Velsicol Chemical Corporation is no virgin to disaster. In 1979 Mother Jones called the company shameless for its many environmental debacles: Velsicol made millions selling the atrocious pesticide Phosvel worldwide. Velsicol made Tris, the carcinogenic fire retardant banned from kids' pajamas in 1977. Velsicol created a huge chemical dump in Tennessee, Love Canal-style. Velsicol poisoned Michigan residents with PBB, another fire retardant chemical, when it got the bags mixed up with livestock feed. Oops.
So it came as no surprise to the MoJo Wire that Velsicol is still dumping -- as you read this -- two highly dangerous organochlorine pesticides. Heptachlor and chlordane, banned for agricultural use in the U.S. in 1978, are still being exported to other countries by the friendly folks at Velsicol. Two decades after the FDA discovered the two pesticides to be unsafe, people all over the world are still vulnerable to their dangerous effects.
After years of prodding by environmentalist groups, Velsicol finally decided in May to "phase out" its persistent, cancer-causing heptachlor and chlordane -- but not for ethical reasons. The company says concern for people's health had nothing to do with it; they quit making the pesticides because "the economics no longer supported continued manufacture." In other words, the products are so dangerous that even countries with shabby environmental laws don't buy enough anymore. The month after Velsico's announcement, Mexico announced it would "phase out" chlordane use.
"Even the pesticide industry hated these products," says environmental consultant Sandra Marquardt, formerly with Greenpeace. "Velsicol gave them all a bad name."
What Goes Around Comes Around
But don't think you're safe just because Velsicol no longer makes the stuff. Back in 1979 Mother Jones investigated what we called "The Boomerang Dump," where heavily restricted pesticides, including chlordane and heptachlor, were sold abroad and then shipped back to U.S. consumers in the form of pesticide-coated produce.
Some things never change. When the MoJo Wire asked this week if Velsicol was still shipping the restricted pesticides, Velsicol spokeswoman Donna Jennings said the company is still "phasing out remaining inventories" -- pressed further, she confirmed that all those inventories are being shipped to customers overseas.
So even though Velsicol has stopped making the pesticides, it's still dumping them abroad -- which means you may still be eating them. Tropical growers still use the chemicals as a soil insecticide, and still have the chemicals stockpiled in their warehouses. As recently as 1993 the FDA found residues of heptachlor and chlordane on imported fruits and vegetables from Mexico and Central America. And the FDA's border inspections are laughably lax -- the agency sampled less than 1 percent of food shipments in 1996.
Why worry about these two pesticides? Chlordane and heptachlor are in the same family as DDT: They're chlorinated hydrocarbons or organochlorines, a class of chemicals that persist in the environment and in the body, as Rachel Carson reported in Silent Spring, for a very long time because their molecules are just too tough to break down. They seep into soils and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals -- including humans -- where they are now believed to mimic hormones, causing reproductive cancers such as breast and prostate cancer. "Most people in the U.S.," said EPA spokesman Al Hire, "have residues in their tissues. It's passed from one generation to another through the placenta."
Made in the U.S.A.
In 1978 the FDA canceled all food-related uses of chlordane and heptachlor (though consumers could still eat them on imported produce), then in 1983 the FDA barred them from use in treating seed grain. Finally, in 1988 the EPA banned the most popular remaining use, termite control, leaving just one approved use: killing fire ants in electrical equipment. The two pesticides were effectively banned from the U.S. -- but Velsicol kept right on selling them to its overseas customers for another decade. The company expects to ship its remaining stocks by the end of the year.
How can Velsicol get away with it? There's still no law against dumping banned pesticides. Companies that wish to ship restricted pesticides overseas need only notify the purchaser, under the EPA's Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure, that the product is restricted or unapproved in the U.S. Then the EPA must see the returned signed document and notify the government of the purchasing country before the company can ship the product. Companies are not required to reveal information about toxicity, health threats, or environmental hazards.
In an attempt to crack down on pesticide dumping, the House and Senate in 1990 passed "Circle of Poison" legislation, which would have banned the export of certain illegal pesticides, including chlordane and heptachlor. Unfortunately, the bills were killed in an eleventh-hour conference when lawmakers from both chambers gave in to the Bush administration's arm-twisting on behalf of chemical manufacturers. The Clinton administration introduced a weaker version of the bill in 1994 but failed to pass it.
The result: Velsicol will keep shipping chlordane and heptachlor until they run out, foreign growers will keep spraying it until they run out, and every now and again it'll end up on your kitchen table.
Meanwhile, the black sheep of the chemical companies is working on polishing its green image. Last week Velsicol CEO Arthur R. Sigel spoke at a regional environmental conference in Chattanooga, Tenn. The topic: environmentally sound business tactics.
To learn more about the pesticides in your food, and what you can do to get rid of them, check out these activist organizations:
Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) is working for the Demise of the Dirty Dozen: Twelve dangerous pesticides goin' down (including heptachlor and chlordane).
Greenpeace promotes a global ban of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which Earth Summit nations will negotiate next year.
The Mid-South Peace and Justice Center has made Velsicol its arch-nemesis -- when you reach their informative Web page, check out "Study" and "Links."