3 April 1997 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Dying from Dioxin

Robert Allen tells a story which may have deadly consequences in Ireland

Utopia for some is living in self-sufficient harmony with the planet and all its living creatures in the place of your choice. Living in a home built by your own toil, on land fashioned by your own labour - with the help of neighbours, growing your own herbs and vegetables and flowers in gardens tilled and tended by your own hands, paying the mortgage and bills with income from the sale of garlic and herbs and some part-time teaching.

This was the life of 22 year old single mother Melyce Connelly in Ryan Creek - in the rainforests of coastal Oregon.

Until one day in 1979 when the Forest Service continued its spraying programme of unwanted vegetation, promising it would not use toxic herbicides including 2,4,5-T which was banned by the US Environmental Protection Agency because of its associations with cancer and other illnesses, though not because it contained deadly dioxin.

Worried about their water supplies, Melyce and some of her neighbours met with the district ranger to elicit a guarantee that their spring water sources would not be affected. Three days later a helicopter's noisy chattering woke Melyce from dawn's dreamstate.

It wasn't long after the spraying of Ryan Creek that the first signs of toxic poisoning became apparent. Melyce's chicks and ducklings bore the first assault, dying within days. Her six month old son began to suffer persistent bloody diaorrhea. It got worse. Pregnant women miscarried. Young children were hospitalised with various illnesses, including the near-fatal spinal meningitis. Realising there was a possible connection between the timing of the spraying of the herbicides, the wildlife deaths and the human illnesses, Melyce gathered her dead animals and placed them in her freezer.

She would get someone to analyse them to see what they had died from.

The ban on 2,4,5-T had stunned the US chemical and timber industries who said they feared for the jobs of their workers. Up to 20,000 could be put out of work by this ban, spokesmen for the industries claimed. Politicians rallied to the call for the ban to be rescinded. In Lincoln County, which had been heavily sprayed with the herbicides known to contain dioxin, a county commisioner announced that the health problems attributed to these herbicides were really caused by smoking marijuana.

Incensed by these ignorant remarks, Melyce drove with her youngster some 50 miles to the offices of the commissioner. She also brought with her the frozen corpses of her chicks and duckings. She strode into the county hall and found her way to the commissoner's office. Marching through unannounced she slapped the bag containing the dead animals on his desk. ``Open it!'' She told him. Slowly and nervously the commissioner removed the tin foil that encased the small, dead bodies. She placed her son on his desk and swiftly took off his nappy. ``Now, you tell me those duckings died from smoking too much marijuana. You tell me those chicks died from smoking too much marijuana.'' Her emotions aroused she flung the nappy at him and let him see its contents. ``You tell me this child has bloody shits day after day from smoking too much marijuana. Tell me to my face Mr Commissioner,'' she demanded.

Believing the authorities would now take seriously her concern about the health effects from exposure to dioxin-contaminated herbicides like 2,4,5-T, Melyce co-operated with the EPA scientists who came to study her valley. She gave them her frozen animals, believing them when they said they would analyse them and come back to her within a few months with the results.

The weeks passed into months, became years while Melyce waited. After four years she finally got an answer. The samples of the herbage, soil and water and her animals had been lost or misplaced or included with other samples. When the EPA did manage to sample water in the Ryan Creek area they discovered that dioxin levels in the sediment upstream from Melyce's home had increased four-fold to the highest ever reported in the Pacific Northwest.

On July 4, 1989 Melyce died. She was diagnosed with brain, lung and breast cancer. She was 32. Her ashes were spread on the gardens she had toiled over to make a living for herself and her family. Sometime later the new owners of her home cleared her gardens and garlic fields with a JCB. Then a fire started, burning the home she had built to the ground.

The herbicide 2,4,5-T is still on open sale in the 32 Counties.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1