Dow's corporate profile
1. The Menace from Midland
In 1985, after leaving his position as president of Dow's operations in Europe to become Dow Chemical's chief executive officer, Frank Popoff said he felt "The world coming together into a one world industry in chemistry." Not everyone shares Popoff's views on industrial chemicals. Popoff, who takes home just under a million a year from Dow, sees the world coming together in chemistry. But Tom Adams, who lives in Franken, Michigan, sees the same world falling apart as a result of chemistry.
Franken is not far away from Midland, Michigan, the world headquarters of Dow. Adams is a member of a grassroots organization called STORM (Stop Trashing Our Resources in Michigan) Action which, in response to the company's plan to burn Agent Orange waste at a new toxics incinerator in Midland, is resuming the "Dow shall not kill" campaign that was staged in the 1960s. In addition to calling for Dow to close the incinerator, STORM Action intends to press the company to eliminate chlorine use in its manufacturing and to institute a number of other broad changes in company policy.
100 years of Dow Henry
Dow came to Midland in 1890 to begin extracting bromine from one of the hundreds of brine wells under the town. Dow's experiments soon produced chlorine, sodium, magnesium and calcium, and he formed the Midland Chemical Company. Chlorine bleach was the company's first product. In 1897, Dow renamed the company after himself, and it soon became one of the leaders in the reinvention of the world by organic chemists.
U.S. chemical manufacturers were given a boost in World War I as the country cut ties with the world-leading German chemical producers, which held virtual monopolies on many compounds. Dow produced picric acid and mustard gas for the war effort. In World War II, Dow made magnesium for bombs, as well as styrene and butadiene used in the production of synthesized rubber. Dow's magnesium plant on the Texas Gulf was the first of the numerous petrochemical complexes that operate there today. Dow's research for World War II led to the development of many new plastics, including Saran wrap and styrofoam. With the introduction of these consumer products in the 1950s, Dow's sales quadrupled. Using oil as a feedstock, the newly formed petrochemical industry boomed. It would go on to redesign the U.S. economy and culture and agriculture.
Today, Dow manufactures over 2,000 products, chiefly chemicals and synthetic plastics. Historically, Dow has principally sold commodities, like styrofoam, in bulk to other industries. Bulk sales have fallen 20 percent, however, as Dow has diversified, expanding its consumer products and moving into pharmaceuticals, building materials and, most recently, energy. Dow, the second largest U.S. chemical corporation behind DuPont and sixth in the world, operates 181 plants in 32 countries and employs 62,000 people worldwide. Dow's sales were $19.8 billion in 1990, with over half of its sales outside the United States.
Pollutants and politics at Dow
As the century comes to a close, the petrochemical industry is facing mounting criticism from environmentalists. Some, such as Barry Commoner, founder of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queen's College of the City University of New York, say that mild reform is not enough and that the industry must be shut down altogether. For Dow and other chemical producers, this poses not a moral or technological dilemma, but a political one. It is not a new problem for Dow. Dow Chemical became a household name and experienced its first public relations problems in the 1960s as a result of its production of Agent Orange. The major supplier of the Agent Orange defoliant used by the U.S. Army in Vietnam with devastating consequences, the company was the subject of numerous protests, including the "Dow shall not kill" campaign. At the company's annual shareholders' meeting in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, then-company chair Herbert Henry Doan addressed public concern by breaking with the company's past tradition of strongly opposing all regulation and touted government intervention as important to the industry.
The second time the company dedicated its end-of-the-year summary to environmental concerns was in 1990, just prior to the 20-year anniversary of Earth Day. There is a photo of a marsh and geese on the cover of the 1989 annual report along with text reading,
"One issue, more than any other, will affect Dow's prospects--in the '9Os and beyond. That issue is the environment."
Dow's current "environmentalism"--Popoff says he is one of the company's 62,000 environmentalists--comes not only in the context of surging public concern about the environment, but in response to a severe image problem Dow experienced in the early 1980s. Dow had renewed its militantly anti-regulatory posture, was receiving attention for polluting the air, land and water around Midland and was arguing aggressively that dioxin is not harmful to humans (a position it still maintains).
