It has happened almost every spring for the past 33 years in New Brunswick, and this year is no exception. Late last month 36 airplanes, including 12 Second World War torpedo bombers, roared low over New Brunswick’s forests, soaking almost two million acres of woodland with insecticides. But even before it began, provincial officials knew that the $9.6-million airborne assault would fail to eradicate the persistent spruce budworm, which has destroyed 5.5 million acres of valuable Atlantic timber. It seemed equally clear that the government program would continue to fuel a controversy over the potential health hazards of chemical spraying. This spring that debate assumed renewed urgency with the release of a study which said there is no link between the rising number of birth defects in the province and forestry spraying. But the $170,000, provincially sponsored report cited a different source of danger: it concluded that the 550 tons of agricultural spray used in the province each year might cause some stillbirths and birth defects.
Researchers reported an abnormal frequency of stillbirths, spina bifida (a severe spinal deformity) and anencephaly (failure of the brain to develop) concentrated in western New Brunswick’s “potato belt,” a region of three rural counties along the upper Saint John River Valley. Declared Dr. Franklin White, the epidemiologist who helped direct the 2 */2-year study: “An association has been found between neural tube defects and potential agricultural chemical exposure.”
Still, New Brunswick potato farmers did not delay the first of as many as 15 applications of fungicide, insecticide, growth suppressants and herbicides over the five-month growing season. But some of them acknowledged their concern. Said 33-year-old Floranne McLaughlin, who with her husband, Darrell, spends $10,000 to $15,000 a year on pesticides for their 100-acre potato farm near Grand Falls: “A few years ago, when I was expecting my third child, two women in the area delivered babies with unclosed abdomens. That was two women within two months in the same small hospital.”
McLaughlin, a director of the National Farmers’ Union and mother of four children ranging in age from 2 to 11, said that farm chemical suppliers fail to stress the hazards associated with their products and that, as a result, many of the province’s 7,000 farmers ignore pre-
cautions, frequently exposing themselves and occasionally their children to powerful chemicals.
For their part, spokesmen for New Brunswick’s $900-million forest industry welcomed the report’s conclusion that there was no verifiable link between forestry spraying and birth defects. Donald Lockhart, executive director of the N.B. Forest Products Association Inc., said the report should “lay to rest those bogeymen.” But critics of the spray program remained unsatisfied. Declared Hajo Versteeg, University of New Brunswick law professor and president of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick: “The study will not alleviate concern. It does not exonerate forest chemicals.”
Indeed, as both farm and forest spraying continued last week, it became clear that the report had aroused more concern than it had dampened. Although the provincial government plans to hire a research epidemiologist to investigate the problem, Deputy Environment Minister Brian Barnes said that “as long as we are chasing our tail on alleged problems in the forest, we have less time to monitor agriculture.” And according to Floranne McLaughlin, few farmers are even aware of the latest findings. Most, she said, were “too busy spraying to listen to the radio.”
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