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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 one - The circle of poison

THIS BOOK documents a scandal of global proportions - the export of banned pesticides from the industrial countries to the third world. Massive advertising campaigns by multinational pesticide corporations - Dow, Shell, Chevron - have turned the third world into not only a booming growth market for pesticides, but also a dumping ground. Dozens of pesticides too dangerous for unrestricted use in the United States are shipped to underdeveloped countries. There, lack of regulation, illiteracy, and repressive working conditions can turn even a "safe" pesticide into a deadly weapon.

According to the World Health Organization, someone in the underdeveloped countries is poisoned by pesticides every minute.

But we are victims too. Pesticide exports create a circle of poison, disabling workers in American chemical plants and later returning to us in the food we import. Drinking a morning coffee or enjoying a luncheon salad, the American consumer is eating pesticides banned or restricted in the United States, but legally shipped to the third world. The United States is among the world's top food importers and 10 percent of our imported food is officially rated as contaminated. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to protect us from such hazards, during one 15-month period, the General Accounting Office (GAO) discovered that half of all the imported food identified by the FDA as pesticide-contaminated was marketed without any warning to consumers or penalty to importers.

At least 25 percent of U.S. pesticide exports are products that are banned, heavily restricted, or have never been registered for se here. 4 Many have not been independently evaluated for their impacts on human health or the environment. Other pesticides are familiar poisons, widely known to cause cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations. Yet, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act explicitly states that banned or unregistered pesticides are legal for export.

In this book we concentrate on hazardous pesticides which are either banned, heavily restricted in their use, or under regulatory review in the United States. Some, such as DDT, are banned for any use in the United States; others, such as 2,4-D or toxaphene, are still widely used here but only for certain usages. (Table 1, on page 79, lists the status of hazardous pesticides which are prohibited, restricted, under review, or unrestricted in the United States.) As we will discuss, even "safe" pesticides which are unrestricted in the United States may have much more damaging effects on people and the environment when used under more brutal conditions in the third world.

In the United States, a mere dozen multinational corporations dominate the $7-billion-a-year pesticide market. Many are conglomerates with major sales in oil, petrochemicals, plastics, drugs and mining.

The list of companies selling hazardous pesticides to the third world reads like a Who's Who of the $350-billionper-year chemical industry: Dow, Shell, Stauffer, Chevron, Ciba-Geigy, Rohm & Haas, Hoechst, Bayer, Monsanto, ICI, Dupont, Hercules, Hooker, Velsicol, Allied, Union Carbide, and many others. (See Table One.)

Tens of thousands of pounds of DBCP, heptachlor, chlordane, BHC, lindane, 2,4,5-T and DDT are allowed to be exported each year from the United States, even though they are considered too dangerous for unrestricted domestic use.

"You need to point out to the world," Dr. Harold Hubbard of the U.N.'s Pan American Health Organization told us, "that there is absolutely no control over the manufacture, the transportation, the storage, the record-keeping - the entire distribution of this stuff. These very toxic pesticides are being thrown all over the world and there's no control over any of it!"

Not only do the chemical corporations manufacture hazardous pesticides, but their subsidiaries in the third world import and distribute them. (See Table One.)

· Ortho: In Costa Rica, Ortho is the main importer of seven banned or heavily restricted U.S. pesticides - DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, heptachlor, chlordane, endrin, and BHC. Ortho is a division of Chevron Chemical Company, an arm of Standard Oil of California. (See Appendix B.)

· Shell, Velsicol, Bayer, American Cyanamid, Hercules and Monsanto: In Ecuador these corporations are the main importers of pesticides banned or restricted in the United States - aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, kepone, and mirex.

· Bayer and Pfizer: In the Philippines, these multinationals import methyl parathion and malathion respectively; " neither is banned but both are extremely hazardous.

The Ministry of Agriculture of Colombia registers 14 multinationals which import practically all the pesticides banned by the United States since 1970. (See Appendix C.) And in the Philippines, the giant food conglomerate Castle & Cooke (Dole brand) imports banned DBCP for banana and pineapple operations there.

Pesticides: a pound per person

WORLDWIDE pesticide sales are exploding. The amount of pesticides exported from the U.S. has almost doubled over the last 15 years. The industry now produces four billion pounds of pesticides each year - more than one pound for every person on earth. Almost all are produced in the industrial countries, but 20 percent are exported to the third world.

And the percentage exported is likely to increase rapidly: The GAO predicts that during the decade ending in 1984, the use of pesticides in Africa, for example, will more than quintuple. As the U.S. pesticide market is "approaching saturation . . . U.S. pesticide producers have been directing their attention toward the export potential . . . exports have almost doubled since 1965 and currently account for 30 percent of total domestic pesticide production," the trade publication Chemical Economics Newsletter noted.

Corporate executives justify the pesticide explosion with what sounds like a reasonable explanation: the hungry world needs our pesticides in its fight against famine. But their words ring hollow: in third world fields most pesticides are applied to luxury, export crops, not to food staples the local people will eat. Instead of helping the poor to eat better, technology is overexposing them to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, sterility and nerve damage.

