Preaching precaution with pesticides

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In this 1974 letter to Russell Train, the second EPA administrator, Gaylord Nelson chastises the agency for relenting in its fight against the powerful herbicide 2,4,5-T (the major component of Agent Orange) and urges the use of the precautionary principle in the approval of synthetic chemicals.

The letter featured here was prompted by plans to spray defoliants in Wisconsin's national forests. It shows Nelson pressing the EPA to cut off public and private land managers' access to 2,4,5-T. The letter reveals the new agency's embattled position between environmentalists, competing bureaucracies, academics, tourists, and large corporations, such as Agent Orange's patent holder, Dow Chemical.

Nelson contends the only sensible standard for the agency to follow with regards to chemicals is the precautionary principle: to require potentially toxic agents to be proved safe scientifically before being released into the environment.

His challenge to the EPA was unsuccessful. Spraying the 2,4,5-T herbicide would be permitted in national parks for five more years. It would not be until 1985 that Dow ceased producing 2,4,5-T and Agent Orange.

Throughout his Senate career, Nelson remained often wary of, and more frequently fervently opposed to, the introduction of new synthetic chemicals into American life. During his first year in Congress in 1963, he introduced bills banning the pesticide DDT and phosphates in detergents. In 1968, as chairman of the Senate Manpower Subcommittee's celebrated attack on the drug industry, he curtailed the usage of the over-prescribed antibiotic Chloromycetin, which had serious side effects. When the EPA, under its first director, William Ruckelshaus, finally outlawed DDT, Nelson kept drafting bills to ensure that other pesticides met the same fate.

Agent Orange had drawn special attention from Nelson. Because of its use as a tactical defoliant by the U.S. military in Vietnam, Nelson broke from his habit of describing pollution crises on a national scale to voicing the concern for pollution on a global scale. He decried America's deployment of "environmental warfare," which was "a dangerous threat to the entire ecology" of Vietnam, he wrote in his 1970 book America's Last Chance.[1] When the EPA forbade the Defense Department to spray Agent Orange, Nelson quickly countered with legislation prohibiting all military defoliant practices, a demand to which the military caved in 1972.

Domestic use of 2,4,5-T, however, remained legal and was used by government agencies. In 1972, after landowners in southwestern Wisconsin hired a helicopter to spray the herbicide along the banks of the Wisconsin River, Nelson lamented to the Capital Times, "It is hardly believable that after the lessons of Vietnam, we would tolerate the same tactics of defoliation to be used in our own backyard."[2]


1 Gaylord Nelson, America's Last Chance (Waukesha, WI: Country Beautiful, 1970), p.74

2 Edwin Knoll, "Grant County Scarred by Killer Defoliant—Nelson," Capital Times, August 11, 1972, p.1