29 August 2012, 22:12

Dow Chemical still blamed for deaths and birth defects and under fire for Olympic deal. PART I

Dow Chemical still blamed for deaths and birth defects and under fire for Olympic deal. PART I
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After the success of the Olympic Games in London the British capital gears up for the Paralympics tomorrow. Dow Chemical is one of the most controversial Olympic sponsors after signing a 63-million pound tenure deal with the International Olympic Committee back in 2010. But campaigners have criticized the relationship between the Games and Dow Chemical which is still under fire for its role in the manufacture of Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War that caused deaths and birth defects for generations.

The organisers of the London Olympics made many promises. Not only did they vow to run the greenest Olympics ever, they also established a strict code of ethics which they claimed would be stringently enforced. But behind the rhetoric many activists detected a different approach, one seemingly at odds with those ethical principles. In particular, it was the decision to award the Dow Chemical Company official sponsorship status that raised eyebrows. Alongside global brands like Coca-Cola, Macdonalds, Samsung and Visa, Dow ranks as an ‘Olympic Partner.’ There were, of course, objections against the perceived commercialisation of the Games, against the choice of Macdonalds as a face of the world’s biggest sports festival for instance. But the sponsorship of Dow Chemical has been a source of particular unease. The giant American corporation paid 100 million dollars as part of a deal struck with the International Olympic Committee. It also provided the 7 million pound plastic wrap encircling the Olympic stadium in an agreement reached with the London Organising Committee.

But why have so many people found its sponsorship of the Olympics objectionable? The veteran investigative journalist John Pilger explained:

“Well, Dow was named by the US environmental agency a few years ago as the world’s second biggest polluter. And the evidence for that is all over. Dow was one of the manufacturers of a poison called “dioxin” which made up Agent Orange, which was dumped literally on Vietnam. And Dow took over Union Carbide, the company that caused the great disaster at Bhopal in India. So it has a double responsibility there for two of the world’s great disasters.”

Agent Orange was a chemical defoliant, 80 million litres of which was dropped on Vietnam by the US airforce between 1961 and 1971. Produced at high temperatures, the chemical contained dioxin as an impurity – one of the most harmful poisons known to man. Though numerous companies were involved in its manufacture, Dow, along with Monsanto, were the largest suppliers. The victims of Agent Orange span the generations, with over 3 million suffering from a range of severe ailments, including cancers and congenital birth deformities. Len Aldis, head of the Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society, described some of its effects:

“The effect of Agent Orange has now travelled into the fourth generation of the Vietnamese people. I have seen babies, 6-month-old, with deformed legs, no hands, sometimes no feet or twisted feet. And these were born after the war, which finished in 1975, and also the spraying which stopped in 1971. I have met a young lady, mother of two daughters in Dong Nai. And I’ve seen her look after her two daughters. One was 42 years old, the other one was 36. They cannot do anything for themselves, but just lay on the rush matting .They have to be turned over, cleaned, fed– everything!”

12 percent of South Vietnam’s land surface was sprayed with Agent Orange during the conflict. Despite the recent American decision to assist in the clean-up of Danang airport, numerous areas of the country are still contaminated, and hundreds of thousands remain exposed. Moreover, the US government has refused to accept liability for the health problems of Vietnamese victims arising from the weapon’s use. This is despite the damaging effects of Agent Orange being widely acknowledged in the case of American servicemen who have received government compensation.

The companies which produced the chemical have been embroiled in numerous legal battles since the end of the war. In 1984, they reached an out-of-court settlement with US veterans, awarding them 180 million dollars. In 2004, the Vietnamese victims sued Dow and 36 other manufacturers for damages. The plaintiffs contended that Agent Orange was a poison and the defendants had a legal obligation not to supply it, but the US courts ultimately rejected their suit. Jeanne Mirer, secretary-general of the international association of democratic lawyers, and a member of the legal team which filed the action, outlined the plaintiffs’ argument:

“We argued that Agent Orange was used as a weapon of war and that the Hague Convention of 1907, which is one of the first treaties codifying international humanitarian law, outlawed the use of poison or poisoned weapons in war. So we said that poisoned weapons were illegal. We disagreed with the judge with respect to its characterisation as merely a herbicide, because we know that it contained dioxin which was an impurity. Our argument was that once a poison is acknowledged to be in any weapon, it becomes a poisoned weapon. We even said that poisoning plants for food supply was illegal, but the judge disagreed saying it was an herbicide with a trace of poison and not used for the purpose of poisoning humans. But we disagreed. And we say that if a manufacturer knew that a product contained a poison and let it be used in such a way it’s foreseeable that people get sick or ill from the product, they can be said to have intended to poison people.”

