Larry Heal believes he has been suffering the effects of exposure to industrial herbicides used in the province during in the 1960’s and ’70s.
In 1964, the U.S. military was already two years into its herbicidal warfare program known as Operation Ranch Hand, spraying millions of acres of the Vietnamese landscape with defoliating chemical agents referred to as the rainbow herbicides: Agents Pink, Green, Blue, White, Purple and Orange.
Heal, who currently resides in Malakwa, says he was exposed to similar chemicals during his childhood in Cherryville, and that he has been suffering ailments of one kind or another ever since. He found some relief this month, though, with the release of a CTV news exposé, in which the news organization purports to have “several hundred pages of documents” that support the story Heal has been telling for years: herbicide combinations that comprise Agent Orange and other rainbow herbicides were used by the B.C. government around power lines near his family home in Cherryville.
“You could not see the highway with all the regenerated trees that were growing up and they were up to 25 feet height,” says Heal. “That is why they sprayed, to kill those trees off. And in a matter of hours those trees were the colour, I would say, of bug pine at the height of its orangey-pink. In a matter of hours, everything looked like that.”
Most of all, he recalls the smell – difficult to describe but ingrained in his memory.
Heal says that soon after, his ankles became so weak he was required to use crutches for months. His family didn’t know what the herbicide was, nor were they concerned. They continued to draw water from a nearby creek and, in the winter, Heal says his mother, Minnie, would sometimes gather snow from the cleared power line. They drank milk from their cow which ate grasses in the area.
“But we never put it together that when my ankles went out from underneath me, it was related to what they sprayed,” says Heal, who has spent the last two decades trying to piece together the causes of his afflictions.
BC Hydro records obtained by Heal through a Freedom of Information request show that in 1976, a mix of the herbicides 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), diesel and water was used to treat 62.56 acres in the Vernon-Monashee area, and 98.2 acres in the Nicola Valley area. Banned by Canada in 1985, Agent Orange is comprised of equal parts 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, a chemical that, as a result of the manufacturing process, contains a toxic, carcinogenic dioxin believed to cause a variety of ailments, from skin disorders to birth defects and cancer.
The mix used in B.C. was referred to as Type B Weed and Brush Killer.
In early 2011, it was revealed that Ontario Hydro had used Agent Orange to clear power line corridors across that province, and that Agents Orange and Purple were used on Canadian Forces Base in Gagetown, NB.
Penny Coon of Vernon says her late husband, Lee Smith, was a Hydro lineman for 40 years. He died of adrenal cancer. She says he began his career in the Monashees with the BC Power Commission, and that he worked on the power line coming from the Whatshan power station, and told Penny that nothing would grow under the line because it had been sprayed with Agent Orange.
“They sprayed them and of course, clearcut to run the line through. He was surveying and climbing poles and stringing wire and all that,” says Coon. “You look around any of those big lines, nothing grows under them….”
BC Hydro claims it never used Agent Orange, though spokesperson Jennifer Young said in a December email that historical data shows different herbicides were used in the 1960s and ’70s, including 2,4,5-T.
“By the time the federal government removed 2,4,5-T from its approved list in 1979, BC Hydro had already moved on to use Tordon 101 (picloran and 2,4-D),” says Young.
Also known as Agent White, Tordon is a 4:1 mix of 2,4,D and picloram, which contains the carcinogenic chemical hexachlorobenzene (HCB). Regardless, it was considered safe for use. In fact, Heal carries with him a photo of former BC Hydro co-chairman Gordon Shrum, knocking back a glass of water laced with Tordon in front of the press. This was said to be Shrum’s way of proving that the herbicide posed no public health risk. Shrum lived to be 89.
According manufacturer test results, lab animals frequently exposed to Tordon 101 have been found to develop issues affecting the kidneys, liver, eyes and thyroid. Similar doses were found to be toxic to the fetus and cause decreased weight and reduced survival of offspring. Unlike Agent Orange, however, Health Canada still allows Tordon 101’s use as a defoliant, stating its ingredients do not pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment when used according to label directions.
BC Hydro’s approach to vegetation control has changed over the years as new control methods surfaced. Young says that since the 1980s, Hydro has focused on selective application techniques using Roundup (glyphosate) and, from the 1990s to the present, Garlon (triclopyr) and glyphosate. She notes all chemicals used by Hydro are registered for use in Canada by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Health Canada, and that they are applied in accordance with the Integrated Pest Management Act of B.C., with consideration given to health and safety, “soil residual activity, mode of action, selectivity and environmental characteristics.”
“In the past and the present though, the majority of work done around the province is performed without the use of herbicides,” emphasized Young. “However, herbicides are an important tool in an integrated program and are used on rights of way in areas with dense deciduous tall-growing species that re-sprout vigorously when mowed or brushed.”
Heal is leery about any industrial herbicide use, and recommends anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to get checked out by their doctor.
“Basically, it takes over 10 years out of your life, and that’s partly why I’m stressing the story and wanting people to know more about it, so people that have been exposed can maybe go get checked out for cancer, and have an early detection system,” says Heal.
BC NDP environment critic Rob Fleming is now calling for an investigation into the use of Agent Orange and other chemicals along hydro lines and highways.