A 1983 Washington Post article on the company's record contained the headline: "Dow Comes Under Attack for its Pollutants and Its Politics." The Post reported that Dow had just hired Hill and Knowlton, the public relations firm, to remake its image. Now, the company touts its awards, such as the World Environment Center's 1989 Gold Medal for International Corporate Achievement, awarded for Dow's five-year, $860 million investment in "environmental health and safety" initiatives such as its Waste Reduction Always Pays (WRAP) program. The company also plays up its "CONSERVATION 2000: A Dow Commitment to Protect the Environment" initiative, featuring a four-year "Partnership for Wetlands Conservation" with the environmental organizations Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation. Dow plans to donate $3 million to the wetlands protection effort. In 1990, Dow founded a new branch of its research and development department, called "Research for the Environment," to develop more "environmentally friendly" products. Much of the research is being conducted through joint ventures or subsidiaries.
Despite the company's high-profile public relations campaign and its substantial investment in research, Dow remains a major source of pollution. Though the company emphasizes that it is only a minor contributor to many toxic dump sites, as of January 1990 it was the eighth most often named Superfund polluter, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designating it as a potentially responsible party at 24 Superfund sites. Perhaps more significantly, the company produces a wide array of hazardous products which poison the environment through everyday use.
For example, according to the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP), Dow's pesticide Dursban--which became a very popular termite exterminant when the EPA banned Chlordane--is creating health problems, ranging from headaches and nausea to behavioral problems in children, throughout the United States. Susan Cooper of NCAMP says that at least one out of every two telephone calls that her office receives concerns Dursban.
The company's products, including those not permitted to be sold in the United States, take their greatest toll in the Third World. The San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network (PAN) reports that Dow produced or distributed three pesticides included on PAN's "Dirty Dozen" list until the late 1980s: EDB, pentachlorophenol and DBCP. DBCP and EDB are both carcinogens and penta damages the liver, kidney and central nervous systems. The effects of DBCP have been widely publicized due to an innovative law suit filed against Dow and Shell Oil [see "The South's Day in Court," Multinational Monitor, July/August 1990].
The EPA ordered a phaseout of DBCP on food and later banned all pesticides containing the substance. The action came after DBCP contaminated groundwater in an area of thousands of square miles in the central valley in California and made agricultural workers who were exposed to it sterile. Aware of the pesticide's devastating effects, Dow sold much of its stockpile of DBCP to the Dole Corporation, which used it on banana plantations in Costa Rica. Farmworkers there applied DBCP until they began experiencing numerous health problems, including infertility; their experience led the Costa Rican government to ban the pesticide in 1979. In 1990, the affected Costa Rican workers and their attorneys succeeded in persuading the Texas Supreme Court to allow their case to be heard in Texas. The case was the first in the United States to be brought against a U.S. corporation for crimes committed in another country against foreigners. One thousand workers are now seeking to recover damages from Dow and Shell, another producer of the pesticide.
Dow's joint venture with Eli Lilly, DowElanco, exports two pesticides from the United States which are not registered with the EPA. The EPA has refused DowElanco's registration application for haloxyfop, an herbicide marketed under the names "Gallant" and "Verdict," and has classified it as a "probable human carcinogen." According to a July 1990 Greenpeace report, "Never-Registered Pesticides," haloxyfop is used in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe. The EPA has refused to set a permissible amount of residue (known as food residue tolerances) for both haloxyfop and nuarimol, a DowElanco product sold under the trade names "Gauntlet" and "Tridal." The EPA refused to permit any nuarimol residues on food because it creates cancer and birth defects in laboratory animals. Nevertheless, Greenpeace reports that nuarimol is used in Africa, Colombia and Honduras and Europe. Though the EPA technically bans haloxyfop or nuarimol residues on food sold in the United States, they are likely to appear anyway, since "food is rarely tested for residues at the border," according to the Greenpeace report.
Even a number of the company's so-called environmental initiatives and allegedly environmental friendly policies threaten the environment, often by diverting attention from alternatives or the need to develop alternatives to existing hazardous products. Dow is a member, for example, of the "Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy," a business group which, according to its policy statement, works "to ensure that the establishment of reasonable government policies regarding the further regulation of CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] and protection of the stratospheric ozone layer be pursued on an international basis and be based on sound scientific facts."
