Peddling Pesticide

Spraying pesticide

Until DDT was banned as a proven cancer-causing agent it was the penicillin of pesticides, used by everyone from home gardeners to big grain farmers. Then chemical companies, upset that they had been caught pushing poison, turned off the DDT taps and began investigating new, less controversial pesticides. Rather than face losses from accumulated stocks of the chemical, some companies simply changed their marketing to the Third World, where there are few controls or often no controls at all.

Guatemala was one such friendly export market. DDT blood levels there are now 30 times the average of U.S. citizens and the chemical is dangerously concentrated in grain, meat and milk.

According to an award-winning article in the investigative U.S. magazine Mother Jones, selling potentially harmful goods to the Third World is common business practice. When environment and health controls ban the sale of certain drugs, pesticides or chemicals in the West the companies set their sights on less wary purchasers. The response of the various multinational companies confronted with the charge of double standards is 'Governments make the rules. We'll sell where and when we can.'

And sell them they do. Leptophos, a pesticide never registered in the States was exported to over 30 countries,says Mother Jones. Villagers in under developed countries know almost nothing about the dangers of modern chemicals. All they see is the dead insects they've finally been able to get rid of. Not understanding the toxicity of the pesticides they often use more than necessary. In Egypt many farmers and over a thousand water buffalo died after exposure to Leptophos. A UN official found the pesticide being sold alongside sacks of potatoes and rice in Indonesia. 'People just collect it in sugar sacks, milk cartons, anything,' he said.

Dieldrin, Aldrin, heptachlor and chlordane, all highly toxic pesticides banned in the U.S.,are freely marketed in Malaysia according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. In some cases the main importers of the dangerous chemicals are local plants of the Western companies selling them. A Standard Oil of California subsidiary in Costa Rica is the main importer of pesticides restricted in North America.

There is virtually no control at present over the worldwide sale and use of dangerous chemicals and pesticides. In fact much of the trade is strictly speaking legal. There's no law that says U.S. companies, for example, can't dump their banned stockpiles in the Third World.

Unless Western governments take steps to prohibit multinationals from dumping dangerous chemicals and pesticides, the poor in the Third World are going to end up the ultimate losers in our efforts to curb pollution and police environmental poisoning. And as more chemicals come under intense scrutiny by health and environment-conscious critics in the West the temptation to shuttle them elsewhere will increase.

New Internationalist issue 089 magazine cover This article is from the July 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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