Multinational Monitor

NOV 2004
VOL 25 No. 11


The Political Economy of Immigration Reform: The Corporate Campaign for a U.S. Guest Worker Program
by David Bacon

Freeloaders: Declining Corporate Tax Payments in the Bush Years
by Robert McIntyre and T.D. Coo Nguyen

Advice and No Dissent: Public Health and the Rigged U.S. Trade Advisory System
by Joseph Brenner and Ellen Schaffer

The Ultimate Dumping Ground: Big Utilities Look to Native Lands to House Nuclear Waste
by Winona LaDuke


Chemical Trespass: The Verdict on Dow
an interview with Jack Doyle


Behind the Lines

Bracing for Four More Years

The Front
Ballot Box Victories - The Development Agenda

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Chemical Trespass: The Verdict on Dow

An interview with Jack Doyle

Jack Doyle is director of J.D. Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based investigative research firm specializing in business and environmental issues, and author of Trespass Against Us: Dow Chemical and the Toxic Century (Common Courage Press, 2004). Doyle has been writing about technology, business and the environment for more than 20 years. He is the author Riding the Dragon: Royal Dutch Shell and the Fossil Fire (, 2002), Taken for a Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and the Politics of Pollution (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000), and Crude Awakening: The Oil Mess in America: Wasting Energy, Jobs and the Environment (Friends of the Earth, 1994). He has consulted with various public agencies, including the President’s Council on Environmental Quality and the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

Multinational Monitor: What special insights do you gain from looking at Dow’s entire corporate history?

Jack Doyle: The whole era of synthetic chemistry started in the 1930s and 1940s.

2,4-D is a herbicide produced by Dow Chemical. It is still in use today. That chemical goes back to WWII research that began with some crop research at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. It eventually became the focus of a research effort at Fort Detrick on crop weapons. And 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T came out of that research.

Companies like Dow ended up producing these chemicals as very profitable herbicides, beginning in the 1950s — for killing lawn weeds, crop weeds, range weeds, along utility company rights-of way, railroads. Then in the 1960s, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T became the two key ingredients in Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used in Vietnam.

And now, 2,4-D is the most widely used herbicide in the world. It has been used everywhere.

MM: Why hasn’t it been banned?

Doyle: Believe it or not, 50 years later, they’re still debating the toxicity of 2,4-D. As we speak, it is being reviewed at EPA for re-registration. After 50 years, it is still on the market. It has been a very profitable product for Dow Chemical. This one product illustrates why corporate histories like Trespass Against Us are needed. Much of the reporting that we see on companies is episodic, typically on one incident, or one problem substance.

The reporting, while often good, comes and goes in short articles. You don’t often get to see a company’s performance on a range of substances, over a long time frame. Sometimes you need that historical perspective to see the whole story; to see certain patterns and the real corporate culture.

MM: What conclusions do you draw when looking at the whole panoply of chemicals Dow and other companies have put on the market over the last half century?

Doyle: For the last 50 years, a huge tsunami of synthetic substances produced by the chemical industry has flooded over societies and the global environment.

Toxic, harmful chemicals are being found in our blood, in our body tissue, in the breast milk given to nursing children.

The Centers for Disease Control and other public health centers doing the blood work and tissue sampling are finding hundreds of substances in humans and wildlife all over the planet. And these invasive substances are largely out of sight. They are silently crossing into our blood and body. At least 500 chemicals have been found in human blood and body tissue so far.

So, with this book, Trespass Against Us — a title borrowed from the popular Lord’s prayer — we are trying to raise the toxic trespass issue and the visibility of the body burden invasion. Chemical trespass is occurring daily, in all of us. But unlike a thief or person who trespasses on your property, chemical companies, or drug companies for that matter, that invade your body, or your child’s body, and set things askew, aren’t being prosecuted or hauled off to jail.

And clearly, a property right is being violated — human property. Property is something business understands — they are always talking about proprietary protection. Human property, however, is sacrosanct — arguably the highest form of property.

Keeping it inviolable, especially for health and human reproduction, should be an assumed human right. But today, human and environmental health are being violated daily by the trespass of tens of thousands of synthetic substances.

And today, new chemical substances — likely not tested for the full range of toxicological effects — enter global commerce at a rate of about three per day.

This idea of human property rights is key. Or stated another way — body burden chemicals made by the petrochemical industry are a transgression on the inherent human right to health. This is why we are trying to elevate chemical trespass and body burden in the popular literature.

MM: How did the idea for the book’s title develop?

