The Multinational Monitor

July 1980 - VOLUME 1 - NUMBER 6


Circles of Poison

Pesticides and the Third World

by David Weir and Mark Schapiro

The marketing of hazardous pesticides to Third World countries represents a global scandal of mammoth proportions. International chemical companies sell pesticides-many of which are banned or severely restricted in the industrialized West-to developing countries, often with false and misleading information, regularly with devastating effect. These companies are expected at least to double their sales of hazardous pesticides to the Third World in the next decade.

The San Francisco-based Institute for Food and Development Policy (IFDP) has greatly contributed to the flow of information on this critical problem with their year-long study, Circles of Poison, slated for publication in November 1980.

Researched and written by investigative journalists David Weir and Mark Schapiro with the financial support of the Center for Investigative Reporting, Circles of Poison unveils all the key actors in the hazardous pesticide trade: the chemical companies, the Western governments that support the dumping programs of their corporations, and the multinational and local agribusiness enterprises that demand heavy pesticide use, largely to provide blemish-free fruits and vegetables to First World consumers. To circumvent industry secrecy, Weir and Schapiro filed more than 50 Freedom of Information requests with the U.S- government. They interviewed hundreds of individuals from government, industry, labor and the environmental movement.

The following excerpts from Circles of Poison provide a general overview of the situation. In an upcoming issue, the Monitor will run excerpts focusing on the broader developmental relationship' between the pesticide trade and overall agricultural production patterns in developing countries.

In keeping with the format of the Monitor, footnotes have either been dropped or incorporated into the text. Complete citations, as well as further sources of information can be obtained by writing the Institute at the address below.

The list of companies that sell hazardous pesticides to the Third World reads like a Who's Who of the $350 billion per year chemical industry: Dow, Shell, Stauffer, Chevron, Ciba-Geigy, Rohm & Haas, Hoechst, Bayer, Monsanto, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), Dupont, Hercules, Hooker, Velsicol, Allied, Union Carbide, and many others.

Inside the U.S., a dozen companies dominate the pesticide sales market, although almost 10 percent of the firms on the Fortune 500 list engage to some degree in pesticide manufacturing. In general, the largest pesticide companies are the diversified multinational corporations that also maintain strong market positions in other lines of business-oil, petrochemicals, plastics, drugs and mining. The pesticide business itself has enjoyed something of a glamorous reputation with Wall Street investors because of its sustained growth and high profits.

Worldwide, the pesticide industry produces over four billion pounds of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and rodenticides each year-more than one pound for every person on earth. Almost all of this production-97 percent-is located in the industrialized nations of North America, Europe and Japan; but perhaps 20 percent of the pesticides produced are sold in the Third World, where there are few enforceable laws regulating the sale or use of lethal chemicals. About one-third of the pesticide produced annually in the U.S. is exported, and half of that goes to underdeveloped countries.

Utilizing their interlocking worldwide network of subsidiaries and affiliates, the world's major agrichemical corporations buy and sell products which have been designated by scientific authorities as cancer-causing, sterility-inducing, birth-defect-creating, and nerve-damaging. Barrels of these toxins are dumped on countries where one or two officials often hold responsibility equivalent to that of the entire U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The labels on the pesticides often read "For Export Only," but do not carry the warnings or cautions required in the U.S. Workers are not informed of the dangers of the pesticides. Applicators are not schooled in techniques to reduce their exposure. Peasants and farm workers are exposed to contamination from multiple routes. The air, soil, water, and vegetation surrounding them is laced with some of the most potent killer chemicals known to science. Their food and drink are contaminated. Their clothes and houses are poisoned. And finally their bodies-as measured in tissue samples, blood counts, and urine checks-contain dangerously elevated levels of pesticide metabolites: all part of the social cost of the companies' harvest of poison.

At least 20 percent of U.S. pesticide exports are banned or have never been registered for use here. Some have not been independently evaluated for their impacts on human health or the environment. Others, like DDT, are familiar toxins, widely known for carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic capabilities.. A provision of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, (FIFRA) explicitly states that banned or unregistered pesticides- are---legal for export. European and Japanese governments encourage the multinational pesticide companies headquartered in their countries with similar exemptions.

"You need to point out to the world," Dr. Harold Hubbard of the Pan American Health Organization told us (PAHO is a division of the United Nations), "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!"

From the point of view of chemical company executives, pesticide dumping is simply part of doing business in the most profitable manner possible. From pesticide sales, chemical companies reap $7 billion annually. Meanwhile, there is a terrible toll on victims.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) of the U.N., 500,000 people are poisoned by pesticides in the Third World each year: an average of one person every minute of the day. A pesticide-caused death occurs every hour and forty-five minutes or so: 5,000 per year. These figures are only estimates, and they do not attempt to account for the unknown numbers of cancers, disabilities, other long-term effects, or stillbirths associated with the use of pesticides. U.S. Agency for International Development. (AID) consultant Virgil Freed has calculated that the rate of pesticide poisoning in underdeveloped countries is more than 13 times that in the U.S., despite a much greater volume of pesticide application here.

An official of the Chemical Manufacturers Association observes: "Our use of pesticides is intimately tied to our cultural habits. But when you impose a practice that works in one culture on another culture, you're sometimes going to encounter problems. You can't just take American technology and expect it to work over there."

Pesticides, in fact, don't work "over there." "What normally happens is that people buy them and just don't understand about controlling their use," says Michael Moran of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). "Even if the U.S. has norms, there are no norms down there. For example, in Guatemala they use anything. There's no rational progression in those countries in the use, application, or management of pesticides. There are no norms!"

