Government papers: Anguished widow’s plea to ban weedkiller

A woman believed that 2,4,5-T (also known as 245T) had killed her husband at the age of just 61.
A woman believed that 2,4,5-T (also known as 245T) had killed her husband at the age of just 61.

Among hundreds of files dealing with political developments released under the 30-year-rule is a folder which contains a poignant series of letters from a woman who believed that she had lost her husband because of a chemical used by the Americans to defoliate Vietnamese forests.

The lady, whose name has been blanked out of the correspondence – released at the Public Record Office in Belfast – to protect her identity, believed that 2,4,5-T (also known as 245T) had killed her husband at the age of just 61.

The chemical, which has since been banned around the world, was a key ingredient of Agent Orange, the notorious substance used by the US to strip the leaves from forests in south east Asia during the Vietnam war.

The woman’s husband, who died of lung cancer, was a foreman and checker at a bakery but the use of pesticides was confined to his hobby in his own garden.

In her initial letter to the Government, she began by saying: “I beg of you to have the product 245T banned as I believe this attributed to my dear husband’s death two weeks ago from lung cancer.”

The woman said she was “sure in my heart this is what killed him” and added: “In years to come we will be known as the generation that killed itself with all the chemicals that are used on food and animals.”

She added: “He did not wear protective clothing or a mask over his mouth – none of the above state that you should.”

In a subsequent letter, the woman explained that she had not been at home when a Government official called as, since the death of her husband, she now had to work.

The handwritten letter said: “I should like this brand of weedkiller taken off the market as I believe this contributed to my husband’s lung cancer. It is banned in lots of countries, as you are probably aware, and contains dioxin, the most deadly known chemical to man.

“My dear husband was a non-smoker and drinker, but a keen gardener who won many cups at all the shows. He used this 245T lots of times and this I believe caused his death.”

She added: “I should be most grateful if you could have it banned. I am only a voice in the wilderness really but I should hate anyone else to suffer the way my husband did for 18 months.

“Now we, his family, are left to suffer our great loss.”

An official replied sympathetically several times asking for more details.

But eventually in 1985, a M McKillen in the Cereals and Farm Safety Division of the Department of Agriculture wrote to the Pesticides Branch at the Ministry of Agriculture in London, saying that “there really is no further action we can take locally and you will wish to decide the basis of a private office reply on the limited information available”.

In the same file there are details of a 1982 European Commission meeting about the use of 2,4,5-T.

When some countries moved to have the chemical banned from use on cereal crops or in gardens, the UK and Ireland were among a majority of nations which objected, arguing that the proposal was “not based on scientific evidence”.

Elsewhere in the file, a 1980 draft reply for an unnamed NIO minister, responding to another query about the chemical, rejected comparisons between 2,4,5-T available in the UK and ‘Agent Orange’.

The reply said: “The dioxin content of [Agent Orange] was up to 4,500 times greater than that currently permitted in products used here.”