Doyle: The Lord’s prayer passage was my idea for the book title. But people from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and environmental groups have advanced and used the “chemical trespass” theme elsewhere. In the public health community, it is an increasingly recognized concept. It also embraces the whole hormonal chaos/hormone disruption issue as well.

And historically, of course, people like Rachel Carson have been talking about the biological disruption of toxic pesticides for a long time.

But now, we are getting to a finer point of understanding about what this chemical invasion is doing to all of human biology.

We are now discovering that very tiny amounts of chemicals — even one fleeting exposure at one critical developmental juncture in humans, or any living thing — can set things askew, set off a cancer, or cause a birth defect.

MM: In your book, you list a group of chemicals that have invaded the body of Bill Moyers.

Doyle: Bill Moyers was one of the folks who picked up on the Centers for Disease Control’s body burden issue in the spring of 2001.

Moyers subjected himself to testing to show viewers of a PBS television special how these substances were found in his own body. He was a random sample, so to speak, but those tests found some 84 chemicals in his blood and urine.

The average citizen can’t go into a doctor’s office and get this done because some of these tests cost thousands of dollars each.

MM: Dow used to produce household products, including Saran Wrap.

Doyle: Saran Wrap propelled Dow into the consumer realm in the 1950s. Saran Wrap is the clear plastic food wrap to protect leftovers. Saran is a plastic.

Dow promoted this on Dave Garroway’s TV show in the 1950s. For corporations, the thing to do then was to have a whole TV show, like the General Electric hour.

Dow had its TV program called “The Medic,” and it showcased Saran Wrap. The goal of Dow’s ads in part was to teach housewives how to use it.

The problem with Saran Wrap, however, like all chlorinated plastics, is that it’s toxic when burned, as it is in the stream of trash now incinerated in municipal incinerators.

When you burn this stuff, like most plastic, it gives off chemical nasties, among them dioxins. This is one example of the root of the problem that lies with the whole of chlorinated chemistry — in which Dow Chemical is a major player. In the book, there is a very clear “chlorine tree” diagram in the first chapter which shows the vast river of products and processes that originate with chlorine.

The organochlorines, as they are called, are typically the most persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative chemicals — those that many governments are now seeking to phase out. In the 1960s, Dow did have consumer exposure, and a consumer products business, but it sold off most of those businesses.

Dow’s business today has been and continues to be in commodity and bulk chemicals — selling chemicals by train-car lot to other chemical companies that use them to fashion still other chemicals and final products, from tennis shoes to plastic shower curtains.

Today, Dow likes its chemical anonymity, a business course that came about largely after the Vietnam War.

Dow had made napalm for the U.S. Army, and college protests raged against the company during the 1960s, and Dow product boycotts also began. Those events had some impact in moving Dow out of the consumer products area and back to the safety and anonymity of processed chemicals.

MM: What products are commonly associated with Dow today?

Doyle: There aren’t that many. Styrofoam insulation might be one. Dow’s chemicals are largely found woven into other things, like the chemicals used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or the bisphenol-A additive used in polycarbonate found in tough, durable plastics. Dow is the largest manufacturer of chlorine in the world. They make something like 13 percent of all the chlorine produced globally.

Dow chemicals might be in your computer shell or in vinyl flooring. Once upon a time they did have an empire in consumer products, including products like Scrubbing Bubbles and such. But they sold this line, including Saran Wrap, to Johnson Controls. Now they are out of it.

MM: Why would a company that sold off its consumer products division to avoid public retribution buy up Union Carbide, which is now facing a massive liability exposure for the disaster in Bhopal?

Doyle: That’s a real head scratcher. I asked that very question. In 1999, Dow announced they were going to acquire Carbide. Carbide had a big plastics operation. And plastics comprise about a third of Dow’s business. So, plastics is a big deal at Dow.

Carbide had some Middle Eastern petrochemical operations that became attractive to Dow. Dow saw this rising energy cost situation. And they wanted access to cheaper energy. Carbide had that Middle Eastern resource. That apparently outweighed any of the potential liability that they faced with Bhopal.

Dow has a great and abiding faith in the company’s litigation capability and its political abilities. They believe they have the ability to survive any detrimental rulings. If they just keep at it, they believe they can survive the worst. They are masters at appeal and regulatory maneuvering.

MM: Is there a way to make these products with non-chlorinated chemistry and if so, why doesn’t Dow convert?

