Environment, Health, News November 14, 2017

Years Before Vietnam, the Chemical Industry Knew About Dioxins

by Jonathan Latham

Petra Sorge (BuzzFeed Contributor)

On 17 November 1953 a catastrophic accident took place at a German chemical plant owned by BASF (Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrik). Production went badly out of control and dozens of workers came into contact with the reaction contents, which contained the chemical dioxin (principally 2,3,7,8-TCDD). These workmen developed chloracne, what a Monsanto medical doctor was later to describe as “horrible skin eruptions with nearly blister-like welts and some ulcerations where infections ensued”  (link p506). These welts were found on “the face, neck, arms, and upper half of the body.”

Symptoms spread insidiously: a week after the accident six BASF workers were ill, two months later sixteen, a year later 60 workers showed symptoms. They complained not only about their pustules, but also of insomnia, dizziness, joint pain, and a loss of libido.

Ten days after the initial accident, BASF placed caged rabbits into the facility for “24-48 hours”. Two weeks later, not a single animal remained alive. An autopsy showed them to have died from acute liver failure.

The industry keeps the poison a secret

Dioxin is a chlorinated chemical compound that occurs especially when certain chemicals, such as trichlorophenol, overheat. Chemical companies have used trichlorophenol for decades in the production of pesticides. It is this manufacturing route that caused dioxins to become known worldwide as an unintentional contaminant in the defoliant “Agent Orange”, which the US Army deployed massively in the Vietnam war. Up to this day local people and soldiers are suffering its consequences.

But the letter from the Monsanto physician, stamped “Confidential”, is dated 1956, well before the Vietnam war. It is part of an extensive correspondence between German chemical manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim and US chemical group Dow. From such correspondence it can be concluded that the chemical industry knew of what one called “the extraordinary danger of the tetrachlorobenzodioxin”, yet kept it secret.

Dow Confidential letter June 1965
Dow Confidential letter June 1965

The lengthy history of these closely held chloracne scandals is now available for the world to see for the first time.

It can be found in the Poison Papers, a data trove now in the public domain containing over 20,000 files about the chemical industry, and only now released by American environmental activists and researchers.

These Poison Paper documents expose, in particular, the interactions of the industry, politics and the US military.

20,000 files of chemical industry scandals

The Poison Papers date back to the 1920s. They show that German and American chemical companies knew early on how extremely poisonous dioxins were, but kept this shared knowledge under lock and key for years. They not only paid off injured employees. They also apparently tested dioxin on human subjects. And still they kept silent even though 2,4,5-T was sprayed on US fields until the 1980s.

(The US Environmental Agency, EPA, has not yet responded to Buzzfeed News. Bayer and BASF said that they could not research such an extensive inquiry into historical operations on short notice. Boehringer Ingelheim responded after the article’s publication, but only to questions about Agent Orange. BASF did confirm, however, that there were skin diseases among employees in the 1953 dioxin accident, after which the company discontinued the production of trichlorophenol in Ludwigshafen.)

As the files show, Monsanto’s interest in the BASF accident stemmed from its own chloracne epidemic following an accident at Nitro, W. Virginia, in 1949.

Dow internal letter March, 10, 1965
Dow internal letter March, 10, 1965

Representatives of Monsanto and BASF therefore met in Ohio, in 1956, with researchers from the Kettering Laboratory of the University of Cincinnati. The Monsanto representative kept minutes, which he sent directly to Monsanto medical director, Dr Emmet Kelly.

The Kettering Laboratory, according to these minutes, had already made “human and animal experiments” to reproduce chloracne in experimental subjects. The problem, however, was that in none of the tests on rabbits, rats, cats, dogs and pigs could chloracne be seen. So the participants agree “to employ human volunteers” to correlate animal and human symptoms.

Experiments with dioxins on humans

According to the minutes, human test subjects had an ointment with trichlorophenol from Monsanto production batches, and also those from Diamond Chemical Company, repeatedly applied to their arms. The positive control group was annointed with Halowax 1014 (a chlorinated napthalene), a substance already known to stimulate acne. Attending doctors could not detect any changes to liver function, but some test subjects developed localised chloracne.

BASF would not confirm to BuzzFeed Germany whether it had also tested its trichlorophenol or dioxin residues on humans back then.

At the meeting in Ohio, the Monsanto minutes noted that Dr Oettel, of BASF, reported tests on four toxic substances. One contaminant – the dioxin 2,3,7,8-TCDD – tested strongest. According to the minutes “Dr Oettel is convinced that this is the active agent.”

The papers show that other companies as well had problems early on with chloracne among workers. Dr Oettel reported that Boehringer Ingelheim also “had many cases of chlor-acne for many years”. The minute taker noted in brackets: “I also learned at Bayer that they have experienced chloracne during the production of trichlorophenol but ‘have now licked the problem’.”