"Small shops in Indonesia sell pesticides," says Lucas Brader of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, "right alongside the potatoes and rice and other foods. The people just collect it in sugar sacks, milk cartons, Coke bottles-whatewer is at hand."

In Pakistan and Middle Eastern countries, peasants have been seen wrapping pesticides in their turbans, and then placing the turbans back on their heads for efficient (and dangerous) transport.

"In the rainy season in many tropical countries, the plastic liners used in pesticide bags are used as raincoats," says AID's Fred Whittemore. "That is an acute problem causing poisonings."

Inadequate labeling or deliberate mislabeling of pesticides is another cause of 'needless poisoning in Third World countries. During 1979 the government of Colombia fined Hoechst and Shell for mislabeling pesticides, and Dow, Velsicol, Ciba-Geigy, Cyanamid, and Hoechst for selling substandard products. Whittemore says that a recent check in Mexico disclosed that more than 50 percent of the pesticides sold there were labeled incorrectly.

One of the most detailed studies of the consequences of heavy pesticide use is the recent 300-page report by the lnstituto Centro-Americano de Investigacion y Technolagia Industrial (ICAITI) on the Central American cotton industry, which is, highly concentrated in large plantations producing for export.* The study found that 85 percent of the pesticides used in the region-mainly DDT, toxaphene, and (ethyl and methyl) parathion-were applied to cotton. All are banned or severely restricted inside the U.S.

None of the countries in Central America have either adequate pesticide regulations or the capacity to enforce them. The result, ICAITI concludes, is that Central America has been turned into "a sort of experimental grounds for pesticide manufacturing companies."

Parathion, which causes 80 percent of Central America's poisonings, was originally developed for chemical warfare purposes by Nazi German scientists during World War lI. Slight chemical alterations converted it into a profitable insecticide after the war. Parathion's effects on the human body are devastating. The lethal dose to human beings is about one-sixtieth that of DDT; i.e., it is 60 times as toxic. "Parathion does the same thing to a human as it does to a rat," explains Dr. H.L. Falk, of the National Institute of Environmental Sciences. "It breaks down the substance which your body produces to stop the movement of your finger or your eye, for example. So those movements won't stop. You exhaust the muscles until they stop functioning altogether. You go into convulsions and die."

The legacy of heavy pesticide use in Central America is frightening. Average DDT levels in cow's milk in Guatemala is 90 times as high as that allowed in the U.S. People in Nicaragua and Guatemala carry over 31 times as much DDT in their blood as people in the U.S., where the substance has been banned since 1970.

Overall, ICAITI tabulated more than 14,000 poisonings and 40 deaths from pesticides between 1972 and 1975 in the cotton-growing Pacific coastal plains of Central America. The actual total is higher, though, since according to the Institute's report, "some of the large cotton producers maintain their own clinics (partly) to hinder public health officials from detecting the seriousness of human insecticide poisonings."

ICAITI researchers investigated the living conditions of the peasants who were the primary victims. Over three quarters were illiterate, and most were Indians. Seventy percent lived in huts with mud floors and holes in the walls. The majority had no fresh water, baths, showers, or drainage. About 60 percent had no toilets. "Aside from other unsanitary implications," the report notes, "the risk of pesticide intoxication increases through direct contact and through the habit of using surrounding vegetation, including cotton leaves, for hygienic purposes."

"The people who work in the fields of Central America are treated like half human, slaves really," says entymologist Falcon, who has worked in Central America for many years. "They are hired to work in the cotton fields, perhaps to weed. 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 home, their children, and their food all get contaminated."

The ICAITI study also found evidence that the massive quantities of pesticides used in the region are actually counterproductive, as measured by a number of economic indicators. The researchers calculated that current pesticide use levels, especially for parathion, are 40 percent higher than they should be to obtain optimal profit levels. In addition, by disrupting the delicate ecosystem of the region, a veritable pest explosion has occurred in the cotton fields. Twenty-five years ago, at the inception of the chemical pesticide age in Central America, there were only two serious cotton pests. Today there are eight. By decreasing one pest population, the pesticides create another out of a previously beneficial predator. Further, pest resistance to chemicals is widespread.

In central America, as throughout the Third World, the evolution of resistant mosquitoes has had a staggering effect: there has been a 100-fold increase in malaria cases over the past 15 years, according to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP). In India, malaria victims had fallen from 100 million in 1952 to 60,000 10 years later; by 1976 the number had skyrocketed to six million. In El Salvador, the incidence of malaria more than tripled between 1974 and 1976.

Indeed, the rampant overuse of pesticides in the Third World has come full circle: after enjoying a temporary respite from malaria, the hungry of the world are now subjected to dramatic increases in the disease, and it shows no sign of abating. Meanwhile, researchers at Stanford University have shown that many insect species have genetic structures designed to withstand and mutate in response to unfamiliar chemical substances. These scientists have surmised that pesticides do not represent a solution for diseases like malaria, or for pests in general, and in fact more often exacerbate the problem by killing weaker predators. From around the world come reports that fulfill their hypothesis: farmers need more toxic pesticides to kill chemical-resistant pests to maintain present yields.

* An Environmental and Economic Study of the Consequences of Pesticide Use in Central American Cotton Production," Final Report, Instituto Centro-americano de Investigacion y Technologia Industrial, January 1977.

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