Cover Image
close this bookCircle of poison - Pesticides and People in a Hungry World (Food First, 1981)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentPreface
View the documentChapter one - The circle of poison
View the documentChapter two - A victim every minute
View the documentChapter three - Dumping: Business as usual
View the documentChapter four - The pesticide boomerang
View the documentChapter five - Pesticides to feed the hungry ?
View the documentChapter six - The global pesticides super-market
View the documentChapter seven - Lubricating the sales machine
View the documentChapter eight - With the advice and consent of government
View the documentChapter nine - Breaking the circle of poison
View the documentBureaucracy glossary
View the documentAppendix A
View the documentAppendix B
View the documentAppendix C
View the documentFor more information
View the documentAbout the institute

Chapter three - Dumping: Business as usual

THE INTERNATIONAL TRADE in pesticides is an ever changing affair. In the ebb and flow of commerce, buyers, sellers and products change constantly. To illustrate how hazardous pesticides find their way overseas, we have selected the example of DBCP, which provides a fascinating and well-documented case study of the problem.

Until recently, once or twice every working day a sealed semi-trailer drove through a grimy industrial section of the Los Angeles basin called City of Commerce. The truck moved slowly up Pacific Street past a row of dingy warehouses to a loading dock at the rear of Amvac Chemical Corporation's pesticide plant. There, from a storage area labeled "Restricted Area/Authorized personnel only beyond this point," light blue, 30-gallon drums stacked three high were loaded into the semi-trailer.

When it was filled, the rig headed for one of the interstate highways cries-crossing the area, and moved into the stream of traffic flowing back and forth across the country. The driver carried emergency telephone numbers and special instructions in case the colorless, odorless fluid in the drums somehow spilled or was released. No unloading or transfer of the toxic cargo was permitted en route to the shipping docks, where the chemical would be sent overseas.

The pesticide in the light blue drums was 1,2-Dibromo-3-chloropropane, or DBCP. DBCP is a nematocide, effective against the small worms called nematodes which attack food plants such as pineapples, bananas and citrus fruits.

Many of the trucks carrying Amvac's DBCP were bound for the Gulfport, Mississippi, loading docks of Standard Fruit & Steamship Company, a subsidiary of Castle & Cooke. At Gulfport, the light blue drums were loaded onto a "banana ship," destined for Puerto Limón in Costa Rica, La Ceiba in Honduras, or Guayaquil in Ecuador.

DBCP bananas for U.S. tables

AFTER FOUR TO SEVEN days at sea, the banana ship docked and the pesticide drums were unloaded and taken to their ultimate stop - the vast banana and pineapple plantations of Castle & Cooke. Castle & Cooke is one of the largest foreign corporate landholders in Central America. Workers on the company plantations, mostly illiterate peasants, used this pesticide to kill soil-dwelling worms that attack bananas. Then virtually all the bananas were shipped to U.S. tables.

Castle & Cooke stopped importing DBCP from Amvac in late 1979 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency suspension of all uses of DBCP (except on Hawaiian pineapples) because DBCP is believed to cause cancer and make humans sterile.

"Castle & Cooke decided to stop importing DBCP from us directly," an Amvac marketing official explained. "Their policy is 'let's not cause any furor - we will get the stuff through local importers down there.' Now we have to contact the people who import it for them in Central America. Castle & Cooke won't buy it directly anymore, but they encourage their plantation managers to buy it from local importers down there."

Castle & Cooke, however, maintains that it stopped purchasing and using DBCP, directly or indirectly, immediately following the EPA ban. According to Leonard Marks, Jr., executive vice president of the company, "It is Castle & Cooke's corporate policy that we will not use nor purchase product treated with any pesticide which is not specifically registered for that use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

Amvac, however, according to the marketing official, continued to sell DBCP after the ban "anywhere in the world where bananas, pineapples, citrus, and cotton are grown. There's no problem with the ban of DBCP (within the United States)," he said. "In fact, it was the best thing that could have happened for us. You can't sell it here anymore but you can still sell it anywhere else. Our big market has always been exports anyway."

Where giants fear to tread

RECENTLY, Amvac apparently suspended production of DBCP. For several years, however, it was the only company anywhere producing the substance.

