Myth busting: Why Agent Orange has nothing do to with GMOs and the herbicide 2,4-D

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Agent Orange was created for the U.S. military to destroy plants in Vietnam and the demilitarized zone in Korea during the 1960s through 1970s Southeast Asian conflict. About 24 percent of South Vietnam was sprayed with Agent Orange, killing plants that could provide cover or food for the Viet Cong and other enemy forces. It worked very well — almost too well.

The formulation, consisting of the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, was at concentrations several hundred times that of normal agricultural use. Its residue is still causing health problems in Vietnam, and has affected the health of U.S. and other veterans of the war.

In the United States, anti-GMO activists have latched onto the fact that 2,4-D was a “component” of Agent Orange and is therefore too dangerous to be approved for agricultural use. Last year, for example, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved Dow Chemical’s formulation, Enlist Duo, consisting of 2,4-D and glyphosate, for use on corn and soybeans genetically modified to be 2,4-D-resistant, The Center for Food Safety pointed to Agent Orange:

2,4-D, produced by Dow Chemical, was a component of “Agent Orange,” the toxic defoliant used in Vietnam. It is the 7th largest source of dioxins in the U.S. 2,4-D and other herbicides of its class have been independently associated with deadly immune system cancers, Parkinson’s disease, endocrine disruption, and reproductive problems, with children at particular risk.

Food Democracy Now! went even further, proclaiming that the U.S. government had just introduced “’Agent Orange’ 2,4-D GMO crops!”

And not to be outdone, Liz Anderson, of GMO-free Prescott (Arizona), equated 2,4-D with the toxic chemical dioxin in a blog in Natural Healing News:

The Dow Chemical Company, another big player in the GMO market, recently petitioned the USDA to approve the use of dioxin, as they are developing a “dioxin-resistant hybrid.” The huge industrialized farms will be able to keep their crops pristine by sloshing the weeds with Agent Orange.

Agent Orange and GMOs

Production of Agent Orange was discontinued in the 1970s as the Vietnam War drew to an end and stockpiles were destroyed. At the weapon-grade levels it was used during the war, it probably would have killed any plant, genetically modified or not.

What also has been missing from the claims of activists who tried to confuse 2,4-D with Agent Orange and dioxins is the fact that the Agent was made of distinct chemicals, with distinct properties. And 2,4-D was not the problem.

Agent Orange was a combination of two herbicides: 2,4D and another called 2,4,5-T. The toxic dioxin, 2,3,7,8-TCDD was a contaminant only of 2,4,5-T. It was not a byproduct of 2,4-D, although some forms of 2,4-D that weren’t widely used did have some small dioxin contamination. Modern manufacturing methods have eliminated this contamination from today’s 2,4-D.

Some dioxins are very toxic. According to the World Health Organization, “Dioxins can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.” They can also be persistent, with half-lives that can vary from three to five years in sunlight (which breaks down the chemical) to nearly a century in groundwater. The average half-life in the human body is estimated at about 10 years.

But Dow’s Enlist Duo, or any other formulation that includes 2,4-D, does not have dioxins  contaminants. In fact, 2,4-D has been declared far, far less toxic than dioxins (what isn’t?), and less even than its wartime Agent Orange formulation.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the hazard research arm of WHO, recently declared that 2,4-D, along with several other pesticides, posed a “possible” risk of cancer, which was a significant step below the “probable” moniker for glyphosate given by IARC and currently incorrectly touted by anti-GMO groups and many media organizations as a higher risk of cancer.

The IARC rating, which measures just the hazard properties of chemicals, foods, or behaviors, did not measure the risk, meaning that they did not consider actual normal exposure to 2,4-D or other chemicals in their decision making. The rating, IARC has pointed out repeatedly, reflects “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and less than sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.” The IARC announcement has been met with some criticism from agricultural experts and farmers. Ken McCauley is a Kansas grower and past president of the National Corn Growers Association:

I am very concerned that these IARC reviews will be misinterpreted by the general public. Herbicides like 2,4-D are essential to modern farming, helping us produce more food, control weeds, use less resources and reduce our costs, which ultimately helps the consumer. Based on all the studies and government reviews, we believe 2,4-D herbicides are safe or we wouldn’t be using them.

