The Boomerang Crime

It comes home in your coffee, your bananas…

Image: Spain

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Once or twice every working day a sealed semi-trailer winds through a grimy industrial section of the Los Angeles basin called the City of Commerce. The truck moves slowly up Pacific Street past a row of dingy warehouses to the 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,” pallets of light-blue, 30-gallon drums stacked three high are loaded into the huge truck-trailer.

When it’s full, the rig heads for Interstate 10 and moves into the stream of traffic flowing back and forth across the country 24 hours a day. The driver carries emergency telephone numbers and special instructions in case the colorless, odorless fluid in the drums somehow spills or is released. No unloading or transfer of the toxic cargo is permitted enroute.

A few days and most of the continent later, the same truck rolls into the bustling coastal city of Gulfport, Mississippi, and up to the automated loading docks of Standard Fruit & Steamship Company. There, the light-blue drums labeled “Restricted Use Pesticides” are lifted onto the deck of one of the 30 vessels owned or leased by Standard’s parent company, the U.S.-based Castle & Cooke Inc. — largest importer of bananas to the United States.

The ship retraces its route, out of Gulfport, into the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The light-blue drums will stay above-deck to lessen dangers to the crew in case of a spill. The banana ship’s destination is one of the romantic-sounding ports of Central or South America — Puerto Lim&oacuten in Costa Rica, La Ceiba in Honduras, Guayaquil in Ecuador — a journey that can take from four to seven days.

When it docks at one of these ports in the tropics, the pesticide drums will be unloaded and taken to their ultimate stop — the vast banana and pineapple plantations of Castle & Cooke. C&C is one of the largest foreign corporate landholders in Central America. The workers on the company plantations are mostly illiterate peasants and Indians. They are the people who will use this pesticide to kill the soil-dwelling worms that attack bananas and other crops destined for U.S. kitchens.

What is the pesticide in the light-blue drums? DBCP. One of many pesticides that are banned or severely restricted in the U.S., but which American companies buy, sell and dump freely on the Third World. Use of DBCP (the acronym for its cumbersome chemical name 1,2-Dibromo-3-chloropropane) was banned in California in August 1977, because it makes humans sterile and causes cancer (“The Sterility Scandal,” MJ, May ’79). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has imposed stringent limits on DBCP use in the other 49 states and has instituted procedures which may result, within the next few months, in a total ban of DBCP here.

But even if the EPA does ban all use of DBCP, the action will not interrupt the flow of the chemical from Amvac to Castle & Cooke’s overseas fruit plantations. It would still be legal to manufacture DBCP here and sell it abroad. “There is absolutely no control over the worldwide distribution of hazardous pesticides,” says Dr. Harold Hubbard of the World Health Organization (WHO). A provision of U.S. law governing pesticides explicitly states that pesticides banned in the U.S. may be exported to other nations. The foreign buyers, in turn, either do not know or do not care that the chemicals have been found too dangerous for use in the U.S., the country where they are usually made. In this way, millions of pounds of banned and restricted pesticides are dumped each year on the Third World.

The Boomerang Dump

Dumping pesticides is a little different than selling Dalkon Shields or Tris-soaked pajamas to unsuspecting consumers. Heinous as those dumps might be, the injury or death inflicted as a result happens on an individual basis, in distinct tragedies, one body at a time. Not so with pesticides. Most of the peasants applying the poisons to crops can read neither the English nor the Spanish instructions printed on the labels of the chemical containers. Pesticides are often poured on crops in excessive amounts. Many people, in addition to the pests, are poisoned by the chemicals — about 500,000 yearly, according to the World Health Organization. Some victims die immediately; the long-term effects on the rest are unknown.

“The people who work in the fields of Central America are treated like half-humans,” says Dr. Lou Falcon, a University of California entomologist who visits the region often. “When an airplane flies over to spray, they can leave if they want, but they won’t be paid their seven cents a day, or whatever. They often live in huts in the middle of the fields. Their homes, their children and their food get contaminated.”