When workers at Occidental's DBCP plant in California discovered in 1977 that many of them were sterile, the State of California banned the use of DBCP outright - an action that the federal Environmental Protection Agency waited two more years to take. Occidental, Dow and Shell quickly ceased their production. But little Amvac rushed in to seize the profit opportunities suddenly abandoned by the giants.

The company candidly explained its motives in its "10-K," an annual report required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: "Management believes that because of the extensive publicity and notoriety that has arisen over the sterility of workers and the suspected mutagenic and carcinogenic nature of DBCP, the principal manufacturers and distributors of the product (Dow, Occidental, and Shell Chemical) have, temporarily at least, decided to remove themselves from the domestic marketplace and possibly from the world marketplace," the report states.

"Notwithstanding all the publicity and notoriety surrounding DBCP," Amvac's report continues, it was {our}opinion that a vacuum existed in the marketplace that {we}could temporarily occupy... [we] further believed that with the addition of DBCP, sales might be sufficient to reach a profitable level."

A former Amvac executive told us why company officials decided to produce DBCP. "They're not really for spreading cancer or 'no-population' growth {a reference to the chemical's sterility link}. But DBCP is very important to them," he explained. "Quite frankly, without DBCP, Amvac would go bankrupt."

Before moving into the DBCP business, Amvac was in bad shape. In late 1978, one of its two principal stockholders, MTM Enterprises (controlled by Mary Tyler Moore and her former husband, and which produces the popular television show Lou Grant), decided to divest itself of its 12 percent portion of Amvac's common shares. Amvac faced imminent collapse until its major creditors formed a lenient repayment schedule, and even then the company missed its debt payments several times. DBCP offered Amvac a way out of the financial doldrums; the company chose to take it.

Amvac's yearly sales of roughly $10 million may be dwarfed by the multi-billion-dollar behemoths of the pesticide industry, but Amvac was not alone in profiting from pesticide dumping. In fact, it shares its profits with Dow, which received a three percent royalty on all DBCP sold by Amvac under a patenting agreement. Thus, even though Dow no longer made DBCP it still profited via the interlocking financial arrangements that link the small companies to the large, giving all a share in the global pesticide business.

Velsicol's pesticide shell game

THE STORY OF the pesticide Phosvel - and the "Phosvel Zombies" it created - is a chilling example of the cruel shell game the multinational companies can play as they move their poisons from one country to the next, trying to maximize sales before their pesticides are banned again.

Phosvel, the exclusive brand name for an organophosphate nerve toxin called leptophos, was marketed by Velsicol Chemical Corporation, a division of the mammoth Northwest Industries, which distributes everything from Cutty Sark Scotch whisky to Fruit of the Loom underwear.

The dangers of Phosvel became public in 1976, when the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revealed that workers at Velsicol's Bayport, Texas, plant had developed serious disorders of the central nervous system. Fellow workers dubbed them "Phosvel Zombies" because they lost their coordination, and their ability to work, talk and think clearly. The workers sued Velsicol, and the company closed the plant.

But even after all the publicity generated by the Phosvel Zombie scandal (including charges by U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy that the company knowingly continued to make Phosvel even after its employees became ill), Velsicol kept selling the pesticide overseas.

Velsicol's marketing of Phosvel shows that even when third world countries join the United States in banning especially dangerous pesticides, the multinational giants who control the global pesticide supermarket can often continue to sell dangerous chemicals for years.

Although more than four years have passed since Phosvel's dangers burst into the headlines, there is disturbing evidence that it is still on the market.

The EPA never allowed Velsicol to sell Phosvel in the United States, although it did routinely issue a one-year experimental use permit. Velsicol used this permit to its advantage in Colombia. When the Colombian Committee for Environmental Information began campaigning against the pesticide's disabling side-effects, Velsicol first threatened to sue, then produced its experimental use permit as "proof" that Phosvel had been registered for use in the United States for eight years.

Meanwhile, with $4 million in AID funds, 13.9 million pounds of Phosvel and other banned pesticides were shipped to 50 countries as part of the U.S. foreign aid program from 1971 to 1976. (This practice was eventually stopped by a lawsuit brought by environmental groups. ) In Egypt, a widely publicized Phosvel epidemic in 1971 killed over 1,000 water buffalo and an unknown number of peasants. The victims suffered a slow and agonizing death, gradually paralyzed until they asphyxiated.

