Who is June Irwin?
Our friends at the Hudson Gazette newspaper in Quebec, the voice of the town where the anti-pesticide movement unofficially began in North America, has been a huge supporter of our movie, A Chemical Reaction. In last week’s edition, the paper ran an extensive feature on one of the stars of our movie, Dr. June Irwin. Check out the story here, or visit www.HudsonGazette.com:
WHO IS JUNE IRWIN?
By Vivianne Lariviere, Hudson Gazette
HUDSON – Dr. June Irwin has long been known for her controversial stance on the use of pesticides. Her tenacious advocacy has resulted in the banning of the cosmetic use of toxic substances, first in Hudson, then in Quebec, and now in Ontario.
Dr. Irwin is the central character in A Chemical Reaction, a documentary charting the medical, scientific, legal and political fallout from the fight over pesticides. Produced by safe-lawn activist Paul Tukey, the film’s international premiere takes place at the Montreal World Film Festival later this week.
In the spotlight once more, Dr. Irwin graciously agreed to an interview so that we may catch a rare, deeper glimpse of this social and environmental disciple.
As I made my way to the overgrown front gate of her farm, I was cordially and warmly greeted into her ‘living room’ the roadside spot where she has her morning coffee and indulges in the reading of newspapers. Surrounded by a bounty of bins used as food storage for her hens, we began our conversation.
She jumped right in: “If I may start off the interview to say that my interviews are not about me. They’re about what happens along the way.”
She immediately wanted to reassure me of her duty as a spokesperson for those people who have placed a sacred trust in her those who have come in and out of her life in need of help; those that have suffered severely as a result of pesticide poisoning.
The light of Dr. Irwin’s mission began to shine bright in 1985, after having been involved in the practice of dermatology for many years. This was a year of revelation for her, her epiphany if one may call it that. One of her patients had been hospitalized for several months. “She was so toxic, she was even a bit delirious. It started with a foot rash that eventually spread all over her body. She lost hair, she lost fingernails, she had lesions all over her body.”
Dr. Irwin told the patient that she was poisoned. The only history that made any sense was that her husband had routinely used Killex on the property. [Killex is an herbicide containing 2,4-D, a powerful endocrine disruptor which forces the plant to grow itself to death. The chemical has been linked to neurological disorders such as early-onset Parkinson's as well as to soft-tissue cancers, but scientific opinion remains sharply divided.]
After the patient left the hospital, Dr. Irwin spoke to a specialized allergy lab. She managed to secure a blood test for her patient. The results proving the presence of 2,4-D in her blood, still poisoning her months later.
Dr. June Irwin has been campaigning for pesticide banning ever since – it will be coming up to 25 years of non-stop letter writing, public speaking, research and advocating for those who have come to her with “overflowing highways of complaints” trying to help us understand that pesticides have taken away ” our right to live in health.” She has always paid for her patients’ blood tests herself, not willing to impose the extra cost on them and accepting the procedures as part of her ongoing life’s research.
Although millions have heeded the message of the horrendous consequences of herbicide poisoning, her concern is for those still not listening – or those who choose not to believe it. “Nobody worries, nobody worries, it’s only fertilizer, they say.”
One can’t help warm up to June Irwin. She is a humble, positive person, exuding humility. I want to know what makes her tick. I want to know what inspires her, what has moved her to become the soulful, selfless person that is motivated to the point of fanaticism to do this work.
I respect the level of trust and confidentiality we shared during our time together. Without going into too much detail here at her request, I can mention that as a teenager she had an accident that left her bedridden for many months. This era of reflection was the time of her vocational epiphany; she knew she and her inquisitive mind were being called to medicine.
She cackles as she tells the story of a colleague telling her that if she went into dermatology you “don’t make night calls!” Though as a young practitioner, she would sleep by the telephone as her patients would call her any hour of the night, and she often found herself on doorsteps at 7 a.m. visiting the sick.