Pesticide poisoning is only one aspect of the massive dumping of these chemicals. A three-month investigation by Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting shows that U.S. companies — while not the worst offenders, since that distinction belongs to firms headquartered in Europe — have an enormous stake in exporting these chemicals. Uncontrolled, the worldwide pesticide trade is on its way to becoming a scandal of international proportions:

  • Nearly 40 percent of the 1.6 billion pounds of pesticides sold annually in this country is sold to export buyers. It appears that every pesticide banned or restricted by the federal government here has been exported. A full 15 percent of U.S. pesticide exports are “unregistered.” They are chemicals that were never licensed, tested or reviewed by the EPA at all.

  • Pesticides are sold throughout the Third World without controls to people who usually do not know how the chemicals should be safely used. Leptophos, a nerve-damaging pesticide that brings on paralysis in its victims, was never approved for sale in the U.S. In Indonesia, according to an official of that country’s Food and Agriculture Organization, leptophos was sold “alongside the potatoes and rice…people just collect it in sugar sacks, milk cartons, Coke bottles…”

  • Both farmworkers themselves and those who eat food grown throughout the developing world with the aid of pesticides run a high risk of pesticide poisoning. One Central American farm survey found the levels of the pesticide aldrin on cabbage to be nearly 2,000 times the level allowed in food sold in the U.S. The average content of DDT in the blood of people in Guatemala and Nicaragua is over 30 times the U.S. average.

  • Not only are U.S.-based companies selling pesticides overseas, they also are buying them there. In Costa Rica, the main importer for seven heavily restricted U.S. pesticides (DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, heptachlor, chlordane, endrin and BHC) is not a local farming operation, but Ortho, a division of Chevron Chemical Co. — an arm of Standard Oil of California. This way, the multinational companies circumvent U.S. regulations and continue using hazardous chemicals for food production.

  • The “vast majority” of the nearly one billion pounds of pesticides used each year in the Third World is applied to crops that are then exported back to the U.S. and other rich countries, according to WHO. This fact undercuts the industry’s main argument defending pesticide dumping. “We see nothing wrong with helping the hungry world eat,” is the way a Velsicol Chemical Company executive puts it. Yet, the entire dumping process bypasses the local population’s need for food. The example in which DBCP manufactured by Amvac is imported into Central America by Castle & Cooke to grow fruit destined for U.S. dinner tables is a case in point.

    Pesticides are, of course, considered a useful tool in combating the loss, due to pests, of an estimated 40 percent of each year’s global food crop. But the record on pesticide use has been, at best, mixed. Insects have great genetic plasticity. They can adapt quickly to poisons and outlive them. In India and Central America, DDT was believed to eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes. For many years it did. But recently, malaria epidemics broke out in those areas that have aggressive DDT spraying programs, signaling that the mosquitoes have become resistant to the poison.

    The hazards of dumping pesticides overseas are many, but it would be inaccurate to believe they are the Third World’s alone. Pesticides, once dumped, have a way of coming back, like a boomerang. U.S. government spot checks have found that approximately 10 percent of imported food is contaminated with illegal levels of pesticides. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that nearly half of the green coffee beans imported by this country are contaminated with pesticides that have been previously banned in the U.S. At least 20 pesticides, potential carcinogens, are undetectable with FDA tests used to find residues in food. In many other cases, the FDA simply does not know what the substances are that do show up in its tests.

    There are, for example, 94 different pesticides used by the six coffee-growing countries in Central and South America. Studies by the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, found that, of those, 64 are not detectable by FDA multiresidue tests. Of those that are detectable, only 18 have tolerance levels set for restricting the sale of coffee contaminated with them. This means that imported coffee can be sold in the U.S. with the residues of 76 pesticides that are either undetectable or completely unregulated.