Dow and other companies claimed that, since they were acting on instructions from the government, they enjoyed legal immunity. The plaintiffs countered that the government could not require them to contravene international law. Moreover, according to the New York Times, Dow held a meeting in 1965 with other chemical manufacturers to discuss the effects of dioxin. Memos of the meeting disclose that Dow was worried about the toxic effects dioxin was having on its experimental animals, and was anxious about this information becoming public. Jeanne Mirer explained:

“If the government does something illegally and orders you to do something illegal, you have an obligation to refuse. And under Nuremberg we said they had a legal option available which would be to object to producing the weapons. They could have taken legal action against the government requiring them to do it. They were in fact very happy to do it. And we know that in 1965 Dow, in particular, was seeing the effects of dioxin on its experimental animals and called a secret meeting in 1965 with all the other chemical companies to tell them to try to keep their dioxin down. At that time they could only measure 1 ppm, and we know now that 1ppt can be dangerous to human health. And, in fact, Dow played a role in supressing an important study that was commissioned by the National Cancer Institute after the government started using these agents and was getting reports of still births and other kinds of problems in Vietnam.”

The Vietnamese are not alone in being offended by the Olympics’ Committee decision. In India, Dow has come under fire for acquiring, 11 years ago, the Union Carbide Corporation. It was Union Carbide that caused the world’s worst industrial disaster – 30 years ago in Bhopal, India. On the morning of December 4th 1984, leaked gas from one of Union Carbide’s factories spilled across the streets of the adjoining town. 500 times more toxic than cyanide, the gas killed 7 to 10 thousand people outright. The health ramifications of the disaster were not confined to only one generation. Many babies in Bhopal today are born with severe deformities. Moreover, toxic waste from the abandoned site continues to pollute the groundwater supply of residents. According to the Bhopal Medical Appeal, those affected are in the hundreds of thousands. Dr. Pragya Prashad, who works at a hospital based in Bhopal, described some of the medical problems she treats on a daily basis:

“The most people who come to us usually complain of breathlessness and they have been complaining of persistent cough for quite some time. They also complained of diminished vision and loss of appetite. They have fever, backache, body ache, loss of sensation in the limbs, chronic fatigue. And especially in women which we see regularly they complain of irregular menses. And we also see many cases of premature menopause, infertility, spontaneous abortion, still births, malformed baby.”

When Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001, lawyers for the Bhopal victims claim that it acquired not only the company’s assets, but also its legal liabilities. Yet hitherto, Dow has avoided assuming responsibility, refusing to clean up the contaminated factory in Bhopal, and maintaining that it is formally separate from its subsidiary Union Carbide. Rajan Sharma, lead counsel for a civil litigation case in America, is seeking to force Dow to decontaminate the site in Bhopal.

“They own the subsidiary- it’s a wholly owned subsidiary – so whether the liability falls upon the subsidiary or can be traced through to Dow is an open question. But if you look at Dow as an enterprise, as a global multinational company, then clearly Union Carbide is one of its subsidiaries – it would be no different than them arguing that they have no liability for what Dow AgroScience is or Dow Singapore does. I mean it is their subsidiary. It’s really more of a public relations argument.”

Union Carbide did reach a settlement with the Indian government in 1989, paying out 470 million dollars. According to Karuna Nundy, a lawyer currently leading a case before India’s Supreme Court to increase the amount of compensation, this meager sum was based on a gross underestimate of the number of those affected. The settlement amounted to only 300-500 dollars per victim. Karuna Nundy explained:

“There are a number of facts that weren’t disclosed to the court at the time of settlement. For instance, the fact that it wasn’t just that 3000 died, we know now that 22,000 people died, according to the government of India’s own research body. Also we now know that the categories of compensation that were proposed were in fact proposed by Union Carbide itself only a few months after the gas disaster, at a time when very little was known about the kinds of damage that would be caused. We also know that Union Carbide itself had done a study many years prior which revealed to them that there is no such thing as temporary injury once you’re exposed to damage. Union Carbide failed to disclose any of this information after the gas leaked out.”

Union Carbide has been charged with culpable homicide by the Indian justice system, and its CEO at the time of the disaster, Warren Anderson, is wanted for manslaughter in India.


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