MAY 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 5
The Toxic Double Standard
Ciba-Geigy cleaned up its Swiss pesticide plant and developed a model program for Third World use. But poisoning goes on in Latin American cotton fields.by Mark Schapiro
In the cotton-growing region of Tapachula, Mexico, crop-dusting planes regularly spray the cotton fields with a fine mist of Galecron, a powerful pesticide used where insects have grown immune to milder chemicals.
Produced by the Swiss multinational Ciba-Geigy, Galecron is supposed to be applied under strict regulation. But about sixteen times a year in Tapachula, several tons of the chemical are sprayed without particular caution. The wind often blows droplets on the campesinos and animals, and sometimes onto unprotected food in the shacks at the fields' outskirts. In areas where Galecron is mixed and loaded into dispensers, children work and play.
Cotton workers and spraying operators often feel ill after a spraying session. One worker, when asked by a reporter how he protects himself, replies, "I drink cow's milk for the pain. There is always a headache. Some have been poisoned, [because] they didn't protect themselves. I have to wear a mask or some kind of cloth, so that I don't smell it."
Given what is known about Galecron, these symptoms are not surprising. Galecron's chief toxic agent, chlordimeform (CDF), is associated with symptoms of acute poisoning and is a suspected carcinogen.
But what is surprising is that the conditions in Tapachula, documented by a Swiss television team, persist despite one of the most extensive safety programs ever established by a pesticide manufacturer - and that the same company failed to follow through on its own set of preventive safety measures.
In the late 1970s, Ciba-Geigy, the Switzerland-based chemical and pharmaceutical company, initiated an unprecedented effort to direct and monitor the use of Galecron among its mostly Latin American customers. For the first time in its history, Ciba-Geigy proposed a safety program that recommended protective clothing and equipment for cotton pickers and the spraying team, and a 24-hour ban on reentering the fields after spraying. Ciba-Geigy also began performing its own follow-up checks on the field workers exposed to Galecron.
As part of the program, Ciba-Geigy safety officers performed 3,000 urinalyses tests on workers in Boliva, Columbia, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala in 1979 and 1980. In those tests, the officers found that 40 percent of the urine samples yielded an amount of CDF that exceeded the level the company considered safe - a level already 50 times that acceptable to the World Health Organization (WHO). In several cases, workers registered levels as high as 40 times the company's safe value, 200 times the WHO's standard.
For each set of trials, the safety officers recorded their results and sent reports, some of them marked "Confidential," to Ciba-Geigy's Switzerland headquarters. The company claims it made the results known to the Latin American government authorities and that the workers had access to the results.
But there appears to have been no appreciable change in the methods of spraying Galecron in those countries; and, with one exception, the tests don't appear to have affected Ciba-Geigy's promotion and marketing of Galecron.
Despite strong evidence from places like Tapachula that the company's precautions went largely unheeded, Ciba-Geigy's officials still maintain their confidence in the program. Paul Brenneisen, Vice-President of Ciba-Geigy's Agrochemicals Division, describes the program as a "first time experiment with extensive safety precautions" that "informs the government of potential hazards."
The results of Ciba-Geigy's field tests were kept secret until last year when company documents were leaked by a departing employee to the Berne Declaration, a citizens' group active in revealing Swiss economic influence in the Third World. The Berne Declaration released the information to the public.
Galecron: A Controversial History
Galecron had been used on food and cotton crops in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere for seven years when reports that CDF caused cancer in laboratory animals started pouring in from organizations all over the world.
In 1974, China banned the use of CDF on rice cultures. In 1975, the World Health Organization (WHO) demanded long-term studies of both the deformation of the liver in rats caused by CDF and the development of cystitis observed in persons occupationally exposed to CDF. The accumulated evidence, including studies from the National Cancer Institute in the United States and even from Ciba-Geigy's own laboratories, eventually led the WHO to conclude that exposure to CDF can create serious problems.
In the midst of the growing controversy, Ciba-Geigy voluntarily withdrew Galecron from the European market in 1976 and closed its factory in Monthey, Switzerland. The company summarized its findings on Galecron in its management report for that year, stating "there appeared toxicological effects which we considered to be grave and whose significance for humans we were unable to assess."
Two years later, the Monthey plant reopened, resuming production of Galecron at the rate of 500 tons a year. Although the pesticide's toxic properties remained the same, what did change was its destination: while no Galecron was sold in the health-conscious European market, at least half was exported to Latin America. The United States continued to import it, but in substantially reduced quantities. All countries restricted Galecron's use to cotton.