When and how many such accidents there were, the Bayer press office could not find out before press time, but they offered BuzzFeed News access to the company archives.

One year later – in 1957 – as the New York Times later reported, Boehringer Ingelheim wrote to all trichlorophenol manufacturers about their findings.

At Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, a major new outbreak of chloracne occurred in 1964/65. Up to 70 people were affected. But Dow Chemical had apparently either forgotten or ignored the Boehringer letter from 1957. In any event, on 19 December 1964 Boehringer Ingelheim, in response to a request from Dow, described their experiences with dioxin.

Boehringer wrote: “Until now we have disclosed the content of this report to no one outside of our company, as we attach a special value thereto, because the extraordinary danger of tetrachlorobenzodioxin is not generally known”.

Apparently the chemical companies had no interest in sharing their knowledge of the highly toxic effect of dioxins.

Soon after, in January 1965 representatives from Dow Chemical and Boehringer Ingelheim participated in a teleconference. Dow Chemical inquires about a confidentiality agreement. A representative from Boehringer promised to look into this immediately. He was certain the papers had already “been mailed” “. The US colleague was delighted that the Germans were so “extremely cooperative” and “genuinely concerned for our problem”. Two months later both companies completed a contract for Boehringer Ingelheim to supply trichlorophenol, which both firms know is probably highly toxic, to the US from now on.

1965 letter fom Dow's Trapp
1965 letter fom Dow’s Trapp

So explosive is the information about dioxin, that Dow Chemical, Diamond Alkali, Hercules Power, and the Hooker Chemical Corporation met that same month, on 24 March 1965, for a “Chloracne Problem Meeting”. The minutes drafted five days later show that the Hooker representative reports that their affected employees had developed symptoms as much as thirty years after one single contact with dioxin.

One of the participating companies seemingly feels remorse: Hercules believes that the Public Health Service “would be very happy to get in the act”, as Monsanto’s medical director, Dr. Emmet Kelly wrote later. He himself prefers that we “first firm up our analytical methods, and then devise ways to minimise the presence of this known chloracne agent” since this is obviously a “potent carcinogen”, that is, a highly carcinogenic substance. Kelly adds that “[we] will never know how close we are to having another epidemic at Nitro, and we certainly don’t want to go through that again.”

Monsanto falsified studies on dioxins

Monsanto didn’t just prevent the public from finding out about the toxicity of dioxins. The company actively falsified studies on the subject. In 1985 Monsanto medical director George Roush declared under oath that he had known of such manipulations, according to a different Poison Papers file in which 27 cancer cases of workers exposed to dioxins were excluded from a peer-reviewed scientific study.

This rigged study was instrumental in the US Environmental Protection Agency failing to regulate dioxins, explain the Poison Paper publishers. The same falsification additionally protected manufacturers against the lawsuits of Agent Orange victims.

[Neither the EPA nor Monsanto responded to the allegations in multiple requests from BuzzFeed News.]

According to the Poison Papers, the National Institute of Health, which comes under the US Department of Health, first was informed of the danger of dioxin in February 1970. In a letter thanking Dow Chemical, the Research Director of the Health, Education and Welfare Department described the data on toxicity as “quite astonishing and most informative for us”.

In 1979, Dow Chemical was still attempting to resist a ban on 2,4,5-T, a component of Agent Orange. In its internal annual planning, the company describes cooperation with the environmental authorities. According to the minutes, the company wants to support the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in, among other things, analyzing dioxin in breast milk. The EPA had already found dioxin in breast milk, but “falsely discredited its own studies”, according to the initiators of the Poison Paper project.

Meanwhile in Europe one of the last factories worldwide where trichlorophenol had been produced, closed. North of Milan dioxin had escaped following a chemical plant explosion in 1976 after which approximately 200 people in Seveso and nearby communities fell ill with chloracne.

In 1984 the disastrous history of dioxin ended also for Boehringer Ingelheim. A chemical plant in Hamburg which produced insecticide was closed. An inspector had found dioxin residues in the pesticide.

One of the biggest leaks in the history of the chemical industry

The Poison Papers are one of the biggest leaks in the history of the chemical industry. They were begun by 76-year-old author and activist Carol Van Strum. Since the mid 1970s Van Strum has been litigating to gain access to EPA files relevant to dioxins and herbicide spraying. As reported by The Intercept, she stockpiled around 100,000 pages of paper in a mouldy barn in the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon.

In the 70s and early 80s spraying was carried out in the forest and around Van Strum’s house. Her children developed nosebleeds, diarrhoea, and headaches. In the neighborhood, miscarriages became common. Rangers and the public reported blind elks, ducks with twisted feet, and birds with crooked beaks. Dogs and cats bled from their eyes.

