Farmer speaks out about dangers of 2,4-D herbicide

By Ken Roseboro
Published: June 1, 2012

Category: Farmer Profiles

Klaas Martens suffered temporary paralysis after using 2,4-D

Klaas Martens (left) suffered temporary paralysis after using 2,4-D
Photo courtesy of Cornell University

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Herbicide caused temporary paralysis, prompted switch to organic farming

Klaas Martens provides a cautionary tale about the toxicity of 2,4-D herbicide, which will be used extensively if Dow Agroscience’s new “Enlist” corn genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide is approved by the USDA.

One day more than 20 years ago, Martens, who farms in Penn Yan, New York, was putting his pesticide sprayer away after spraying his fields with 2,4-D. He tried folding the sprayer, but discovered that he couldn’t move his right arm. It was paralyzed.

“It was scary,” says his wife, Mary-Howell, recalling the incident.

Klaas believes that his instant paralysis was caused by exposure to the 2,4-D he sprayed on the couple’s 1300-acre farm.

“I spent a whole summer with my right arm paralyzed,” Klaas says.

Other pesticide-related health problems

He later regained movement in the arm thanks to chiropractic treatments, but the paralysis was the latest in a series of health problems caused by exposure to 2,4-D and other pesticides. There were also headaches and nausea.

Klaas dreaded spraying. “I knew I would feel rotten for a month after,” he says.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t careful. While spraying, Klaas wore a white, head-to-toe Tyvek suit with green plastic gloves to protect himself.

Mary-Howell hated to see her husband suffer. Years later, she wrote, “We wanted to believe that it (his sickness) was due to ‘just a germ’ since he had been working such long hours, but we knew better. My husband was slowly being poisoned.”

Klaas Martens isn’t alone in suffering health problems from exposure to 2,4-D, which was a component of Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant used during the Vietnam War. According to Charles Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University, multiple studies link 2,4-D applications on farms to reproductive problems, spontaneous abortions, and birth defects. Farm workers in California employed by operations spraying 2,4-D had dramatically elevated risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“The health risks of 2,4-D are well documented,” Klaas says.

Switched to organic farming

In 1991, Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens reached a crossroads. They farmed “conventionally” using pesticides because they saw no alternative. But, according to Mary, they “hated what it might be doing to us, our family, our land, and our environment.”

Later that year, they read a classified ad in a farm newspaper looking for organic wheat. Klaas called, and the Martens decided to try organic farming.

By switching to organic, the Martens stopped using pesticides, and by doing so, dramatically reduced their health risks associated with pesticides.

They have been farming organically ever since. They see continuing improvement in soil quality with fewer weeds. They earn a good living, enjoy the independence, and can set their own destiny. Without the pesticides, Mary-Howell says, “The farm is a safe place.”

Major miscalculation of biotech industry”

To this day, Klaas still has bad reactions to 2,4-D. “Since then if anyone is spraying 2,4-D, even a long ways away, I can feel it and it makes me feel sick.”

He says dicamba, another older herbicide that will be used with a new GM soybean from Monsanto, is even worse. “It can volatize (convert from liquid to gas) and a day later will turn up a mile or two away. If you can smell it you are being exposed.”

Klaas sees problems with the new GM corn and soybeans that will be used with 2,4-D and dicamba. Even conventional vegetable farmers oppose the new GMOs, which will dramatically increase usage of 2,4-D and dicamba and threaten vegetable crops due to drift.

Klass says: “I can still remember grape farmers sending letters to their neighbors who used 2,4-D that said:  ‘Grapes are very sensitive to 2,4-D damage.  If our grapes are damaged by drift from your sprayer, we will expect you to pay for the damages.’  There were several cases in our neighborhood where drift damaged grapes and the injured parties were awarded large cash settlements.”

He continues: “I suspect that this will turn out to be a very foolish move on the part of the biotech industry. This will not be mild, invisible, or ambiguous damage like pollen drift or chemical drift from materials like Roundup. It will be easily detected, ugly, and smelly. The health risks are well known. The term ‘Agent Orange’ touches an emotional nerve with a lot of people.”

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, June 2012