Dramatic new evidence of birth defects, miscarriages and nervous disorders following aerial spraying of herbicides near rural communities were presented to a House subcommittee yesterday.
A documentary by San Francisco television station KRON reported that in Orleans, a Northern California town of 600 people, 19 of 30 women had dead or deformed babies over a three-year period. The incidents followed aerial spraying of nearby forests with 2,4,5-T, a chemical defoliant used to destroy the bush around timber.
The residents of Humboldt County claimed that the chemical poisoned water, killed livestock and destroyed crops. A local physician reported an increase in illness related to spraying seasons.
The documentary, which sparked 42,000 letters in California, adds to a growing body of evidence against the spraying of chemical herbicides, members of the House Commerce subcommittee on investigations said. The subcommittee has scheduled hearings on 2,4,5-T next week.
While scientists have known about the deadly properties of 2,4,5-T and related herbicides since the late 1960s when they were used in Vietnam, the chemicals have not been fully banned in the United States.
In March, citing miscarriages in Alsea, Ore., following forest spraying there, the Environment Protection Agency temporarily suspended use of 2,4,5-T on forests, pastureland and powerline rights-of-way. However, grazing lands and rice fields are still being sprayed.
The temporary ban has been appealed by 11 chemical companies and industry associations, led by Dow Chemical Co., the principal manufacturer. A Dow spokesman attributed the temporary suspension to "chemical witchhunting."
At the committee meeting yesterday, a National Agricultural Chemicals Association official distributed a statement calling the film "often emotionalized, largely undocumented." It added, "When used properly, pesticides are safe . . . Pesticides are among the most regulated products in the nation."
The film showed children born with twisted limps, cleft palates and hare-lips, resulting, their parents suspect, from spraying by the U.S. Forest Service. A Forest Service official denied any health hazard from the spraying.
Two Trinity County women - Linda Van Atta who has had three miscarrages and Pat Kneer who had a miscarriage and developed cervical cancer - have filed a $1.5 million claim against the Forest Service.
Van Atta said that of the 20 to 25 women of childbearing age in Denny, Calif., "at least 11 have had female problems, including about eight miscarriages, ovarian cysts, menstrual irregularities and one baby just recently born with a harelip."
Her suit is one of many filed against the government in recent years, including hundreds of veterans suffering nervous disorders, impotence, kidney disease and other ailments they attrbute to exposure to Agent Orange, a 2,4,5-T compound, in Vietnam.
An EPA statement released in San Francisco said the KRON documentary "appears to present new information of which the agency was not aware."
Rep. Andrew McGuire (D-N.J.) blamed EPA for doing "a miserable job" over the last eight years of reviewing the 1,500 ingredients in pesticides. However, he added that Congress had voted to allow EPA to put compounds on the market before their safety is proved.