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Exploring the divided issue of aerial herbicide spraying

BY CLAIRE CUDAHY

Beginning in August and continuing through Sept. 31, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) has alerted the public that aerial application of herbicide may occur over the English River, Wabigoon and Dryden forests—but how safe is this spraying for people, wildlife and the environment?

Vision Max (commonly known as glyphosate) may be sprayed in these areas in order to control hardwood competition, according to Joshua Henry, communications officer at MNRF. The spraying is facilitated by logging companies.

“The decision to use herbicides is made after a professional forester has assessed the growth of planted seedlings and the severity of weed and brush competition. The objective is to ensure that planted seedlings survive and grow,” writes Henry in a prepared statement. “The amount of area treated with herbicide spray is a small percentage of the forest and a fraction of the area depleted in any given year. Companies do not treat areas unless they really need it, as it is a cost to the company.”

The herbicide is typically sprayed by helicopters and kept 30 meters away from bodies of water.

“Spraying normally occurs annually. Some years may not receive a treatment due to unsuitable weather conditions or, given the amount of the area to be treated, it is more economical to leave it for a larger spraying program the following year,” Henry continues.

Based on provincial statistics, less than 0.3 per cent of the total productive forest area is sprayed each year.

Dr. Meaghan Labine, a former Red Lake local, PhD in Pharmacology and Therapeutic with a specialization in environmental toxicity, and environmental professional in training, does not support the use of herbicides or pesticides on the grounds of the negative impacts to human, animal and environmental health.

“Foresters are not pharmacologists, pharmacists, medical doctors or chemical engineers; they are not qualified to make statements about the safety and quality of chemicals that the public is exposed to,” says Labine. “Therefore it is negligent on the part of government to be supporting industry and use of chemicals, without investigation into the long-term human health and environmental impacts of exposure.”

“Vision max is comprised 49 per cent by weight of glyphosate and 51 per cent by other ingredients (typically adjuvants). Adjuvants enhance the toxicological effects of glyphosate by enhancing absorption into the plant. The composition of the adjuvants/other ingredients in Vision Max has not been released by Monsanto despite the fact that those chemicals are being applied on our forests,” Labine continues. “What the public doesn’t realize is that the toxicity testing for such products is misleading and biased. Monsanto is the company that produces Vision Max, and Monsanto is also the company that conducts the toxicity testing for Vision Max.”

According to Labine, some of the environmental impacts of Vision Max include reduced nesting areas for birds, contamination of soil and water, decreased forest health, reduced habitat for animals and toxicity to amphibians.

“This is just a short list of the negative impacts of creating a ‘Designer Forest,’” she explains. “In years to come, I’m sure mankind will regret applying such products, as we will realizes that the value of an intact, healthy forest far outweighs the needs of the forestry companies.”

Labine also notes that the Vision Max safety data sheet lists inhalation, skin contact, eye exposure and ingestion as types of exposure considered toxic to humans.

On the other hand, Michelle Nowak, outreach specialist with MNRF, asserts that glyphosate only interferes with the metabolic pathways found in plants, so it “has a high margin of safety for all other living things in the forest, including people.”

“It controls most green plants, but some plants, especially conifers, tolerate it. Glyphosate is also very useful because it does not persist in the environment. Plants that germinate after the application are not harmed. A glyphosate application will simply “reset” the plant community in the treated area,” she explains.

Though environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club Canada stress that the “so-called inert ingredients” in glyphosate are far more toxic than glyphosate alone, Henry states that “aerial application has benefits of being very accurate, safe for workers and the public and gives the ability to treat areas that are otherwise not accessible.”

He also points out that forest use of herbicide accounts for less than one per cent of the total herbicide use in Ontario. Agriculture, he says, is the biggest user of herbicides.

Find out more information about the location of the spray areas on the MNRF website under the respective Forest Management Units Annual Work Schedule and Aerial Spray Plans, and join in on the discussion at The Northern Sun News Facebook page: www.facebook.com/thenorthernsunnews.

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