The Multinational Monitor


N E W S   R O U N D U P

Ciba-Geigy pollutes Ocean State shores

In the Ocean State, one of the world's largest multinationals has been getting away with murder: killing the life of Narragansett Bay with its toxic wastes.

Ciba-Geigy's oldest U.S. chemical production plant in Cranston, Rhode Island is the Bay's worst polluter. Each day, the plant discharges 1.5 million gallons of virtually untreated toxic chemicals and heavy metals directly into the Pawtuxet River, a mile and a half from where it flows into the Bay. A 1981 EPA study termed the Ciba-Geigy's wastes "acutely toxic" and found that half the test organisms exposed to the waste diluted ten times were killed within 48 hours.

Because of a 1976 agreement between the Swiss multinational, the EPA, and the city of Cranston, Ciba-Geigy has been allowed to ignore EPA rules on acceptable pollution levels and required treatment.

Ciba-Geigy's toxic waste has raised a good deal of concern in R.I. - particularly after March 25. That day, 72,000 pounds of highly toxic paracresol was spilled. Just one-half ounce of paracresol is lethal to humans if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. The plant had to be closed for a week during cleanup operations.

Now there's a new cause for concern: the company's 1976 deal with the city of Cranston took effect on July 1, 1983, beginning the diversion of the plant's wastes to Cranston's sewage treatment facility.

But the town sewage plant, designed to treat sewage, cannot adequately handle toxic pollutants, says Greenpeace, an environmental group that has recently launched a national campaign against hazardous waste. After processing, Greenpeace says, 20 percent of the toxics will remain in waste water discharged from the sewage plant into the Pawtuxet River. The sludge containing the other 80 percent of the toxics will be landfilled - possibly contaminating groundwater - until an incinerator is built in two to three years. Then the toxic sludge will be burned, adding to air pollution.

In protest of this deal, 20 Greenpeace activists paddled up the Pawtuxet River in canoes and rafts to the CibaGeigy plant on June 29. There they hoisted signs saying, "EPA and Ciba-Geigy, Working Together to Poison the Bay," and chained themselves to the waste discharge valves, temporarily stopping the flow of pollutants.

Reinflating the air bag

A small but vocal group of consumer activists staged an impromptu demonstration in front of the Washington offices of General Motors Corporation on July 1 to protest GM's longstanding refusal to install crash protection air bags in its cars.

Shouting such slogans as "Roger Smith should get canned so auto safety won't be banned," the group attracted the attention of noontime lunchgoers and members of the press. Roger Smith is chairman of the board of General Motors. Since 1977, when the latest crash protection standard was issued, GM has consistently withheld air bags from most of its cars, encouraged delay of federal standards, and discouraged consumer interest in the handful of air bag -equipped cars it manufactured during the mid-70s. GM's top executives continue to oppose federal safety standards measures despite that fact that its own 1979 poll indicated that 70 percent of it customers would prefer air bags to passive restraint belts, even at four times the cost. In addition, GM's owns engineers, who perfected the air bag technology, support air bags as standard equipment.

The rally follows a Supreme Court decision of June 26 that overturned President Reagan's removal of the 1977 standard requiring all new automobiles to have air bags or automatic restraints by 1984. The court called Reagan's 1981 decision to drop the regulation "capricious, arbitrary, and illegal." However, the court has turned over the task of coming up with a new crash protection equipment rule to the Reagan administration's Department of Transportation.

A spokesperson for the consumer organization Direct Action for Auto Safety, which sponsored the rally, claimed that GM's own tests have proven the effectiveness of air bags, and said it was about time Roger Smith "decided that human life was more important than profit."

The spokesperson also believes that the installation of air bags might be seen as an effective step toward combating the auto industry's stiff foreign competition. "Foreign competitors are now deciding that they want air bags in their cars," he said. Mercedes Benz, for instance, already offers air bags as optional equipment.

For a free brochure on the benefits of air bags, "Miraculously Saved by an Air Bag," send a self-addressed stamped business-size envelope to Multinational Monitor.

Indian activist vs. Drug Companies

He has been called the "Ralph Nader of India." The name befits the 35-year-old, slightly balding lawyer who launches fierce crusades against consumer exploitation, corruption, and environmental pollution in his home country.

Recently, Vincent Panikulangara, founder of the Indian Public Interest Law Service Society, has carried a lone battle to ban dangerous drugs all the way to the Indian Supreme Court. Panikulangara seeks to embargo 20 harmful substances - many already banned in the U.S. - which are still found in drugs sold to India by multinational drug companies despite government regulations against them.

In February 1982, the Indian government's Drug Controller banned the manufacture of three widely-used drugs: amidopyrine which is prescribed for rheumitism but damages disease-fighting white blood cells; phenacetin, a pain killer associated with urinary tract and kidney disease; and hydroxyquinoline which fights diarrhea but can damage the optic nerve. The government also set a later date for a manufacturing ban on 15 additional drugs; all 18 drugs were not to be sold after November 1, 1982. Almost immediately, the government pushed back these dates. After protest from the Indian Drug Manufacturers Association that they needed more time to sell the back stock of these drugs still on the shelves, the ban was delayed even further: March 31, 1983 for the three drugs, and June 20, 1983 for the other 15.

Panikulangara fought the government's delays, arguing in court that "phasing out" the manufacture and sale of admittedly dangerous drugs was irrational and could damage the health of Indian citizens. Despite the court's agreement with his position, the government has not implemented the ban, and Panikulangara reports that the sale of the drugs continues.

Foreign companies now control 75 percent of India's drug industry, according to Panikulangara, and include such giants as Smith-Kline and G.D. Searle of the U.S. and Hoffmann-LaRoche and CibaGeigy of Switzerland.

- Steve Billes

Up in Smoke

Even small challenges to their profit motive are too much for some corporations. Such is the case with R.J. Reynolds Industries, the nation's largest cigarette producer.

Last summer, Reynolds acquired Heublein Inc., a liquor and convenience foods company. One policy of its new subsidiary burned Reynolds executives: the "no smoking" section set aside at employee meetings. So Reynolds eliminated them.

A Heublein spokesperson defended the move: "We are owned by a company that has a significant position in the tobacco industry. We don't encourage employees to smoke, but we don't discourage them either."

- Jeff Bentoff

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