As we have noted in various Genetic Literacy Project articles, no farmer is excited about using pesticides. But 2,4-D is less toxic than most herbicides, and it’s not the same as the deadly defoliant cocktail used in wartime Vietnam.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

  • kurzweilfreak

    The anti-GMOs will never let a little thing like accuracy or facts get in the way of manufacturing a good crisis.

  • crush davis

    A few months ago I heard an organic grower & propaganda droid misinforming someone on this very topic, exactly as the anti-pesticide activists have programmed him to do. I corrected him, and said, “I think you should get your story straight before you start talking about this topic.” I will not hesitate to do it again–and I actually look forward to the next opportunity.

    • Jim Tomasko

      Using terms like “misinforming propaganda droid” clearly show that this is more of an emotional discussion for you than actual a science debate. I would recommend listening to less right wing talk radio, and read more scientific journal articles (and more than just the abstract).

  • Good4U

    This is a very well written and accurate article. Keep up the good work!

  • But realize dioxin has often contaminated 2,4-D, not just 2,4,5-T.

    • crush davis

      True that some dioxin can be generated from 2,4-D. But “often?” Based on what evidence? Where are the data and statistics? And where is the peer-reviewed science showing that ANY amount of dioxin from 2,4-D, coming from legally-applied, registered herbicides, is (A) actually detectable in crops or animals, and (B) if so, harmful & resulting in diagnosed medical or veterinary conditions? Moreover, the activists (as usual) are spreading bad and inaccurate information. Who is spraying 2,4,5-T on corn and beans in the U.S.? I defy you to name any grower, researcher, or herbicide manufacturer doing that. And, there is no “agent orange” being used in agriculture–just as there is no transgenic crop engineered to be resistant to it. It’s not true by any stretch of the imagination. But, to quote a previous post, “Why let the truth stand in the way of good activism?” It’s why I despise the anti-transgenic movement. They are liars and frauds, with deep pockets and I suspect ulterior motives. The only thing “genuine” about them is their undying commitment to peddling false information injurious to legit agronomic efforts.

      • 2,4-D is often contaminated with dioxin. Doubt that if you like, but do check in with reality. It is an extremely toxic chemical. By spreading it all over the land and on much food, you’ll are poisoning the biosphere. There is no question about that.
        Why are you in such a negative place, defending the spreading of poisons through obfuscation and name-calling?

        • Shenendoah,

          It is YOU that needs to check with reality. Dioxin was very toxic but it was a byproduct of the manufacture of 2,4,5-T which was banned in the US in 1985.

          Quoting from a factsheet put out by the EPA:

          2,4-D products can be safely used by following label directions.

          The toxicity of 2,4-D depends on its chemical forms, including salts, esters, and an acid form.

          2,4-D generally has low toxicity for humans, except certain acid and salt forms can cause eye irritation.

          Swimming is restricted for 24 hours after application of certain 2,4-D products applied to control aquatic weeds to avoid eye irritation.

          2,4-D generally has moderate toxicity to birds and mammals, is slightly toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates, and is practically nontoxic to honeybees.

          The ester forms of 2,4-D can be highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life.

          Carefully follow label directions to avoid harmful effects.

          2,4-D is not Agent Orange.

          Agent Orange was a mixture of two different herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D (as well as kerosene and diesel fuel).

          2,4,5-T contained high levels of dioxin, a contaminant, found to cause cancer and other health problems in people.

          2,4-D does not contain any detectable levels of dioxin.

          EPA has canceled all uses of 2,4,5-T in 1985 and no longer allow its use in the United States.

          We have been evaluating the safety of 2,4-D

          2005 – comprehensive review

          2012 – evaluated new state-of-the-art reproductive studies, and requests in a petition

          2014 – evaluated the choline salt of 2,4-D in response to a company’s request to modify the registration.

