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Health and Safety: Questions and Answers on exposures to herbicides occupational disease

Health and Safety: Questions and Answers on exposures to herbicides occupational disease


What is an Occupational disease?

An occupational disease is a health problem caused by exposure to a workplace health hazard.

Workplace health hazards can cause three kinds of reactions in the body:

  1. Immediate or acute reactions, like shortness of breath or nausea, can be caused by a one-time event, (e.g., a chemical spill). These reactions are not usually permanent.
  2. Gradual reactions, like asthma or dermatitis (skin rashes), can get worse and persist when you are exposed over days, weeks or months. These reactions tend to last for a longer time.
  3. Delayed reactions or diseases that take a long time to develop, like lung cancer, can be caused by exposure to a substance or work activity. These reactions can be noticed long after the job is over.

Who can make an Occupational Disease claim?

Workers who contract an occupational disease from workplace exposures can apply for benefits from the Workplace Insurance and Safety Board (WSIB).

Why are you telling us about the link between herbicide use and occupational disease?

Recent media reports have revealed that some OPSEU members in the 1950s, 60s and 70s were exposed to a dangerous herbicide used widely throughout the province and across Canada to clear brush and weeds in forestry and other operations. The chemical known as 2,4,5-T may have been mixed with another chemical 2,4-D. The mixture of the two chemicals has been known as “Agent Orange”, a powerful defoliant used in the Viet Nam war. The province stopped using the chemical in 1979 and Canada withdrew it from the market in 1985.

One component of 2, 4, 5-T is dioxin a chemical known to be toxic to humans as well as to plants and animals. It is not known if dioxin is the sole source of the health effects or if there are other chemicals involved. Health effects related to exposure to Agent Orange are some cancers such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia, respiratory cancers, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma, skin conditions and peripheral neuropathy.

What health conditions are associated with exposure?

Here is a list of some health conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange made in response to similar exposures in the 1960s of Canadian Forces members and their families at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick:

  • chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • soft tissue sarcoma
  • non-Hodgkin"s lymphoma
  • Hodgkin"s disease
  • chloracne
  • respiratory cancer (of the lung, bronchus, larynx or trachea)
  • prostate cancer
  • multiple myeloma
  • acute or subacute transient peripheral neuropathy
  • porphyria cutanea tarda
  • type 2 diabetes mellitus
  • spina bifida  – an individual diagnosed with spina bifida whose biological parent was exposed

There is no guarantee that a similar list will be accepted by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) for Ontario exposures. This list is provided for information purposes only.  

Current or former OPSEU members (or members of OPSEU’s predecessor, the Civil Servants Association of Ontario (CSAO)), may have been exposed to the herbicide when working as Junior Forest Rangers in northern Ontario in the late 1960s or in other forestry-related operations. The government and private forestry companies used the chemical in wide-spread aerial spraying operations, dropping the chemical directly onto workers below holding helium balloons to mark the spraying targets. The chemical was also used to kill plant growth at roadsides and in culverts so Ministry of Transportation employees may also have been exposed. It is also known to have been used to keep the fields under hydro power transmission lines free of undergrowth.

It’s possible that other OPSEU members working in other ministries, agencies, boards or commissions and other workplaces may have also have workplace exposures to the herbicide.

What to do if you believe you have an occupational disease related to herbicide exposure?

If you have been diagnosed with any of the listed diseases, or another disease that you believe is linked to herbicide exposure at work, you should file a claim with the WSIB. You can start this process by calling the WSIB Information Line set up specifically for this issue at 1-800-387-0750, then press 1 or 2 for French, then press 1 and then 4163444440 to reach an agent during business hours. They will take your background information and assist you in processing your claim.

What if I was exposed to herbicides like 2,4,5-T or 2,4-D and I am not ill?

Even if you do not currently have a disease or illness, but believe that you may have been exposed to 2,4,5-T or the combination of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D during the course of your work you should still contact the WSIB at this number and file a report. If you are not sure of the name of the chemicals but remember that you were exposed to herbicide spray, you should contact the WSIB to report it.

If you are not a worker or a former worker directly involved in the spraying of herbicides, but have concerns that you may have been exposed to the herbicide (e.g., you lived in a community close to where spraying programs took place and believe you were exposed) you should call the Ministry of Natural Resources Information Gathering Line at 1-888-338-3364 and report it.

I have worked with all sorts of herbicides and pesticides during my career and I am worried about my health. What should I do?

OPSEU recognizes that OPSEU members, former members and/or retirees may have had other chemical exposures while they worked in the OPS or other sectors. We know that a number of ministries have applied herbicides and pesticides over the years in addition to the Agent Orange chemicals.

If you have had other workplace chemical exposures that you are concerned about, even if you have not developed an illness you think is related to the exposure, WSIB has a program where workers can report these exposures. Known as PEIR, the Program for Exposure Incident Reporting, workers can make a voluntary report of an incident exposure if they are concerned it may later result in an illness.

If you have concerns about other chemical exposures, OPSEU encourages you to use this reporting mechanism. You can call the WSIB at 1-800-465-9646, email them at PEIR_project@wsib.on.ca, or visit their website at www.wsib.on.ca for the brochure and reporting form.

If you have applied for WSIB and been denied your claim, OPSEU may be able to assist you with a WSIB appeal.  Please call 1-800-268-7376 if you would like assistance from OPSEU.