Her heart carries very simple and yet profound philosophies: “The point is, like in your profession, my profession, any profession, because we have chosen or put by fate in that position, people think that our motives are to do good. Hopefully they are, but it’s a job, which, to do good, you have to do your job well. …if you do your job well you’re doing good no matter what the job is.
“Don’t talk about negative things in your life,” she counsels, adding that she has been gifted with “the acceptance of life.
“I don’t tell people when one of my sheep dies. People feed on misfortune. Don’t cloud your image with sorrow,” she whispers with a gentle, persuasive smile when probed about her youth, her memories. “Never become a victim.”
Dr. Irwin is an extremely private person. She, very assertively, shuts the door to the personal world of her childhood with a few exceptions, such as reminiscing about her family who loved pets deeply where the “family dog was almost human.”
As a child she found her freedom “spent in the woods, spent in the fields, picking apples, spent on my grandfather’s farm.” She was inspired by the freedom that nature had to offer. And here, she speaks with much deliberation: “And the time for reflection.”
In sharing with Dr. Irwin that I believe freedom and inspiration comes from the depth of silence, she agrees wholeheartedly. “Yes, that’s it! You are so right. I recently read in the paper, that children do not have enough time for solitude or to reflect in this society.”
Her West Island medical office is the place where she ministers to her patients and gathers data. Contemplation and reflection comes on her farm, sometimes at midnight, out with her sheep. “I get my ideas on the farm. I get my ideas from patients. For example in 1988-89, one of my patients said to me: ‘how do you tell a child he can’t go out to play today?’
If you sit in silence for a few moments with June, you can see the soft shadow of compassion wash over her eyes and face like a silk ripple of water undulating under the caress of a summer breeze. “Nature is your God,” I suggest.
“That’s it,” she replies.
She acknowledges that perhaps her motivation comes from an “extreme form of maternalism.” She agrees when asked, that with those pets, might have been the time she first began to witness suffering.
We get back to the mission on hand. Pesticides. Dr. Irwin began petitioning in 1986-87. She recalls when finally in 1991, Michael Elliot announced the ban in Hudson.
She wasn’t even present for the decision. “When you’re fighting a war, you’ve got to come up with ideas. You don’t stop when you think one battle is won. You don’t stop. The war isn’t won.
“If you want to destroy a nation by ruining its fertility, and give it a high cancer rate, you can do it with these products and no one can stop you,” she says, explaining to me that the best place to look for poisonous substances is in male sperm and breast milk. Those are the vectors where the first warnings emerged about PCBs, DDT, chlorinated pesticides, heavy metals, plasticizers, flame retardants and a host of other substances now banned or strictly controlled. She has no doubt many others will follow – but only after the damage is done.
I asked her bluntly: “Many refer to you as eccentric and comment on the heavy make-up. Do you have anything to say about that?”
“I don’t consider myself eccentric,” Dr. Irwin replied. “I just don’t allow myself to be dictated by society.” As for the makeup, she says whimsically with a touch of frailty, “I always feel bare without it!”
I find her beauty glows from within. Her eyes are in touch with the mischievousness of saints.
I asked her if there was a particular significant moment of her life that she would choose to share. We went back over some of her stories and one in particular stood out.
Someone with a Catholic faith background had the opportunity, with a group of others, to write a letter to the Pope. This person, like many others who encouraged Irwin along the way, believed she had a duty to fulfill, so she gave up her place so that June could write a letter.
In 1987 Dr. Irwin received a letter from the archbishop, sending her a blessing from Pope John Paul II, thanking her for her work.
“People pave the way when you are on the right track. It’s never been just me, it’s us.”
I asked her how she felt.
“I had an ally!” she joyfully exclaimed. “It gave me peace,” she added.
She leaves me with a quote from the founder of the Agent Orange Foundation to the effect that there is no normal level of a synthetic chemical in a human being. “The fact that there is an average is to our shame,” she adds.
In closing, a reminder that Dr. Irwin’s interviews are not about her. They’re about what happens along the way. “It’s not about me. It’s about us.”