In 1976 Awad Esmaiel was twelve years old. He and five other, aged between 10 and 18, had volunteered to be guineapigs for an insecticide-spraying experiment with Galecron. This chemical, highly effective on cotton pests, was being tested in Egypt by its manufacturer, the Swiss firm Ciba-Geigy. It is likely that Ciba-Geigy already knew of Galecron’s carcinogenic properties before the spraying of the children. For an academic periodical had published a paper establishing this four years previously on 5-CAT, the break-down product contained in the active substance chlordimeform (CDF) for which Galecron is a brand name. Galecron is classed as a low-to-medium carcinogen, based on available data, but its toxicity in humans is still undertested.
After being sprayed with Galecron the Egyptian children (who wore no protective clothing for the experiment) complained of eye irritation, head and stomach aches, diarrhoea and dizziness. Other symptoms of CDF poisoning include blood in the urine. Ciba-Geigy’s own documents on the trials, leaked to the Swiss Third World group Declaration of Berne, show that the children s urine samples carried CDF residues of as much as 3 mg per kilo of urine (mg/l).
This is way above the UN’s Food and Agriculture and World Health Organisations’ suggested limit and is higher even than Giba-Geigy’s own acceptable daily intake level.
Ciba-Geigy is the world’s fifteenth largest chemical company. Agrochemicals account for 86 per cent of its sales and business is booming. After-tax profits for 1982 leapt 19 per cent in a year to 622 million Swiss francs (US$308m).
Galecron appeared on the pesticides market in 1966. It was used in Switzerland and other countries on fruit trees and vines until 1976 when production was suspended. Test on mice at this time were showing tumours which Ciba-Geigy called ‘an exceptional case from which one cannot conclude that there is a reisk for human beings.’
But the company was obviously not persuaded by its own argument. In the same year as Galecron was sprayed on the Egyptian adolescents, 1976, the Swiss production factory at Monthey was closed down and completely detoxicated. It was then partially rebuilt at a cost of 10 million Swiss francs (US$4.95m) and incorporated a sophisticated ‘closed system’ of production. Rigorous precautions rivalling those of a nuclear power station are now in force. The remote-controlled manufacturing process takes place in a sealed-off area. If someone has to go into this section, they must wear full protective clothing. When they re-emerge they must take two showers and the clothing is discarded. Workers’ urine is frequently checked and they are transferred immediately to another part of the operations if their urine samples show they are reaching the company’s internal annual threshold level.
Having put their own house in order, Ciba-Geigy bounced back into the marketplace with Galecron in 1978. First it got the green light in United States, then Australia, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Ciba-Geigy justified the phoenix-like reappearance of Galecron by saying that the ‘thousands of analyses of urine carried out show that contamination of users can be kept to a very low level, so long as the safety and protection measures laid down by Ciba-Geigy are respected’.
That’s exactly where the hitch is. Ciba-Geigy’s confidential studies on CDF contamination of cottonfield workers, spray-plane pilots, signallers and workers who actually mix and load the pesticide into the planes show the real danger which local people are exposed to. From Egypt, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador during 1976-1980 the story is the same: nearly 40 per cent of the urine samples analysed contained residues higher than the company’s maximum threshold. That’s more than just an aberration.
During an independent investigation in the cotton fields of Mexico in 1981 a former Ciba-Geigy laboratory worker Kurt Schläpfer found many cases of people working without the protection theoretically required for handling Galecron. Using the company s own methods of analysis, 61 per cent of the urine samples he tested were above the 0.3 mg/l daily limit, including one unfortunate man loading the chemical who clocked up an unhealthy 26 mg/I of the poison.
According to Ciba-Geigy spokesmen, the safety requirements for producing and using Galecron are equally valid whether near or far from company headquarters. In an extensive interview with our correspondent Marie Bonnard at the company headquarters in Basle they rejected any comparison between the Swiss factory at Monthey and the Third World’s cotton fields. In the Monthey factory it is a question of a pure active agent being produced day in day out in the Third World the substance is diluted and used for a relatively short period, the Ciba-Geigy spokesmen assert. Yet Ciba-Geigy’s own that during only three weeks of working with CDF in Colombia, six peasants accumulated more than a Swiss factory worker is allowed over one year.
From its own documents it is quite clear that Ciba-Geigy knows that Third World workers in field and factory are badly contaminated with CDF. This makes it hard to accept Ciba-Geigy spokesman’s comment that ‘we do all we can to ensure that our directives are followed in other countries.’ These directives include that Galecron is only to be used on cotton plants and that it be sprayed by plane. In theory, there should be closed mixing and filling systems as well as provision of protective clothing and masks. People should not re-enter a sprayed field within 24 hours.
The reality is rather different. Many cotton field and crop-spraying workers in Mexico s Baja California region found it impossible to wear regular protective clothing in the excessive heat — even if such clothing were available, which it mostly was not. Kurt Schläpfer found that the almost illiterate workers often did not know what they were handling and of course could not read any instructions or warnings. People ate and drank on site with the chemical. There was no supervision by the manufacturer’s representative. Spray from the plane wafted capriciously over adjoining fields, houses, people, animals, food and water supplies. One worker remarked that he took a shower with different pesticides several times a day. When asked how he could carry on he said ‘You have to get used to it because if I am ill there is no money. If I get weaker I could profits could be ploughed into developing acceptable lightweight protective clothing for tropical use.
Ciba-Geigy knows full well how stretched Third World governments are when it comes to this kind of tight protective regulations. Mexico. for instance, has 18 laboratories for pesticide-residue testing but nearly all are concerned with inspecting food destined for the United States, since her neighbour has kicked up a fuss and rejected contaminated food at the border. Perhaps the Mexican government has got its priorities skewed, putting food exports before the health of her own people but it also underlines the desperation of a country deeply in debt to sell her goods. Spray-plane companies could also be held responsible for negligence in not providing protective clothing. Yet there is doubt that Ciba-Geigy and other firms acquiesce in the injustice by their forceful promotion, lack of information or publicly available studies on the hazards of their products. It is not known whether follow-up surveys on the health of Third World workers have been carried out or what help is available to those who may get ill as a result of handling Galecron. But we can guess.
The follow-up to the Galecron affair in Egypt is interesting. At the end of February 1983 the Egyptian government, before Parliament, denied all knowledge of the experiments on adolescents although Ciba-Geigy say that they had been informed. Today Galecron is no longer used in that country. ‘For economic reasons’ comments a spokesman, although the firm told an American journalist that Egypt had banned it because of the impossibility of implementing the safety precautions.
To its credit, Ciba-Geigy does accept that it has a duty to inform: ‘that is everything and it is essential.’ says spokesman Simon-P Jacot, ‘It is a question of morality. ’It is indeed a question of morality that all over the Third World poisonous chemicals are sold with little warning of their dangers and a question of morality that double standards exist between CDF levels in Third World people and rich world workers.