          2,4-D and the related compounds are currently undergoing registration review, a program that re-evaluates all pesticides on a 15-year cycle.

          • And did you even look? Dioxin has frequently been found in 2,4-D.

          • Good4U

            You can keep on pounding your keyboard, but that doesn’t make what comes out on your screen intelligible or useful. “Dioxin” (the catch-all term that you don’t even understand; see above) is not a contaminant of 2,4-D at any significant levels. The levels of chlorosubstituted dibenzodioxins that you yourself generate in foods for your own consumption are vastly higher than those which might come from the food ingredients that you use. That’s because you’re manufacturing the dioxins yourself every time you cook your food. YOU are your own worst enemy! You just aren’t well educated enough to know it.

          • Oh–dioxins do not contaminate 2,4-D at any significant level. Check out–
            http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-22/four-corners-dangerous-dioxins/4833848

          • Jim Tomasko

            Lui, Li, Tao, Li, Tian & Xie. 2013. Formation and Contamination of PCDD/F’s, PCBs, PeCBz, HxCBz and polychlorophenols in the Production of 2,4-D products. Chemosphere 92 (2013) 304-308.

            Han, Liu, Pan, Wang, Tian, Zhao, Wang, Chen, Liao & Zheng. 2015. Formation Pathways of Mono- and Octa-Chlorinated Dibenzo-p-dioxins and Dibenzofurans in Main Organochemical Industries. Environmental Science & Technology, 49: 10945-10950.

            Holt, Weber, Stevenson & Gaus. 2012. Formation of Dioxins During Exposure of Pesticide Formulations to Sunlight. Chemosphere, 88 (2012), 364-370.

            Zhavoronkov, Malysheva, Galimov, et al. 1998. Morphofunctional characteristics of the testis of albino rats exposed to dioxin-containing herbicide 2,4-D. Arkhiv patologil, 03/1998, Vol. 60 (2).

            Gil-manov, Galimov, Kamilov, et al. 1997. The effect of the dioxin-containing herbicide 2,4-D on the hormonal status of experimental animals. Meditsina truda i promyshlennaia ekologia, 1997, Issue 8.

            Cochrane, Sing, Miles, et al. 1981. Determination of chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin contaminants in 2,4-D products by gas chromatography-mass spectrometric techniques. Journal of Chromatography A., 1981, Vol. 217, Issue C.

            Masunaga, Takasuga & Nakanishi. 2001. Dioxin and dioxin-like PCB impurities in some Japanese agrochemical formulations. Chemosphere, Vol. 44, Issue 4.

            Holt, Weber, Stevenson & Gaus. 2010. Polychlorinated DIbenzo-p-Dioxins and Dibenzofurans (PCDD/Fs) Impurities in Pesticides: A Neglected Source of Contemporary Relevance. Environmental Science and Technology, Vol 44 (14), pp 5409-5415.

            Munoz, Gullett, Touati, et al. 2012. Effect of 2,4-dichlorphenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) on PCDD/F emissions from opening burning of biomass. Environmental Science and Technology, 09/2012, Vol, 46, Issue 17.

            Kalipci, Ozdemir & Oztas. 2013. Assessing eco-toxicological effects of industrial 2,4-D iso-ocylester herbicide on rat pancreas and liver. Biotechnic & Histochemistry, 88 (3-4), 202-207.

            Nie, Fang, Tian, Yang, Die, Tian, Liu, Wan & Huang. 2015. Perspective on polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin and dibenzofuran emissiuons during chemical production in China: an overlooked source of contemporary relevance. Enviornmental Science and Pollution Research, 10/2015, Vol 22, Issue 19.

          • George Young

            Jim, that pretty much seemed to shut people up huh? thanks for posting. Yes, as far as I can tell the EPA is much more concerned about protecting political interests than public safety. You might as well be quoting the CDC regarding vaccinations.