In 1977, Carol Van Strum filed her first lawsuit. Her house burnt to the ground and she lost all four children in the tragedy. Although the firefighters guessed arson as a cause, the accident was never investigated. Only in 1983 did the National Forest administration switch to other herbicides.

Jonathan Latham, director of Bioscience Resource Project in Ithaca, New York, and the Center for Media and Democracy have helped rescue large portions of Van Strum’s files and digitized them for the Poison Papers.

In conversation with Buzzfeed Germany, Dr Latham told us: “The papers clearly show that the authorities very often did not regulate the industry, but protected it instead.” Van Strum’s papers document, often for the first time, according to Latham, “that the dangers of highly toxic substances have been hushed up and played down for decades.”

Translated from an article in BuzzFeed Germany, 24 August 2017, by EL Cobb.

Update 26 August, 2017 07:09, by Daniel Drepper, Editor in Chief, BuzzFeed Germany

The day after publication, the public relations officer of Bayer, Christian Maertin, expressed annoyance by e-mail (and on Twitter), about the wording in this text. Maertin criticized BuzzFeed News for offering only a 24-hour response period for long-past events. This is despite the fact that this article was published 14 days after Bayer was contacted.

In his criticism Maertin ignores the fact that in its inquiry, BuzzFeed News offered, because of the short turnaround time, to allow him to submit answers later, which BuzzFeed would then insert accordingly. So far, Bayer has not availed itself of this opportunity.

It is moreover interesting that Bayer spokesperson Christian Maertin focuses on our exchanges – and not on the substance of the research, the years of concealment of Bayer’s findings on highly toxic dioxin.

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Comments 7
  • Thank you for bringing these papers to the “light of day”! We need to know what is killing us and making our lives miserable. Keep the good investigating going, but be aware of the toes bring tread upon, they can be nasty responders.

  • From Prof Steven Rose:
    There’s more to it than this.

    In 1968 doctors from Vietnam showed data on the effects of the defoliants – notably Agent Orange – to the CBW conference in London – published under my editorship by Harrap the following year. In 1970/71 Hilary Rose and I interviewed refugees from S Vietnam about the effects of the defoliant sprays on them. Her and my report of the effects of Agent Orange was published – after some struggle – in Science, 177, 710-712 1972 . The Vietnamese testimony was routinely downplayed by the US – even by those opposed to the defoliation program on the grounds that it was N Vietnamese propaganda.

    Only when the US vets began to suffer the same effects was it taken seriously.

    In the same years, I was approached in secrecy by a chemical engineer who worked for Shell, telling me of an accident at a Shell factory in the north of England making the defoliants. The workers sent in to clean up the mess were affected by the dioxin residues, and suffered persistent and ineradicable chloracne and worse. The contaminated steel vessels were I think finally buried.

    I don’t know whether The Poison Papers cover this episode, but it should not be forgotten.

    Steven Rose

  • I’m really surprised that it has taken this long to come out. I sent the papers to Blue Water Vets maybe 10 years ago. A university scientist lead me to them.

  • Hello, please see my story at donnatornoe.com
    I am fighting for recognition of the government’s use of Agent Purple and Orange in Panama Canal Zone on its members of the military and dependents, as well as DDT, Chlordane, Toxaphene, Silvex, and many others. First started in 1942. I wrote a book about it called The Travels of Orange and other toxins. Veterans can register at PCZVA.com or Thailandvets.com who have been exposed. They used this stuff on every base and all over the United States and have been covering up documents for over 70 years.

  • 245T was a problem in New Zealand too. According to this article the New Zealand Dow plant closed in 1987
    http://www.investigatemagazine.com/poisoning_of_new_zealand%20OCT2000.htm

    Many here have been affected and no one will acknowledge that people have been poisoned.

  • Wow, and yet we have all this information and we can’t just go after the manufacture of the agent(s)? We know where they used it, we have thousands if not millions of people affected by 2-4-5-T and other agents . We need a class action lawsuit against monsanto, DOW, and the Department of Defense. how many people does it take to get resolve?

  • Amazing, I’ve been diagnosed with Bile Duct Cancer and don’t accept it was just some unexplained rare occurrence. In 1983 I worked in the Ironbound section of Newark on the property adjacent to Diamond Alkali plant and was greeted by EPA officials in full Bio Hazards suits taking reading. The entire area is now a Superfund sight and Passaic River is still full of the dioxin pumped in the water by Alkali. My Tumor mutations show damage to the tumor suppressors by exposure to toxic chemicals. Interesting to see in the above article that Hooker Chemical Corporations said their employees showed the effect of Dioxin 30 years after a single exposure to this toxic compound. Thanks for this informative and helpful article. The damage done to peoples health and lives will be hard to calculate.

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