2,4,5-T, the principal manufacturers of both the herbicides began to lay down an effective smokescreen to confuse those fighting for a ban on their products. The card they played was brilliant, both because it forced their opponents to fight on terms laid down by the industry, and because it effectively disarmed many of their arguments.

The birth defects observed in experiments, it was claimed, were caused by dioxin impurities in commercial grades of 2,4,5-T. Pure samples of the herbicide, it was argued, were beyond reproach, and provided the level of dioxin contamination could be contained, there was nothing to worry about. To that end, the British Advisory Committee on Pesticides set a permissible level of dioxin in commercial 2,4,5-T at one part to 10 million.

Note too that by blaming dioxin, 2,4,D (which is not contaminated by TCDD, the most toxic form of dioxin) appeared, at least to the public, to have been given a clean bill of health. Like a mother bird protecting its young by flying away from the nest, the herbicide industry has cunningly drawn the fire of environmentalists away from their most profitable product onto a scapegoat.

Not that one should underestimate the power of the dioxin involved: one drop is capable of killing some 1,200 humans. Rather one should remember that research has consistently shown that even the purest forms of 2,4,D and 2,4,5-T are capable of causing cancer, birth defects and genetic damage.

Tests on farm workers in British Columbia have revealed a 25 percent increase in chromosome damage after exposure to 2,4,D. Furthermore, the US Food and Drug Administration published a report showing how purified samples of both 2,4,5-T and 2,4,D cause birth defects in chicks. Alarmingly, the purified samples proved more teratogenic than impure ones.

Those are only a handful of the cases documented. The point, however, is made: dioxin contamination is not the central issue. The phenoxy herbicides are dangerous in themselves and must be banned for that reason, all of them, not just the one that has been singled out as a scapegoat.

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