            I for one don’t think humans are intelligent, competent and patient enough to be messing with God’s creation like we are. In our pride we think we can solve all the problems we’ve created in our sins. This is a tragic apostasy. Something else that not a lot of people mention is synergistic effects of chemicals with other chemicals and environmental factors which seem to be rarely tested for to any great extent, probably because there are far too many possible combinations to consider. Hence why we shouldn’t be messing around with things we don’t fully understand.

          • EPA is first a political organization–frequently controlled by environmental no-nothings.

          • Good4U

            Bzzzt! Wrong again. The people who actually do the work at the U.S. EPA, and their counterparts in other regulatory agencies, are generally well trained in the sciences, and they do a credible job of protecting human health and environmental integrity. Who would you prefer to regulate your food supply, a bunch of stoned hippies sitting around a campfire, deciding what’s good for you and what’s not? Talking about political organizations, just who signs your paycheck?

          • The administrator (head) of the EPA is appointed by the president. They are a political body, and come thru with stunningly corrupt decisions–see
            http://www.boulderweekly.com/article-7563-how-reagan-and-the-largest-epa-scandal-in-history-may-explain-why-valmont-butte-is-still-contaminated.html

            for a (sorry, but it’s lengthy) example.

          • I know that Dioxins were more of a contaminent with 2,4,5-T–but they also has often been in 2,4-D in significant, dangerous quantities.

          • Good4U

            Bzzzzt! You are sadly misinformed about dioxins. First of all, there are many types of dioxins. Some are highly toxic, others not. To state that “Dioxin was more of a contaminent [sic]…” etc. is meaningless. You would have to study up on your chemistry to understand the authentic situation regarding dioxins and how they are produced. Did you know that you are generating chlorinated dioxins every time you bake food that contains any source of chlorine? Table salt will serve as your source of chlorine, or even the chlorinated substances that are otherwise present in your food ingredients. You (yes you!) are your own worst enemy. YOU are a dioxin polluter!

          • I don’t even approach the 2,4-D manufacturers.

          • Here is one study documenting dioxins in 2,4-D–
            http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-22/four-corners-dangerous-dioxins/4833848
            I’ve seen many more.

          • Jim Tomasko

            That is really funny that your reference is the EPA.

          • freelyn

            Do you work for Monsanto? All I see is industry research listed. The EPA is highly politicized now and hasn’t fully represented b the interests of Citizens for years.

            Multiple independent studies are linking glyphosate to diseases like cancer, IBD, autism(through a heavy metal mechanism), and others.

            There is also strong statistical evidence that correlates the rise in glyphosate use with the increased incidence of many of these ailments. The sudden increase in apparent gluten intolerance tracks right with the increase in glyphosate use. These “causal” links certainly warrant being cautious with blanket statements that glyphosate is safe and is only a minor eye irritant.

            Would you drink a few ml of it to prove its safe to consume? If not then there must admittedly be some level that is harmful.That level hasn’t been independently and adequately verified. My scientific theory is that it’s zero.

  • Jim Tomasko

    Mr. Porterfield has left out a huge body of scientific research that confirms that the manufacturing process of 2,4-D does result in the formation of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dizenzofurans (PCDD/Fs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), pentachlorobenzene (PeCBz), and polychlorophenols. There is also new research that shows that sunlight causes a 30 times increase in the formation of dioxin contaminants with 2,4-D. I’m attaching some peer-reviewed scientific journal references, since I am sure that somebody is going to respond and attempt to refute this (typically with no actually scientific references). The attached article by Kalipci et al, showed that 2,4-D caused the formation of atypical cell foci in rat pancreas and liver, and they concluded that “this herbicide potentially is a cancer initiator”.

    Lui, Li, Tao, Li, Tian & Xie. 2013. Formation and Contamination of PCDD/F’s, PCBs, PeCBz, HxCBz and polychlorophenols in the Production of 2,4-D products. Chemosphere 92 (2013) 304-308.

