Pursuing Truth and Transparency in America's Food System

The agrichemical companies have a history of concealing health risks from the public

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1, “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” by Gary Ruskin, co-director of the public watchdog group US Right to Know.

Monsanto is one of the world’s largest producers of genetically engineered seeds, and manufacturer of the best-selling herbicide, Roundup. Our government relies on data from Monsanto about GMO crops, yet the company has in the past hid crucial information about the health risks of its products and operations.

In a Washington Post article describing how Monsanto polluted the town of Anniston, Alabama with toxic PCBs, Michael Grunwald recounts a key moment in a deposition of Monsanto’s Anniston plant manager:

In 1998, a former Anniston plant manager, William Papageorge, was asked in a deposition whether Monsanto officials ever shared their data about PCB hazards with the community.

“Why would they?” he replied.[1]

Indeed, why would they? It’s a great question, one that applies not only to PCBs but to genetically engineered foods as well.

If there were something wrong with genetically engineered food, would Monsanto or the other agrichemical companies tell us?

If there were health risks, would the companies disclose them?

Their history suggests that the answer is: probably not.

The big agrichemical companies have a well-documented record of hiding the truth about the health risks of their products and operations.

Let’s review some key moments in that history.

PCBs. Monsanto was the principal manufacturer of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Approximately 99% of the PCBs used by U.S. industry were produced by the Monsanto Chemical Company in Sauget, Illinois, until production was stopped in August 1977.”[2] PCBs were banned in 1979. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “PCBs have been demonstrated to cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system.”[3]

The dangerous legacy of Monsanto’s PCB pollution remains, especially in the town of Anniston, Alabama.[4] According to the Washington Post, regarding Anniston,

thousands of pages of Monsanto documents — many emblazoned with warnings such as “CONFIDENTIAL: Read and Destroy” — show that for decades, the corporate giant concealed what it did and what it knew.

In 1966, Monsanto managers discovered that fish submerged in that creek turned belly-up within 10 seconds, spurting blood and shedding skin as if dunked into boiling water. They told no one. In 1969, they found fish in another creek with 7,500 times the legal PCB levels. They decided “there is little object in going to expensive extremes in limiting discharges.” In 1975, a company study found that PCBs caused tumors in rats. They ordered its conclusion changed from “slightly tumorigenic” to “does not appear to be carcinogenic.”[5]

Baycol. Bayer AG is the corporate parent of Bayer CropScience AG, a major agrichemical company with 2013 revenues of nearly €9 billion from genetically engineered seeds, fungicides, herbicides and insecticides.[6] In 1997, Bayer began producing the statin (cholesterol-lowering) drug Baycol. It promoted the drug as “simple and safe.”[7] But it withdrew Baycol from the market in 2001 because the frequency of fatal rhabdomyolysis (rapid breakdown of muscle tissue which can cause kidney failure) was far higher than in other statins.[8] As early as October 1999, the FDA had already criticized Bayer’s marketing of Baycol as “false, lacking in fair balance, or otherwise misleading” with too little emphasis on the risk of rhabdomyolysis.[9] According to Public Citizen, “Approximately one year before Baycol was removed from the market in August 2001, its manufacturer Bayer, using FDA data on other statins, found that Baycol had 20 times more reports of rhabdomyolysis…per million prescriptions than Lipitor.”[10] In 2003, the New York Times reported that “company documents indicate that some senior executives at Bayer were aware that their anticholesterol drug had serious problems long before the company pulled it from the market.” Still worse, documents and other evidence suggested that Bayer promoted Baycol “even as a company analysis found that patients on Baycol were falling ill or dying from a rare muscle condition much more often than patients on similar drugs.” There were about 100 deaths and 1,600 injuries linked to Baycol-induced rhabdomyolysis.[11]

Silicone breast implants. Dow Chemical Co. is the world’s second largest chemical company,[12] and the corporate parent of Dow AgroSciences, an agrichemical company that produces genetically engineered seeds, insecticides, herbicides, fumigants and fungicides. Dow Corning, another subsidiary of Dow Chemical, produced silicone breast implants that, according to the New York Times, “ruptured at rates far higher than initially suggested by manufacturers.”[13] The Times reported that “tens of thousands of women have claimed that they suffered a host of health problems from silicone-filled breast implants, including hardening of the breast tissue, implant rupture and disabling disorders that resemble autoimmune disorders like lupus.” In 1995, Dow Corning declared bankruptcy because it was, according to the Times, “overwhelmed by injury claims filed against it by hundreds of thousands of women who used silicone breast implants.”[14]

