Canada: Clearcutting, Chemicals And Cancer: The Occupational Hazards Facing Forestry Workers In Canada

Last Updated: April 11 2017
Article by Paul Miller

If you're familiar with forestry management, you'll know one of the most heated debates around is how best to regenerate softwood/coniferous forests. Clearcutting trees draws the ire of environmentalists, but when combined with aerial herbicide spraying some studies show it produces much better yields of new wood. Non-chemical methods use a variety of techniques to foster regeneration, often successfully, but some provinces that have experimented with these methods have opted to return to chemicals when regeneration failed to produce desired results.

Tallying up yields of wood and considering the effects of clearcutting and chemicals on wildlife and diversity of plant species are not the only things we should consider in this debate. For forestry workers applying glyphosate-based chemicals such as Monsanto's Vision silviculture herbicide, there is growing evidence that their regular exposure is putting them at increased risk of developing cancers and other serious illnesses.

In this blog post I examine how chemical spraying is used in forestry management, note the risks to forestry workers who are applying these chemicals, and explain their legal options if they believe they've developed an illness from their occupational exposure.

Non-Chemical Versus Chemical Forest Regeneration

When coniferous (softwood) forests are logged, good forestry management practices assist in regenerating stocks. These practices can be done through non-chemical means such as planned natural regeneration, a prescribed fire to clear an area, brush saw or mechanical site preparation, controlling the harvest season to reduce growth of competing species, matching a sylvicultural system to the species desired, or a combination of these methods.

Chemical treatments are also an option. Generally, chemical applications in these forest sites are facilitated through aerial spraying (although manual ground applications are used in some cases) after an area has been clear cut. After clearcutting occurs in the fall or winter, regeneration will begin to occur during the following summer. Aerial spraying done in the late summer helps coniferous seedlings thrive against competing shrubs, grasses, and hardwood species because their needles will have already developed a thick waxy covering that prevents herbicidal chemicals from being absorbed.

There is a vigorous debate about the benefits and liabilities of each of these methods. Most foresters prefer not to use chemicals when they have another viable option because they tend to face local opposition, and these chemicals can be expensive and are often difficult to apply. Moreover, environmentalists and ecology groups have loudly complained that chemical use may disrupt surrounding natural ecosystems in unintended ways. However, studies showing a substantial increase in wood volume yield on forest tracts treated with glyphosate-based chemicals means clearcutting and chemical treatment can result in higher profits.

The province of Québec banned the use of chemical herbicides in 2001 on Crown lands, and opted to use an ecosystem-based management philosophy based on natural regeneration. In Ontario use of glyphosate herbicides has also declined substantially in recent years in favour of non-chemical approaches. However, Alberta's decision to suspend its herbicide program in the 1980s was reversed in the 2000s when regeneration failure rates were found to be too large to be sustainable for the industry.

The Occupational Risk: Forestry Workers in Canada

Although people living in areas near glyphosate spraying often raise concerns about their exposure, usually these areas are sparsely populated and the spraying is targeted fairly precisely. However, there is a risk that in certain conditions (heavy rains and flooding) the glyphosate chemical treatment can leach into soil and into groundwater run-off before it decomposes. This can result in unintended damage to surrounding ecosystems as the herbicide disrupts plant lifecycles and negatively impacts the animals, insects and birds that depend on them.

While it's reasonable to be concerned about this situation, the more imminent danger to humans is mostly limited to people directly involved in applying glyphosate products to clear cut forest tracks. Whether it's a worker mixing or loading the herbicide for distribution, pilots applying it aerially, or ground workers applying it from a backpack, these people are most likely to come into contact with the chemical regularly and potentially be exposed at high dosages.

While forestry officials and logging companies emphasize all of the safety precautions, training and licensing these workers must take to help minimize exposure, if you read industry materials and Q&A fact sheets, they are also at pains to underline the apparent safety of this product and dismiss contradictory research as flawed.

Why would all of these safety precautions be necessary if the product they were handling was, as manufacturer Monsanto has claimed, "safer than table salt"? Perhaps the answer is that glyphosate is not nearly as safe as its promoters wish it were. In fact, compelling, credible and extensive research by independent scientists has determined it is a "probable carcinogen."

The Public Relations Battle

As I've written in past blog posts, major glyphosate manufacturer Monsanto has engaged in intense lobbying and public relations campaigns to prevent regulatory agencies from warning about glyphosate's risks and independent scientists from communicating troubling findings that chemical industry-backed research rarely turns up. Unsealed documents from a court case against the corporate giant revealed evidence of collusion between the company and US Environmental Protection Agency officials and internal email communications where Monsanto managers were encouraged to ghostwrite research reports that scientists would put their names on.

Despite all the lobbying, public relations exercises, and questionable industry-sponsored research, independent experts have sounded the alarm on this substance and many countries are taking steps to restrict it or ban it outright. An exhaustive review of all public data on the substance in 2015 by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – an agency deemed to be the "gold standard" in identifying carcinogens – found probable links between glyphosate exposure and cancer.

What's Being Done?

People who work in occupations where they have been exposed to glyphosate (farmers, agricultural workers, tree nursery employees, highway maintenance crews) and developed cancers or other illnesses they believe to be a result of their exposure, have begun filing legal actions against Monsanto and other glyphosate manufacturers for their negligence in promoting and selling a hazardous material. Forestry workers who find themselves battling these illnesses should know that they have similar options.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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