"Blind" schedules, not "as needed"

BUT THE CRISIS is not just the export of banned pesticides. A key problem in both the industrial countries and the third world is the massive overuse of pesticides resulting from their indiscriminate application. Pesticides are routinely applied according to schedules preset by the corporate sellers, not measured in precise response to actual pest threats in a specific field. By conservative estimate, U.S. farmers could cut insecticide use by 35 to 50 percent with no effect on crop production, simply by treating only when necessary rather than by schedule. In Central America, researchers calculate that pesticide use, especially parathion, is 40 percent higher than necessary to achieve optimal profits.

In the United States the result of pesticide overuse is the unnecessary poisoning of farmworkers and farmers - about 14,000 a year according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But if pesticides are not used safely here - where most people can read warning labels, where a huge government agency (the EPA) oversees pesticide regulation, and where farmworker unions are fighting to protect the health of their members - can we expect these poisons to be used safely in the third world ?

An inappropriate technology

TN THIRD WORLD countries one or two officials often 1 carry responsibility equivalent to that of the entire U. S. EPA. Workers are seldom told how the pesticides could hurt them. Most cannot read. And even if they could, labels on banned pesticides often do not carry the warnings required in the United States. Frequently repacked or simply scooped out into old cans, deadly pesticides are often handled like harmless white powder by peasants who have little experience with manmade poisons.

But perhaps even more critical is this question: can pesticides - poisons, by definition - be used safely in societies where workers have no right to organize, no right to strike, no right to refuse to carry the pesticides into the fields? In the Philippines, for example, at least one plantation owner has reportedly sprayed pesticides on workers trying to organize a strike. 22 And, in Central America, says entomologist Lou Falcon, who has worked there for many years, "The people who work in the fields are treated like half-humans, slaves really. When an airplane flies over to spray, they can leave if they want to. But they won't be paid their seven cents a day or whatever. They often live in huts in the middle of the field, so their homes, their children, and their food all get contaminated."

Yet the President's Hazardous Substances Export Policy Task Force predicts that the export of banned pesticides is likely to increase as manufacturers unload these products on countries hooked on the ag-chemical habit. "Continued new discoveries of carcinogenic and other damaging effects of many substances are probable over the next few years," predicts the task force. "In some cases, certain firms may be left with stocks of materials which can no longer be sold in the United States, and the incentive to recover some of their investment by selling the product abroad may be considerable."

The genetic boomerang

THE PESTICIDE EXPLOSION also has a second built-in 1 boomerang. Besides the widespread contamination of imported food, the overuse of hazardous pesticides has created a global race of insect pests that are resistant to pesticides. The number of pesticide-resistant insect species doubled in just 12 years - from 182 in 1965 to 364 in 1977, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. So more and more pesticides - including new, more potent ones - are needed every year just to maintain present yields.

A circle of victims

BUT ENORMOUS DAMAGE is done even before the pesticides leave American shores. At Occidental's DBCP plant in Lathrop, California, workers discovered too late that they were handling a product which made them sterile. Elsewhere in the United States, worker exposure to the pesticides Kepone and Phosvel resulted in terrible physical and mental damage.

As part of our investigation into the "circle of poison," we looked at these examples of how the manufacture of hazardous pesticides affects American workers. Since companies are allowed to produce pesticides for export without providing health or safety data, there is no way to be sure they are not poisoning their own workers in the process. In fact there is abundant evidence that workers in the industrial countries are indeed suffering from their employers' booming export sales.

We talked with West Coast pesticide workers who complained of inadequate protection - and information - on the job. Even after two hot showers, one group explained, their hands still carried enough toxic residue of an unregistered pesticide that, when they stuck a finger in a fish bowl, the goldfish died.

These workers in pesticide manufacturing plants are the very first victims in the circle of poison. Add to them all the people who load and unload the chemicals into and out of trucks, Brains, ships and airplanes; and chose who have to clean up the toxic spills which inevitably occur. Then the total number of potential American victims of hazardous pesticide exports becomes very large. In addition, of course, there are the victims whose story is told in this book - third world peasants, workers and consumers - as well as everyone else in the world who eats food contaminated with pesticide residues. We complete the circle of victims.

To uncover the story in this book we have had to overcome powerful obstacles. The pesticide industry is a secretive one. The Environmental Protection Agency guards industry production data from the public, press and even other government agencies. The information made available often seems to defy meaningful interpretation.

We filed over 50 requests under the Freedom of Information Act in order to penetrate the industry's "trade secrets" sanctuary inside the EPA and other agencies. In assembling hundreds of tiny pieces of the puzzle, we studied trade publications and overseas magazines and newspapers for evidence of hazardous pesticide sales. In addition, we obtained import figures from a number of third world countries. Finally, we interviewed hundreds of people in industry, government, unions, environmental groups and international organizations. We corresponded with farmers, consumers and environmental groups in the third world.

The story told here is intended not merely to shock and to outrage. Its purpose is to mobilize concerned people everywhere to halt the needless suffering caused by pesticides' circle of poison.