Dow does not produce CFCs, but it uses them in its production of styrofoam. Having refused to acknowledge that CFCs destroy the ozone layer until 1988, the Alliance and Dow are now delaying the phase-out of CFCs and promoting the use of HCFCs. HCFCs--which were known as a type of CFC until 1988, when the industry renamed them in order to make them environmentally palatable--deplete up to 95 percent less ozone than CFCs, but they still contribute to ozone destruction. Environmentalists argue that it is critical to immediately stop producing ozone-destroying chemicals because CFCs continue to deplete ozone for such a long period of time.
"Even if all CFC production had stopped in 1990, stratospheric ozone depletion would increase until at least 2010," reports Patrick McCully in the May/June 1991 Ecologut.
Any additional depletion will increase the incidence of diseases associated with increased exposure to ultraviolet light due to ozone depletion, including skin cancer and blindness due to cataracts. Dow is also a vocal and prominent advocate of plastics recycling. Along with seven other plastics manufacturers, Dow formed the National Polystyrene Recycling Company, with a goal of recycling 25 percent of the polystyrene used for food service and packaging applications in the United States. It has entered into an arrangement with the U.S. Department of the Interior to promote recycling in U.S. national parks. The program's focus is on recycling plastics. In announcing it, Popoff said, "It is time to recognize these materials not as waste but as renewable resources. Plastics are renewable resources, the same as glass, aluminum and paper." Dow hopes to have recycled plastics returned as picnic tables, park benches and other products.
The problem with plastics recycling, however, is that it is not really recycling. As Commoner explains, the "system is not closed." Plastics can only be recycled into lower grade plastics. Used styrofoam cups, for example, might be used to make a picnic table, but they cannot be recycled as styrofoam. New styrofoam will have to be manufactured to create new cups. Essentially all recycling plastics does, Commoner says, is create one more market for the industry.
In the energy field, where Dow is venturing with its subsidiary Destec, the story is similar. Dow and Destec are currently developing alternative fuels, chiefly what they call a "clean coal technology," syngas. Syngas is produced by burning hydrocarbons off of low-grade coal and removing the sulfur. Huge stockpiles of low-grade coal exist in U.S. reserves, so this energy source is plentiful, but gasified coal has its critics. Dr. Jim Mackenzie of the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank, believes that developing "clean coal technology" today is too little, too late. "It's trying to put the finishing touches on an industry that should be phased out. We've got to reduce carbon emissions by 50 to 80 percent if we want to prevent catastrophic effects of global warming." Coal burning emits more carbon than any other major source of fuel, and Dow's technology does not reduce carbon emissions.
Downscaling the petrochemical industry
While Dow appears to have made some genuine progress in waste and pollution emissions reduction, the fact that many of its so- called solutions in fact perpetuate the problems they are supposed to address helps reveal the intractability of the problems caused by the petrochemical industry itself. No matter how environmentally-friendly Dow claims to be, it is unlikely that company executives will ever acknowledge that the industry is an environmental hazard and that the use of chemicals and plastics must be drastically reduced if the planet is to remain habitable for humans.
Of course, a company such as Dow will not welcome proposals to terminate certain lines of its industry. When asked to comment on the assertion that the environment would best be helped by reducing or eliminating pesticides in agriculture and replacing them with sustainable methods like integrated pest management, crop rotation and natural predators, a company spokesperson said, "Obviously we would disagree with that."
Historically, Dow has also disagreed with a number of other important health and environmental claims. It denied that Agent Orange seriously injured thousands of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam (the Vietnamese have never been able to use U.S. courts to demand that Dow, other Agent Orange manufacturers and the U.S. government compensate them for the far more serious effect Agent Orange had on their health and safety), for example, and that dioxin threatens human life. That Dow opposes proposals to massively downscale worldwide dependence on petrochemicals is no surprise--but that is no reason not to do it.
By Ross Brockley
Ross Brockley is a freelance writer living in West Virginia.