Dow Corning told callers to its telephone hotline that its silicone breast implants were “100 percent safe” and there have “never been health problems with implants or silicone.” Dow Corning stopped telling this to callers after the FDA sent a letter “in which the company was accused of giving out misleading information about breast implants on its hot line. The letter said the company was to take immediate corrective action….[The FDA wrote] ‘These statements overstate the safety of breast implants and minimize known or suspected side effects.’”[15] In February 1997, the Times reported that a Louisiana state court found that “Dow Chemical Company had knowingly deceived women by hiding information about the health risks of silicone used in breast implants.”[16]

Bayer plant explosion. On August 28, 2008, an explosion killed two people at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, VA. According to a report by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, the explosion “came dangerously close” to replicating the catastrophic explosion that was so deadly in Bhopal, India. Bloomberg’s account of the congressional investigation explained that executives at Bayer “conducted a ‘campaign of secrecy,’ destroyed evidence and withheld information from emergency responders after a deadly chemical explosion….” The toxic insecticide methomyl was released in the explosion. But “Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland said Bayer officials told emergency personnel on the day of the explosion that ‘no dangerous chemicals had been released.’”[17] Bayer went to great lengths to prevent disclosures about the explosion; it even tried to employ a federal terrorism provision that no company had ever invoked before, to block a hearing by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.[18]

PFOA. DuPont Co. is one of the world’s largest chemical companies, and its subsidiary DuPont Pioneer is a major agrichemical company. The EPA announced on December 14, 2004, that DuPont would pay a total penalty of $16 million, including “the largest civil administrative penalty EPA has ever obtained under any federal environmental statute,” regarding the use of the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA has been used to make Teflon and other nonstick coatings. The EPA stated that the violations consist of “multiple failures to report information to EPA about substantial risk of injury to human health or the environment that DuPont obtained about PFOA from as early as 1981 and as recently as 2004.”[19]

Chemical health risks. In 2010, DuPont agreed to pay a $3.3 million fine for 57 violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act. EPA found that, regarding 57 studies, “DuPont failed to immediately notify EPA of research indicating substantial [health] risk found during testing chemicals for possible use as surface protection, masonry protection, water repellants, sealants and paints.”[20]

DuPont’s La Porte plant accident. In the early morning of November 15, 2014, a leak of the flammable chemical methyl mercaptan at DuPont’s factory in LaPorte, Texas led to the deaths of four DuPont workers. Nearby, also at the factory, there was an unknown quantity of an infamous industrial chemical – methyl isocyanate — which, when it exploded in Bhopal, India in 1984, killed at least 2,200 people initially, in the world’s worst industrial accident. However, the DuPont shift supervisor who called 911 about the accident failed to disclose the presence of the methyl isocyanate and its potential danger to the public. According to the Houston Chronicle,

DuPont shift supervisor Jody Knowles gave no details about the chemicals involved and minimized the risk in the 911 call to the La Porte fire department.

“We have a possible casualty five (workers) my medics are telling me,” he told a dispatcher.

She immediately asked: “Can you tell me is this any risk to the public? Is it gonna be a possible escaping from your premises?”

“No ma’am, it is not,” Knowles responded.[21]

Agent Orange. Dow Chemical and Monsanto were the primary manufacturers of Agent Orange, the infamous herbicide used during the Vietnam War. About 20 million gallons were sprayed in Vietnam.[22] The herbicide was contaminated with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), an extremely toxic form of dioxin. The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates 150,000 children have been born with birth defects due to Agent Orange, with a total of 3 million Vietnamese affected by it.[23] The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs presumes that many diseases are caused by exposure to Agent Orange,[24] but the number of U.S. veterans sickened by it is unknown. Following a lawsuit by Agent Orange victims, 291,000 people received compensation due to exposure to Agent Orange.[25]
Dow was remarkably duplicitous about the health risks of dioxin. Dow repeatedly denied that dioxin caused any disease or illness other than chloracne, a skin condition similar to acne. In March 1983, the president of Dow, Paul Oreffice, argued on NBC’s Today Show that “there is absolutely no evidence of dioxin doing any damage to humans except for causing something that is called chloracne. It’s a rash.”[26] However, in July 1983, the New York Times reported that “The Dow Chemical Company knew as early as the middle 1960’s about evidence that exposure to dioxin might cause people to become seriously ill and even die, but the company withheld its concern from the Government and continued to sell herbicides contaminated by dioxin to the Army and the public.” In 1965, Dow’s toxicology director wrote that dioxin could be “exceptionally toxic” to humans. Dow’s medical director wrote, regarding dioxin, that “Fatalities have been reported in the literature.”[27]