The Monthey factory was fully refurbished with a highly automated production process that eliminated all contact between the Swiss factory workers and CDF. New procedures were instituted requiring production workers to wear protective, disposable clothing in their infrequent entries into the manufacturing rooms, and to shower twice afterward. Workers had to undergo six urinalyses a month, and their daily intake levels of CDF as well as their accumulated levels over one year were strictly limited. A worker found to have reached the limit on CDF intake was transferred into a lower risk production job. These procedures continue to be strictly enforced.
But these safety measures contrast sharply with their counterparts in Latin America. Ciba-Geigy operates on the theory that a field worker can tolerate higher, but less frequent doses of CDF than a Swiss factory worker who may come in contact with Galecron daily. Yet Ciba-Geigy's own studies show that during only three weeks of spraying in Colombia, six peasants accumulated more CDF than a Swiss factory worker is allowed over one year.
Three Ciba-Geigy spokespersons, Paul Brenneisen, Walter Strasser, and Jan Krieger, commented on the Galecron case in a recent interview at the company headquarters in Basel, Switzerland.
"All safety regulations are controlled by Ciba-Geigy," Krieger says. "In countries where there are no controls, we will withdraw from the market. In these [Third World] countries, it can happen that controls fail. It's not normal. It's an exception." Krieger claims that Ciba-Geigy recently withdrew Galecron from Bolivia for these reasons, though he offered no explanation as to why it continues to be sold elsewhere.
When asked for figures on the staff and budget for the Latin American safety program, Brenneisen replied that forty new employees had recently been hired by the company to perform ongoing evaluations of farmworkers applying Galecron in Mexico. He gave no figures for the other countries of Latin and Central America, where Galecron is used extensively. "If our safety instructions are followed, there is no reason to carry out a monitoring program," he says.
But Dr. Gaston Vettorazi, director of the WHO's International Program on Chemical Safety, and supervisor of several of the carcinogenicity tests on Galecron, asserts that "government controls on these chemicals is often zero." Vettorazi acknowledges that Ciba-Geigy has higher safety standards than most chemical manufacturers, but, he adds, "Often what [Ciba-Geigy] will do is monitor according to the host government's standards for `appropriate farming practices.' If the government doesn't regulate, they don't do it."
One country, Egypt, did take the unusual step of banning Galecron, but not before Egyptian children had suffered dire illness (see box).
Export or die
There is a financial imperative driving companies like Ciba-Geigy to continue exporting hazardous pesticides. According to industry analysts, the Third World is the only growth market left for pesticides; demand in the industrialized countries has reached saturation point. Like many other European and American companies, Ciba-Geigy sells thousands of tons of pesticides that are banned or severely restricted from use in Europe or the United States. Galecron alone constitutes one percent of Ciba-Geigy's chemical sales - a significant figure for a corporation its size.
Paul Brenneisen of Ciba-Geigy comments, "Is it an exception that dangerous pesticides are sold in the Third World? No, it's not an exception." He says that Ciba-Geigy has one of the most progressive safety programs in the business, and adds, "It's absolutely impossible to be perfect. We are touchy and angry about being singled out."
Ciba-Geigy officials have reacted strongly to the wave of criticism set off by extensive publicity in the Swiss, French, and German press. They are presently suing the producers of the Swiss television documentary on the use of Galecron in Mexico for libel.
The Galecron affair has also sparked the wrath of consumer, environmental, and other activist organizations. The Berne Declaration, the Zurich-based citizens group that first brought the scandal to light, recently presented a list of demands to the Swiss government and to Ciba-Geigy, including demands for the appointment of a committee in the Swiss parliament to investigate the Galecron case and for an immediate halt to Galecron production and export. It has also called upon international organizations like the WHO to establish a code of conduct for the manufacture, export, marketing, and application of pesticides, and to require the registration of all pesticides.
The Galecron case has drawn activists' attention to the broader issues of chemicals export and has prompted many to seek limits on the Third World marketing practices of all chemical companies. Says Gabrielle Oberholzer, co-director of the Berne Declaration, "We would like to see export controls of hazardous chemicals in Europe. When a product is exported, at the very least, the government of the importing country should be informed about the dangers, and [about] available alternatives."
Mark Schapiro, a staff writer and editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, is co-author of Circle of Poison, a book about pesticide use in the Third World.