Velsicol beats the Phosvel ban

ALTHOUGH VELSICOL says it no longer manufactures Phosvel anywhere in the world, documents show that during 1978 - two years after the notorious Phosvel Zombie publicity - Velsicol imported Phosvel into Costa Rica via three shipments originating in Panama and Mexico. In addition, according to the government of Indonesia, large quantities of Phosvel are still being sold there.

In Colombia, authorities banned Phosvel in July 1977. Velsicol simply moved its stockpiles of Phosvel to a free trade zone, technically out of Colombian jurisdiction, and then shipped it to nearby countries where it was not yet banned.

Attempts by the company to peddle Phosvel elsewhere, however, met with resistance.

After the Philippines banned Phosvel, according to that country's Pesticide Technical Services Chief Ricardo Deang, "Velsicol came to us and said, 'We want to export our stocks of Phosvel to Thailand.' But we couldn't let them do that to our sister country. So I said, 'You have to prove to us that Thailand really wants this stuff. Otherwise you must send it back to the States for disposal.' So then they ended up shipping it all back to the U.S."

Guatemalan official Fernando Mazariegos remembers, "After the Phosvel scandal in the U.S., Velsicol came to us and said they wanted to study the possibilities for its use in Central America. We turned that request down. I think their purpose was to stare selling a lot of it in Central America and in other countries."

Company spokesman Richard Blewitt says Velsicol did not try to mislead officials in Colombia, the Philippines, or Guatemala about Phosvel. But he does admit that "what happened happened. We're trying {to}make sure that {it}never happens again. A new team has been amassed {at Velsicol}."

Phosvel is not Velsicol's only hazardous pesticide. Once Phosvel was removed from the market, at least officially, Velsicol began manufacturing EPN as a substitute. But EPN - now under EPA review - is believed to be twice as neurotoxic as Phosvel. Velsicol also manufactures ingredients for three essentially banned organochlorines - heptachlor, chlordane and endrin - at a plant in Chicago, and formulates the finished products in Memphis. Most of the production is for the overseas market, since endrin use is severely restricted in the U.S., and heptachlor and chlordane are completely banned for agricultural purposes inside the continental U.S. (Like DBCP, endrin may be used on pineapples in Hawaii until the end of 1982 - which testifies less to the need for either pesticide on pineapples than to the political clout of the Hawaiian Pineapple Growers' Association, dominated by Del Monte and Castle & Cooke.)

Hooker: the Love Canal dumper

THE HOOKER Chemical and Plastic Corporation - in-famous for the Love Canal tragedy - is another pesticide dumper. Hooker is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Occidental - one of the three major firms which ceased DBCP production when workers at its California plant discovered they were sterile.

At the Love Canal near Niagara Falls, New York, thousands of pounds of lethal chemical wastes at an abandoned Hooker chemical dumpsite percolated to the surface 20 years later. This tragedy is still being felt in the residential neighborhood today, four years since the site was rediscovered in 1976. An unusually large number of children are born with birth defects, adults and children are suffering from high rates of chemically-induced diseases, and a whole way of life has been disrupted as people have been forced to sell their homes to escape the leeching poisons. The Love Canal tragedy was a turning point in the growing movement of people fighting against the invasion of toxic chemicals.

In the third world, Hooker's marketing of pesticides may eventually cause similar tragedies. But third world peasants usually do not have access to information about Hooker's toxic products and practices, and probably will not know what has affected them. In addition, most of them cannot simply move away like many Love Canal residents have done.

One example of Hooker's third world marketing practices occurred in 1976. Hooker voluntarily withdrew its EPA registration of the organochlorine BHC, after feeding tests with mice showed it causes tumors, kills fetuses and causes premature births, and has other dangerous reproductive effects even when absorbed in tiny concentrations. But when it withdrew BHC from the U.S. market, Hooker explicitly stated that it would continue producing the chemical for use overseas.

In recent years, records indicate, Ortho has imported BHC into Costa Rica, the German firm Schering imported BHC into Colombia, and, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture cables, BHC was used on coffee grown for U.S. consumption in Peru and Guatemala.