There is also a strong appearance that Monsanto prepared fraudulent studies to convince the EPA that dioxin was relatively nontoxic. These studies were exposed by the EPA chemist Cate Jenkins, in a memorandum titled “Newly Revealed Fraud by Monsanto in an Epidemiological Study Used by EPA to Assess Human Health Effects from Dioxin.”[28] Jenkins found a “long pattern of fraud” regarding “dioxin contamination of a wide range of Monsanto Corp. products, as well as health studies of Monsanto’s dioxin-exposed workers.”[29]

DBCP. Dow and Shell were the main manufacturers of the pesticide DBCP (1,2-Dibromo-3-Chloropropane). Early results from DBCP animal health risk experiments were troubling. Dow’s internal 1958 DBCP animal testing report stated that their data “show that liver, lung and kidney effects might be expected….Testicular atrophy may result from prolonged, repeated exposure.”[30] In 1961, a study in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology ensured that Dow knew that DBCP was toxic and could cause sterility.[31] But Dow hid that crucial health risk information from its workers. According to the New York Times, it wasn’t until the “mid-1970s, after tests by the National Cancer Institute suggested that DBCP could cause cancer in mice and rats, [that] Dow so informed its workers…Dow concedes that it never told its workers about the 1961 study’s suggestion that DBCP affected the testes.”[32] In 1977, the EPA tightly restricted the use of DBCP in the United States, and banned it in 1979, but Dow continued to ship DBCP to fruit manufacturers such as Del Monte, Chiquita and Dole, for use in Latin America. This led to DBCP exposure that sterilized Latin American fruit workers, and lawsuits from tens of thousands of them.[33] Thus far, Dow and Shell, and fruit companies Dole and Chiquita, have largely escaped liability for exposing workers to DBCP.[34]

The agrichemical companies have repeatedly kept silent, or suppressed key facts about health risks of their products and operations. It’s a pattern of deception. Given this history, can we trust that they aren’t deceiving us yet again about the health and environmental risks genetically engineered food?

Footnotes

[1] Michael Grunwald, “Monsanto Hid Decades Of Pollution: PCBs Drenched Ala. Town, But No One Was Ever Told.” Washington Post, January 1, 2002.

[2]Toxicological Profile for Polychlorinated Biphenyls.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, November 2000, p. 467.

[3] Polychlorinated Biphenyls: Basic Information.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

[4] See, for example, Michael Grunwald, “Monsanto Hid Decades Of Pollution: PCBs Drenched Ala. Town, But No One Was Ever Told.” Washington Post, January 1, 2002. Brett Israel, “Pollution, Poverty and People of Color: Dirty Soil and Diabetes.” Scientific American, June 13, 2012. Ellen Crean, “Toxic Secret: Alabama Town Was Never Warned Of Contamination.” 60 Minutes, CBS News, November 7, 2002.

[5] Michael Grunwald, “Monsanto Hid Decades Of Pollution: PCBs Drenched Ala. Town, But No One Was Ever Told.” Washington Post, January 1, 2002.

[6]Bayer Continues Successful Course in Anniversary Year.” Bayer CropScience news release, February 28, 2014.

[7] In re Baycol Cases I and II, Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District, Division Seven.

[8] Gina Kolata and Edmund L. Andrews, “Anticholesterol Drug Pulled After Link With 31 Deaths.” New York Times, August 9, 2001.

[9] Correspondence from Michael A. Misocky, Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications, U.S. Food and Drug Administration to Carol Sever, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs, Bayer Corporation, October 25, 1999. Melody Petersen and Alex Berenson, “Papers Indicate That Bayer Knew Of Dangers of Its Cholesterol Drug.” New York Times, February 22, 2003.

[10] Statement by Sidney Wolfe, MD, at the Public Hearing on CDER’s Current Risk Communication Strategies for Human Drugs (HRG Publication 1758). Public Citizen Health Research Group.

