If you’re of a certain age, hearing the words “Dow Chemical” will send a chill right down your spine. Dow’s two most notorious (and lucrative) products, napalm and Agent Orange, were heavily used during the Vietnam war.
Napalm was a flammable liquid, a mixture of a gelling agent and gasoline that, when sprayed, stuck to the victim’s skin and caused severe burns. Probably the single most iconic image of the Vietnam war was that of a running nine-year-old girl suffering burns from a napalm attack on her village. Forty years later, she’s still in pain every day.
If it’s possible to imagine a product more horrifying than napalm, it would have to be Agent Orange, an herbicide (kills plants) and defoliant (removes leaves from trees and plants) developed at the University of Chicago. Although some Agent Orange was used in World War 2 against the Japanese, dropping an atomic bomb (also a U of C product) on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made Agent Orange unnecessary.
The US sprayed roughly 20 million gallons of Agent Orange over Vietnamese crops, jungles, and people, destroying millions of acres and sending Dow Chemical stock soaring.
Health effects of Agent Orange
The human health effects of exposure to Agent Orange turned out to be disastrous. The Red Cross estimates that one million Vietnamese suffered disabilities or chronic health problems, a number vehemently disputed by both Dow and the US government.
When US soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange, their wives had miscarriages, their children were born with birth defects, and the soldiers themselves had a higher incidence of cancers and leukemias. However, getting disability compensation proved to be an uphill battle, with both Dow Chemical and the Veterans Administration denying war-related compensation for decades on the grounds that the veterans had become ill after the war was over.
Today you can view the grim bequest left to our men and women in uniform by Dow (and our government) by looking at the aptly named US Department of Veterans Affairs page “Veterans’ Diseases Associated with Agent Orange.”
I’m telling you all this to provide some historical background not only on Dow Chemical, but on our own government. While I’m glad the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) exists, if for no other reason than to give us some awareness of our toxic environment, I just wish they were doing a better job, regardless of who happens to be in the White House.
Dow’s chlorpyrifos: it’s what’s for dinner
Now on to chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide developed by Dow in 1965 and a serious moneymaker, sold worldwide under a variety of brands. It works on the brain chemistry of insects by inhibiting the important brain chemical acetylcholinesterase.
We humans have a lot of acetylcholinesterase in our own brains too, and exposure to chlorpyrifos has been linked to neurological effects in children, autoimmune disorders, and increased cancer risks. During pregnancy, chlorpyrifos has been shown to retard mental development in babies. Children are especially susceptible, their detoxifying systems not being fully developed until adulthood.
Except where chlorpyrifos has been banned, the world uses a lot of it, mainly on fruit trees and leafy plants like spinach. It was also used on lawns, especially golf courses, and for termite control. On the guardedly plus side, in 2000 chlorpyrifos was banned for home use and in 2012 in no-spray zones around schools, but still six million pounds of the stuff is sprayed in the US every year, 25% of it in California alone.
For years, a battery of environmental groups, including the Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council, has been pressuring the EPA to ban chlorpyrifos altogether. Finally in 2015, environmentalists took the EPA to court for a complete ban. Obviously Dow Chemical “remained confident” about the safety of chlorpyrifos and confirmed that it had been well studied, despite the fact that in 2000 it was fined $2 million for making fraudulent safety claims.
If you’re inclined to trust Dow’s claims, read this damning overview with its descriptions of ruined children and decide for yourself.
The status of chlorpyrifos was up in the air when President Obama left office. Environmental groups were hugely disappointed that the EPA had dragged its feet on a decision, capitulating to pressure not only from Dow, but also from pesticide and agricultural trade associations.
One of the most hotly debated issues concerned the amount of chlorpyrifos left on fruit after being washed. Scientists felt that even though “most” was removed, the small amount left on the fruit (residual toxicity) could accumulate and cause a person to develop clinical manifestations and an unpredictable future. Again, this argument was too vague to convince the authorities or Dow. Here’s a list of foods with the highest and lowest amounts of chlorpyrifos residue.
The purpose of today’s Health Tip is mainly to let you know that when it comes to protecting your health, you shouldn’t rely on the government (regardless of which party is in control) to give you a straight answer. There are simply too many conflicting interests (lobbying groups, trade associations, equivocating and donation-controlled politicians) to trust anyone except yourself with your health and that of your family.
For the time being, the public is the loser on chlorpyrifos. In January, 2017, Dow Chemical donated $1 million to President Trump’s inauguration fund. On March 30, 2017, the president’s newly appointed head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, denied the petition to ban chlorpyrifos, which had been filed in 2007 by the Pesticide Action Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Here’s the nutshell version:
“By reversing the previous Administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than predetermined results,” Pruitt said Wednesday.
Environmental groups pointed to recent studies showing even minuscule amounts of chlorpyrifos, sold by Dow Chemical, can interfere with brain development of fetuses, infants and children. They accused Pruitt of putting the interests of big business over people.”
Details of the lengthy denial are here. Apparently, farmers will be able to use chlorpyrifos on anything they like.
Here’s what I suggest. Eat as cleanly as you can, choosing pastured eggs, organic milk products, and responsibly produced meat. This approach costs a little more, but one way to offset that cost is to eat less meat and more vegetables and fruits. Take a look at the Dirty Dozen, listing foods that carry the highest level of pesticides. Purchase organic versions of these foods. While you’re at the link, scan the least contaminated list too, maybe even printing it out to take along to the store. It’s useful to know, for example, that a fruit as nutritious and delicious as an avocado need not be purchased organic.
Babies love pureed fruits and vegetables, so ensure baby food is organic as well. The easiest way to do this is to make your own—it’s simple, cost effective, and gives your child a low-pesticide start to life.
Finally, though there have been no clinical studies on most nutritional products sold in stores, this particular one contains 38 separate ingredients known to enhance the ability of your liver to remove the toxins you have (inadvertently) ingested and absorbed.
David Edelberg, MD