10 August 2012

The politics of table salt #nlpoli

Tom Hedderson would probably like a do-over.  Responding to an opposition call for a ban on road-side pesticide use by Hedderson’s department, the minister compared the toxicity of the chemical defoliant his people use to table salt.

And table salt was worse!

In politics, that sort of comment can be demonstrably true but it can also be one of those moments where that truth doesn’t matter as much as other truths.

Let’s start at the beginning so everyone has the context. 

Last year, the provincial environment department banned a number of herbicides for residential use  The ban took effect this year.

In a news release issued July 14, 2011, environment minister Ross Wiseman justified the action this way:

“Our government has thoroughly examined all aspects of the pesticides debate, using that information to inform our decision to ban products used for cosmetic lawn care purposes in Newfoundland and Labrador, …We have listened to the concerns raised by many individuals and groups in the province, analyzed the research conducted by numerous sources, looked at other jurisdictions and, as a result, will implement a ban on cosmetic pesticides that are currently being used for lawn care.”

One of the specific chemicals Wiseman banned was 2,4D.

It’s that chemical that Liberal Randy Edmunds used to base his claim about the defoliant used by Hedderson’s department.  Here’s a bit of the telegram story from a couple of days ago:

The government has acknowledged the chemical is unsafe, said Edmunds, who calls the continued use of Agent White “unacceptable.”

Agent White is marketed under the name Tordon 101 and that’s the name you will see Hedderson and some of his Conservative colleagues use as they defend current practice.  Tordon is a combination of 2,4D and picloram.

Hedderson justified using Tordon as part of the government’s brush control program along roadways.  He focused entirely on safety, including the safety of clearing the roadsides of brush so that motorists have an unobstructed view. 

The domestic ban, Hedderson said, was purely for cosmetic use and not for necessity. He then added that residential users were using the product indiscriminately. People didn’t need to use the stuff.  Safety had nothing to do with it, according to Hedderson.

You can get the audio version of Hedderson’s call to an open line show and one of the media accounts of his call in an earlier SRBP post.

Hedderson opted to focus his comments on the chemicals themselves.  He described how the chemical works by mimicking  hormones in the plants.  Hedderson got into a discussion of relative toxicity. He mentioned table salt and Vitamin A.  Hedderson likely got a briefing that included a table like this one, taken from one of the links above:


Hedderson complained a couple of times in his radio interview that he was having trouble with the host in getting the message out.  His point:  “…this stuff when used can do the job it is supposed to do without any health risk to the people around.”

The day after those radio comments, Hedderson turned up on CBC.  Their online story quoted Hedderson as saying that:

We do need to use it for our roadside simply because it's the most effective right now, it's the safest, and it gives us the best results.

Hedderson’s defence focused on the safety of the chemicals themselves. That’s curious given that government’s decision to ban residential use of certain herbicides came out of the same place that is driving the concern about Tordon 101.  It’s a fairly well-entrenched public concern about chemical defoliants that date back to the days of DDT and Agent Orange.

Hedderson also got caught up in his own assurances. On the one hand he asserted that the chemicals were so innocuous that they were safer than table salt but on the other hand, toward the end of his call to Open Line, Hedderson talked about buffer zones and precautions his officials used when applying the chemicals.

That’s actually in line with the points made by one critic of Hedderson’s department, quoted by CBC:

"Common sense says that if the regulations that Dow Chemical put on this particular chemical state — don't get it on the hands, don't get it on the skin, don't breathe it in, don't get it in the eyes, use a ventilator, use a mask — and we have a minister of the Crown saying it is as harmless as table salt and vitamin A ...

At the end of two days, Hedderson found himself in the middle of a controversy.  How did he get there?

Well, since Tom was concerned about his messages, let’s look at them:

  • The chemicals that his department uses are safer than table salt and Vitamin A when used by his officials for their purposes.
  • For all that, his officials take safety precautions when spraying around water courses or on some types of plants because public safety is important.
  • Government banned herbicides for residential use in 2011 because it was politically expedient or useful, not as a matter of public health and safety.

Right off the bat, arguing about the relative safety of chemicals is tedious and complicated.  It relies, ultimately, on comparisons that appear patronizing or laughable.  People will simply have a hard time believing – on the face of it – that a chemical agent that kills plants is less harmful to humans than Vitamin A.

The only other way that line of argument works is if people are prepared to put faith in government that these assurances are true.  Given the spotty record of government assurances on everything from Agent Orange to thalidomide,  the patronizing approach that the experts know best would seem to be as inherently weak as the Vitamin A argument.

Then we come to the internal contradictions in the messages.  They are plain. They undermine the effectiveness of the message.  If the chemicals are less toxic than Vitamin A or table salt, then officials shouldn’t need to take such elaborate precautions to avoid or reduce exposure.  By the same token, why are their no warning labels on the packages of Sifto that recommend use only while wearing respirators and protective clothing at the dinner table?

What you are seeing here is a practical example of the political issues governments face every day. 

The provincial transportation department needs to keep roadways clear of brush along the sides.  Drivers need to see what’s coming whether it is an animal or other cars when going around a bend. The question officials face is what they should use to clear the brush.

They used to pay gangs of people to cut brush every spring, summer and fall.  Tordon 101 is probably cheaper.  it’s a relatively safe – when used correctly - and it certainly gets government out of the business of qualifying people for employment insurance, the related, traditional policy objective of brush clearing.

The chemicals may be cheaper in dollars but they are way more costly in public opinion these days. People are concerned about the potential health impacts of widespread use of chemicals.  They are concerned enough to put up the kind of racket that last year led to a ban on cosmetic use of herbicides.

Or so they thought. 

Hedderson ran smack into the reality of public opinion this week. Curiously, his first thought was to simply reject the public concern entirely.  His second thought was to make it clear that the government move in 2011 to ban pesticides had nothing to do with safety concerns.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, as Hedderson confirmed, sometimes governments make policy decisions based on something other than simple facts, truth, scientific assurances and other high-sounding things.

On another level, the Tordon 101 controversy isn’t irrelevant or contrived.  You are seeing the new state of politics in the province.  Where the Tories tried to capture a segment of public opinion last year with their carefully worded pre-election news release,  12 months later that segment of public opinion can find support from either one or both of the opposition parties.

Part of Hedderson’s reply may be tied to the fact that some of the strongest proponents of pesticide bans in metro St. John’s  - like councillor Sheilagh O’Leary - don’t support his party at the polls.  Apparently, Tom didn’t think about the fact that fewer and fewer people in the metro region don’t support Tom’s party compared even to last October.

Looking at that shaker on the dinner table, you might never have thought that ordinary table salt could have such a political impact.