    Han, Liu, Pan, Wang, Tian, Zhao, Wang, Chen, Liao & Zheng. 2015. Formation Pathways of Mono- and Octa-Chlorinated Dibenzo-p-dioxins and Dibenzofurans in Main Organochemical Industries. Environmental Science & Technology, 49: 10945-10950.

    Holt, Weber, Stevenson & Gaus. 2012. Formation of Dioxins During Exposure of Pesticide Formulations to Sunlight. Chemosphere, 88 (2012), 364-370.

    Zhavoronkov, Malysheva, Galimov, et al. 1998. Morphofunctional characteristics of the testis of albino rats exposed to dioxin-containing herbicide 2,4-D. Arkhiv patologil, 03/1998, Vol. 60 (2).

    Gil-manov, Galimov, Kamilov, et al. 1997. The effect of the dioxin-containing herbicide 2,4-D on the hormonal status of experimental animals. Meditsina truda i promyshlennaia ekologia, 1997, Issue 8.

    Cochrane, Sing, Miles, et al. 1981. Determination of chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin contaminants in 2,4-D products by gas chromatography-mass spectrometric techniques. Journal of Chromatography A., 1981, Vol. 217, Issue C.

    Masunaga, Takasuga & Nakanishi. 2001. Dioxin and dioxin-like PCB impurities in some Japanese agrochemical formulations. Chemosphere, Vol. 44, Issue 4.

    Holt, Weber, Stevenson & Gaus. 2010. Polychlorinated DIbenzo-p-Dioxins and Dibenzofurans (PCDD/Fs) Impurities in Pesticides: A Neglected Source of Contemporary Relevance. Environmental Science and Technology, Vol 44 (14), pp 5409-5415.

    Munoz, Gullett, Touati, et al. 2012. Effect of 2,4-dichlorphenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) on PCDD/F emissions from opening burning of biomass. Environmental Science and Technology, 09/2012, Vol, 46, Issue 17.

    Kalipci, Ozdemir & Oztas. 2013. Assessing eco-toxicological effects of industrial 2,4-D iso-ocylester herbicide on rat pancreas and liver. Biotechnic & Histochemistry, 88 (3-4), 202-207.

    Nie, Fang, Tian, Yang, Die, Tian, Liu, Wan & Huang. 2015. Perspective on polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin and dibenzofuran emissiuons during chemical production in China: an overlooked source of contemporary relevance. Enviornmental Science and Pollution Research, 10/2015, Vol 22, Issue 19.

    • MaryKBachman

      Thank you for sharing. I will look these up.

    • George Young

      Thanks for sharing this.

  • freelyn

    This article is full of shoddy assertions. With the recent scientific studies of the affects of glyphosate on humans there is mounting evidence that it causes a whole host of health issues. Yes, the “natural” movement goes to far and gets it wrong sometimes. GMO itself doesn’t automatically make a crop bad. However, that said GMO Round Up(glyphoaste) ready crops allow for heavier application of glyphoasate to food crops. This glyphosate ends up in the food we eat and legal levels recently had to be increased.

    With mounting evidence to show thst glyphosate (that was a component of Agent Orange) causes health issues and the major study that it doesn’t result in increased crop yields versus traditional farming, one has to ask the simple question; Are Monsanto profits more important than our health?

    Look at the NIHs research alone into glyphosate. There is enough evidence to suggest it should have a moratorium on food crop use. Until independent research can PROVE otherwise.

  • SnakeUSMC

    We recently had a phone town hall meeting concerning Agent Orange with the VA and scientest in Washington DC concerning Agent Orange. The 2,4-D and glyphosate were brought up during the conversation. It has been FOUND and proven in Vet Glyphosate is one of the key elements which causes cancer and genetic modification in the gametes of humans. These modifications can and HAVE been passed on to the children of Vets. Glyohsate is persistence in the environment. Plants uptake the formula and with Biomagnification it is passed on to whom ever consumes these items, either animal or Human (we are all animals)
    By the by, I am a life time member of the Agent Orange club and my daughter had her genetic profile altered by this toxin. She had surgery what Agent Orange created in her body.