Doyle: They have started a few of these ventures — one with Cargill doing biopolymers. But these seem to be very limited at the moment. But that’s the future — the biopolymers arena. Henry Ford was producing plastic-based substances from soybeans back in the thirties.

There are alternatives, and Dow should be moving more directly and heavily in that direction. But when you look at this company’s history, what they want to do is milk their past investments to the last scintilla of profitability.

Whether it’s 50 years of 2,4-D, or running all the regulatory hurdles they have to keep some chlorinated solvent or other substance on the market, they will do it. In many ways, an awful lot of what Dow’s business is today began in the 1930s and 1940s. On one level, it’s archaic chemistry.

From a business standpoint, however, it’s all paid for, and these are the “honey years” — pure profit. They start with a substance that they found in the 1930s and they run with it for as long as they can. They don’t let go easily. It’s going to be a tough fight to move them out of chlorinated compounds.

But we are seeing some governments around the world and international conventions — like the POPs convention, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, signed by more than 150 nations — beginning to phase out some of these chemicals worldwide.

Since the early 1990s, Dow and the others have clearly seen the writing on the wall. As activists and some governments began to push hard on persistent chlorinated compounds, the Chlorine Institute and other allied trade groups affiliated with Dow have gone to great lengths to fight off regulation and keep further toxicological testing at bay.

In many ways, we are still stuck in a chemical-by-chemical fight — taking on one chemical at a time, instead of fighting whole categories of chemicals we know to be bad actors.

Even though we are making some progress in getting dangerous chemicals off the market one by one, the fact is that every minute of every day, 10 new chemical substances are discovered. The 18 millionth chemical substance was discovered some time around 1998.

We are in this global context in which there are something like 100,000 man-made chemicals surrounding us in general use. If the fighting continues to be chemical-by-chemical, we have a long uphill fight ahead.

MM: What would you propose?

Doyle: Some have proposed looking at the whole chlorinated ball of wax. More than a decade ago, the U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission called for timetables to sunset chlorine and chlorine-containing compounds as industrial feedstocks.

Dow is obviously in the center of the organochlorine business globally, so with this book, we are also trying to raise the issue of phasing out and replacing whole classes of toxic chemistry.

MM: Where does Dow rank by size in the chemical industry?

Doyle: Dow is the biggest chemical company in the world. They are bigger than DuPont, bigger than BASF. For years, they were second to DuPont and behind the big German chemical companies. But when they acquired Carbide, they moved to number one, and have stayed there for the last four years.

On the U.S. Fortune 500 list, they are bigger than lots of other well-known names, such as Alcoa, Motorola, Disney, Lockheed-Martin, Coke, Intel, Caterpillar, Weyerhaeuser and Bristol-Myers Squibb. They operate on six continents and in 208 countries.

MM:One of the case studies in the book focuses on Midland, Michigan and the Tittabawassee River.

Doyle: Dioxin has been found in the flood plain of the Tittabawassee 22 miles downstream from where Dow emptied its wastes into the river.

They are still investigating sources at this point, and a major flood in the 1980s figures into the equation, but Dow is strongly linked, and the dioxin levels found have gone off the charts.

It goes way back, when Dow first started producing phenols back in 1915 and before. There were instances when chlorinated phenols were dumped into the river. Then there were slugs of things released routinely in the ongoing production of herbicides like 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T.

Some of that material, it is believed, is still in the sediment there. And some scientists speculate that some of this material, like pentachlorophenol, when it degrades, may convert into the most toxic form of dioxin, the TCDD variety.

There is so much of this material out there that it will be decades and decades before all of it is out of the environment. The Michigan scene is still unsettled, and Dow is in the middle of a raging controversy with public officials and residents who live in that floodplain.

MM: So what is the verdict on Dow?

Doyle: The 2,4,5-T story is especially illustrative of Dow’s culture.

Here was a fight that went on for almost a decade. Dow just fought tooth and nail over this chemical — persisted every way it could in court and with the agencies, at the state and federal levels, to buy more time for this product. They went into a court in Arkansas in the early 1970s to challenge the EPA administrator. They did that to buy some extra marketing time, and they got two years, even though it appears that Dow knew this chemical was a bad actor by then, caused birth defects in lab animals, and was also being found in human body fat. But it wasn’t until 1983 that Dow quit making 2,4,5-T in the U.S., and 1987 before they quit production in New Zealand.

And 2,4,5-T health effects litigation continues to this day.

Should companies have the right to operate when they make calculated decisions like these that keep health-damaging externalities out there in the community?

If you are a responsible business, you should cease and desist when you know you are harming the community.


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