    The Case of Phosvel

    The Velsicol Chemical Corporation of Chicago is not the largest pesticide dumper in the world, but it is known as one of the most shameless. Financially, Velsicol is dwarfed by giants like Dow, DuPont or Shell. But despite its size, the company has been implicated in more environmental disasters than nearly any other. In the U.S., Velsicol was the company that brought us PBB poisoning (“Is the Poisoning of Michigan Just the Start?” MJ, May ’77), the Tris baby clothes case and the Tennessee leaky pesticide drums, to name three. Internationally, Velsicol’s record has been no less extraordinary. The company earned its notorious reputation through the global sale of the pesticide leptophos, trade-named Phosvel.

    Phosvel is an organophosphate nerve toxin that attacks the human body like rattlesnake venom. The EPA never allowed Velsicol to sell the stuff in this country, although it did issue an experimental use permit (EUP) for one year. According to Robert Chambers of the General Accounting Office, “Velsicol used its EUP to mislead countries overseas about the status of leptophos.” Third World nations had the impression the pesticide had been approved for use in this country. It had not. Perhaps lack of EPA approval gave Velsicol the incentive to massively dump leptophos in the developing world. The company looked to the government for the dump.

    The “arranger” for this dump was the U.S. Agency for International Development (see “The Charge: Gynocide” for more about AID’s role in dumping). AID spent $5 million in taxpayers’ funds to send Phosvel — as well as other restricted pesticides, including heptachlor, chlordane and endrin — overseas in 1974. Recipient countries included India, Pakistan, Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Israel. In Egypt, Phosvel exposure killed more than a thousand water buffalo and an unrevealed number of humans.

    Although Velsicol says it no longer manufactures Phosvel, anywhere in the world, documents obtained from the government of Costa Rica reveal that the company has continued selling the chemical on world markets. As recently as July 1978, in three different shipments originating in Panama and Mexico, Velsicol imported Phosvel into Costa Rica. In addition, the company continues to manufacture three highly persistent, carcinogenic pesticides — chlordane, heptachlor and endrin — for export to the Third World. Under terms of a legal settlement with EPA, Velsicol will have to phase out all U.S. sales of heptachlor and chlordane by 1983. The company bitterly contested this EPA action, initiated in 1975, since at that time it was selling nearly $45 million worth per year of the two banned pesticides — 25 percent of its total sales.

    The giants of the U.S. chemical industry, as much as they might like, cannot insulate themselves from the scandals of small firms like Velsicol or Amvac. The industry is so interconnected, through licensing and patent arrangements, that virtually every company is profiting from every other’s activities. Dow, for instance, receives three cents on every gallon of DBCP sold by Amvac. (Dow stopped making DBCP after the sterility scandal made headlines, but Amvac must produce its DBCP under Dow’s patent.) The export product Velsicol substituted for Phosvel in its Texas plant is EPN. That poison, now under government review for possible cancellation, is twice as neurotoxic as Phosvel and is produced under a similar patent arrangement with DuPont.

    Conflicts of Interest

    The leaders of many Third World nations are themselves deeply enmeshed in the pesticide trade. “One of the reasons the LDC [less-developed countries] governments don’t do anything about the pesticides problem,” says Hubbard of the WHO, “is that the people who use pesticides, the people who import pesticides and the people who ‘regulate’ pesticides are the same people. It’s a tight little group in each developing country.”

    Entomologist Lou Falcon says that a previous minister of agriculture in Nicaragua also had investments in a company importing pesticides. “In Nicaragua,” he added, “pesticide importing has been a $20 million-a-year business in a country with an entire operating budget of only $90 million. The important people are simply not interested in pesticides becoming a controversy.”

    Pesticide promotion abroad is also big business. “Whenever a new pesticide hits a country, every farmer knows about it right away,” Falcon says. “There is heavy publicity by the companies.”

    One of the issues discussed at a recent State Department conference on pesticides was what kind of notification officials should give LDCs when a pesticide is banned in the U.S. Sam Gitonga, an official in Kenya’s Ministry of Irrigation, complained that the “information received from the U.S. now is quite inadequate — usually just a photocopy of a telex to the American attaché that something has been banned.” Gitonga pointed out the contrast between this haphazard official notice and the “pesticide salesman who comes to our office with a bulk of papers. It is very difficult for us to check and cross-check whether this particular product is actually registered in the 50 countries where the seller claims his pesticide is registered.”

