September 25, 2007

It's been banned in the U.S. yet it's being shipped across the border from Mexico-legally. It's a pesticide the U.S. considers too toxic for American chemical workers to produce. But no one in Washington seems to care if the chemical is made by Mexicans and then shipped here to be spread on stateside farms. The story of dibromochloropropane (DBCP) is emerging as the most recent example of the runaway hazardous shop-when strict U.S. environmental controls force the production, and the hazards, of toxic substances to countries with more lax environmental controls. (see NACLA Report, Mar-Apr. 1978) The human danger of DBCP production came to light dramatically a year and a half ago. Male workers at an Occidental Chemical Plant in Lathrop, California realized that they weren't having the children they were planning for. Their union, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), privately contracted epidemiologists to look into the problem. Sperm tests showed many workers had low or non-existent sperm counts. OCAW's industrial hygienist traced the sterility to the workers' exposure to DBCP, which they were formulating at the plant. Soon it was discovered that other workers in Colorado, Arkansas, Alabama and Michigan also exposed to DBCP were affected by the same sterility problems. Within days the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had set emergency production standards in the workplace. The U.S. chemical industry, unwilling to invest the money to develop production techniques to meet these standards, stopped making DBCP. Shell Chemical and Dow Chemical halted manufacture and other concerns, like Occidental, that mixed the pesticide into other deadly formulations also stopped their work with DBCP. Simultaneously, the U.S. 44 Ihe InkworK/cpr Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates the use of pesticides in agriculture, banned the use of DBCP on 19 different food crops. Canadian studies had found traces of the pesticide on carrots and radishes and U.S. studies in 1972 had shown DBCP to be a potent carcinogen in animals. The EPA action was designed to keep DBCP pesticide residues off the dining room table. But the EPA did not ban DBCP for all agricultural uses. The pesticide was merely "restricted," meaning that it could still be used on certain crops such as soybeans, citrus and cotton as well as on golf courses and home lawns. Agricultural workers who applied the pesticide and weeded, pruned and picked the treated agricultural product were thus not to receive the same protection as the factory worker. Only California took the further step of banning DBCP for all agricultural uses. But if DBCP was to remain, albeit under restriction, available for use in agriculture, the question arose-where did U.S. growers get the pesticide if domestic production has been banned? The answer emerged late last summer at hearings in Stockton and Sacramento, CA. It was revealed that DBCP supplies were being imported from south of the border. Two plants-Quimica Agrosano (Healthy Agricultural Chemicals) and Quimica Organica de Mexico, both in Mexicali-are producing all the DBCP currently used in the U.S. (Quimica Organica is a subsidiary of CYDSA, Mexico's second largest chemical operation.) Ralph Lightstone of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) led the attack against the imports at the California hearings. "Isn't this a violation of human rights-to allow this double standard?" asked Lightstone. "On the one hand we're saying the stuff is too dangerous for our workers to produce. Yet, on the other hand, we're paying people in Mexico to produce it at exposure levels that we know will make them sterile and possibly give them cancer 10 or 20 years from now." Lightstone visited Quimica Agrosano in September. According to Lightstone, the Mexican workers wear no protective clothing. "They wear cotton fatigues with their sleeves rolled up-and no gloves." U.S. studies from 1961 warned that even rubber or neoprene gloves, boots and coats would not protect workers. The Mexican workers were wearing half-face respirators. But there were no showers or locker rooms, raising the possibility that workers could be taking the toxic chemicals home in their clothes and exposing their families. Lightstone felt the plant posed an additional hazard to the community at large. "The plant is open to the air on three sides and is only 20 yards from a major road. There is a cattle feed lot just across the street." DBCP is fat soluble and so like DDT and other "chlorinated hydrocarbons" could wind up deposited in the fatty tissue of beef and cow's milk. Ronald Taylor, writing in the Los Angeles Times, September 9, 1978 reports that a Mexican occupational health specialist has performed tests showing that all but two of the 23 DBCP workers in Mexicali have serious sterility problems. At Quimica Agrosano Dr. Enrique Marquez Mayaudon told Taylor that in tests he conducted last December and repeated in April, three workers had a "zero" sperm count, six had low counts and two had normal counts. At Quimica Organica six workers had zero counts while six others had "very low" counts. Some of those with zero counts had been exposed for as little as seven months. The end of DBCP production in the U.S. has prompted a jump in Mexican production. Agrosano plant manager Mario Cota told Lightstone that although they have been manufacturing DBCP since 1969, "Of course we have increased our production." And Mexico's Dr. Mayaudon reported that Agrosano's production had "recently" grown from 2,000 tons a year to 3,000 tons a year. Most of the Mexican DBCP is being imported by Amvac Chemical Co. in Los Angeles (a subsidiary of American Vanguard Corp.) which distributes it to other states. The pressure from agribusiness in California to bring DBCP back to the California farm is strong. At the hearings witness after witness got up to decry the tragic losses that would result without DBCP. Armand Maggenti, a nematodologist from the University of California at Davis, testified that without the use of DBCP for three years the California peach industry would lose $39 million and 60 percent of its orchards. In citrus the loss would be $27 million, he predicted. Reregistration of DBCP in California will certainly mean pressure for increased production in Mexico with more workers being exposed. But that seems to be far from the concerns of California growers. At the end of the hearings one peach grower from Fresno, California, when asked if he feared any sterility effects from use of DBCP told NACLA, "I've got three sons, I don't want any more. And hell, some of these Mexicans have got ten or twelve kids. They don't need any more!"

Tags: pesticide, OSHA, export hazardous production, workplace safety

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