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Health and Safety: OPSEU members exposed to toxic chemicals in 1950s, 60s and 70s

We the North
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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 Agent Orange and 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.

For a list of health conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange developed in response to similar exposures in the 1960s of Canadian Forces members and their families at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick, follow the link. 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.

Former or current 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 known to have been used to keep the fields under hydro power transmission lines free of undergrowth.

Since the story broke in mid-February this year, the provincial government has responded by:

  • setting up a special hotline at the WSIB to handle inquiries about exposures and how to file a WSIB claim;
  • posting information about the herbicide and its use on the Ministry of Natural Resource website;
  • writing to the federal government to recommend that Health Canada contact other provincial and territorial governments to determine where else the chemical was used;
  • announcing that it will establish an independent fact-finding panel to gather information and to report back to the Minister of Natural Resources.

OPSEU encourages all members – current or former – who believe that they may have been exposed to 2,4,5-T or the combination of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D in the workplace to contact WSIB. Call WSIB at 1-800-387-0750, then press 1 and then 4163444440 to reach an agent during business hours. Even if you are not sure of the name of the chemicals but remember that you were exposed to a herbicide spray, you should contact WSIB. There is a page on the WSIB website set up with contact information for this issue .

OPSEU recognizes that members may have had other chemical exposures while they worked in the OPS. 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. On the WSIB website there is an explanation of the program and an on-line reporting form. If you have concerns about chemical exposures, OPSEU encourages you to use this reporting mechanism.