    EPA officials unveiled a new notification procedure at the State Department conference, which, once adopted, will require exporters to obtain written acknowledgment from importers that they know they are buying a hazardous pesticide. But as Frances Miley, a former official who helped write the new provision, told Mother Jones, “If the companies don’t do it, there is no penalty.”

    Of course, in a country like Costa Rica, where U.S.-owned Ortho is the major pesticide purchaser, notification will accomplish nothing. In any event, it is difficult to imagine how notifying purchasers that they are buying banned pesticides is going to improve the lot of the workers who have to apply the poisons in the fields.

    Global Leech

    The new EPA notification procedure will undoubtedly bring on more cries from industry of “over-regulation” by U.S. government agencies. To make its point, the industry cites statistics like I those in a 1974 survey by the trade magazine Chemical Week, which reported that U.S. chemical firms spend 44 percent less on pollution control at their overseas plants than at those inside the country.

    Accordingly, there has been a tendency in recent years for producers of pesticides or other banned and heavily restricted products to move their production facilities abroad. For years, Hercules Inc. has produced toxaphene in Nicaragua, and American Cyanamid Co. announced it has built a pesticide plant in Brazil, where Dow already has one making the herbicide 2,4-D. Two DBCP plants operating in Mexico are closely allied with foreign chemical giants; since Mexican law generally prohibits foreigners from legally owning more than 49 percent of any company inside its borders, the plants’ actual equity relationships are closely guarded secrets. Velsicol also has a plant in Mexico, which is producing what the company has identified only as “agricultural chemicals.”

    “We are getting to the point where we might have all the restrictions in the world on pesticide exports,” says Jacob Scherr, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, “but then the companies just move their plants to the LDCs.”

    “These global companies have subsidiaries and formulation plants all over the world,” says Hubbard of the WHO. “You’ve got to take them all on — not just the American companies. Call them the bad-ass operators they really are. The multinationals simply go into the LDCs, give a banned pesticide a local name and then turn around and sell it all over the world under that new name. It’s a real Mafia-type operation.”

    Through all the charges and countercharges of overregulation or under-regulation, beneath the statistics thrown around at high-level conferences, there is one blatant fact that cannot-must not-be overlooked when discussing pesticide dumping in the Third World. The uninformed use of banned pesticides is killing people. Just that. Stories like the following from the village of Bahia, in Brazil, are too common.

    Thirteen children in Bahia died in the summer of 1975. They lived not only in the same village, but on the same street. The oldest child was only eight. When they became ill, the children broke into severe sweats, foamed at the mouth, vomited and went into convulsions. Most died within a few days. The eight-year-old, a girl, survived her first bout with the illness and then, more than three weeks later, suffered the same symptoms again, and died.

    The medical examiner found that samples of the little girl’s blood and liver showed extremely high levels of the pesticide aldrin and its breakdown product, dieldrin. Aldrin and dieldrin were banned in the U.S. a year before these deaths. But Shell — the company holding the exclusive patent on aldrin — simply switched production of the poison from a plant in California to another in the Netherlands. Shell then continued to dump aldrin on the Third World, including sales to Brazil.

    In Brazil, as in too many other developing nations, banned pesticides are sold over the counter, like flour. Anyone can buy them. Those who investigated the case of the 13 children believed the aldrin was bought by a well-to-do landowner. The landowner used the aldrin on fresh meat to kill hungry dogs in his district. He killed 13 hungry children with the pesticide instead.

    David Weir’s last article for Mother Jones was “Waste Deep in the Big Muddy” (May, ’78). Research assistance for this article was provided by Julie Kosterlitz (in Kenya), Chris Jenkins and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Research wasfinanced by grants from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Mother Jones Investigative Fund.


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    Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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