[11] Melody Petersen and Alex Berenson, “Papers Indicate That Bayer Knew Of Dangers of Its Cholesterol Drug.” New York Times, February 22, 2003. For more information about Bayer generally, see the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers.

[12] David Benoit and Ben Lefebvre, “Dow Chemical Lands in Hedge Fund’s Sights.” Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2014.

[13] Barry Meier, “Dow Chemical Deceived Women On Breast Implants, Jury Decides.” New York Times, August 19, 1997.

[14] Barnaby J. Feder, “Dow Corning In Bankruptcy Over Lawsuits.” New York Times, May 16, 1995.

[15]After U.S. Warning, Dow Curbs Assurances About Breast Implants.” New York Times, January 1, 1992.

[16] Barry Meier, “Dow Chemical Deceived Women On Breast Implants, Jury Decides.” New York Times, August 19, 1997.

[17] Lorraine Woellert, “Bayer Explosion ‘Dangerously Close’ to Second Bhopal.” Bloomberg, April 21, 2009. See also Matthew Wald, “Lawmakers Say Chemical Company Withheld Information About Explosion.” New York Times, April 21, 2009. “Secrecy in the Response to Bayer’s Chemical Plant Explosion.” Hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, April 21, 2009. Serial No. 111-28.

[18] Sean D. Hamill, “Trying to Limit Disclosure on Explosion.” New York Times, March 28, 2009.

[19]EPA Settles PFOA Case Against DuPont for Largest Environmental Administrative Penalty in Agency History.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency news release, December 14, 2005. Michael Janofsky, “DuPont to Pay $16.5 Million for Unreported Risks.” New York Times, December 15, 2005. See also Mark Glassman, “E.P.A. Says It Will Fine DuPont For Holding Back Test Results.” New York Times, July 9, 2004.

[20]EPA Announces $3.3 Million Settlement with DuPont for Failure to Report Toxic Chemical Studies.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency news release, December 21, 2010.

[21] Lise Olsen and Mark Collette, “Deadly DuPont Leak Exposes Safety, Response Failures:

Chemical Plant Officials Slow to React to Disaster, Minimized Risk to Fire Crews, Public in First 911 Call.” Houston Chronicle, November 22, 2014.

[22] Clyde Haberman, “Agent Orange’s Long Legacy, for Vietnam and Veterans.” New York Times, May 11, 2014.

[23] Drew Brown, “4 Decades After War Ended, Agent Orange Still Ravaging Vietnamese.” McClatchy, July 22, 2013. Tom Fawthrop, “Vietnam’s War Against Agent Orange.” BBC, June 14, 2004. See also Lien Hoang, “Agent G.M.O.” New York Times, March 26, 2013.

[24] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Veterans’ Diseases Associated with Agent Orange.”

[25] William Glaberson, “Agent Orange, the Next Generation; In Vietnam and America, Some See a Wrong Still Not Righted.” New York Times, August 8, 2004.

[26] Russell Mokhiber, Corporate Crime and Violence. (San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1988), p. 80.

[27] Ralph Blumenthal, “Files Show Dioxin Makers Knew of Hazards.” New York Times, July 6, 1983.

[28] E.G. Vallianatos and McKay Jenkins, Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA. (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), p. 252, and pp. 63-72. See also Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto: Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of the World’s Food Supply. (New York, New Press, 2010), pp. 48-59.

[29] William H. Freivogel, “Greenpeace, Chemist Challenge Monsanto on Dioxin Findings.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 29, 1990.

[30] Jack Doyle, Trespass Against Us: Dow Chemical and the Toxic Century. (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2004), p. 292.

[31] Torkelson TR et al. “Toxicologic Investigations of 1,2-Dibromo-3-Chloropropane.” Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. September 1961, 3:545-59.

William K. Stevens, “Sterility Linked to Pesticide Spurs Fears on Chemical Use.” New York Times, September 11, 1977. “Let the Workers Know the Risks.” New York Times editorial, September 27, 1977.

[32] William K. Stevens, “Sterility Linked to Pesticide Spurs Fears on Chemical Use.” New York Times, September 11, 1977.

[33] Diana Jean Schemo, “U.S. Pesticide Kills Foreign Fruit Pickers’ Hopes.” New York Times, December 6, 1995.

[34] Vicent Boix and Susanna R. Bohme, “Secrecy and Justice in the Ongoing Saga of DBCP Litigation.” International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, June 2012, 18(2):154-61. doi: 10.1179/1077352512Z.00000000010.