Toxic Injustice: A Transnational History of Exposure and Struggle

Toxic Injustice: A Transnational History of Exposure and Struggle

by Susanna Rankin Bohme

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The pesticide dibromochloropropane, known as DBCP, was developed by the chemical companies Dow and Shell in the 1950s to target wormlike, soil-dwelling creatures called nematodes. Despite signs that the chemical was dangerous, it was widely used in U.S. agriculture and on Chiquita and Dole banana plantations in Central America. In the late 1970s, DBCP was linked to male sterility, but an uneven regulatory process left many workers—especially on Dole’s banana farms—exposed for years after health risks were known.

Susanna Rankin Bohme tells an intriguing, multilayered history that spans fifty years, highlighting the transnational reach of corporations and social justice movements. Toxic Injustice links health inequalities and worker struggles as it charts how people excluded from workplace and legal protections have found ways to challenge power structures and seek justice from states and transnational corporations alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520278998
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/05/2014
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Susanna Rankin Bohme is Lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard University.

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Toxic Injustice

A Transnational History of Exposure and Struggle

By Susanna Rankin Bohme


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95981-1


Roots of Optimism and Anxiety

THE TRANSNATIONAL HISTORY OF DIBROMOCHLOROPROPANE (DBCP) began in Hawaii in 1951, among the shallow roots of a popular tropical crop. Researchers were not sure exactly how the compound protected pineapples from the wormlike nematodes that threatened the plants from within the soil, but they knew it worked. In its efficacy lay the promise of increased profit, and the chemical soon made its way to the mainland United States, where Dow Chemical Company and Shell Chemical Company worked in concert, transforming the experimental compound into their own marketable and branded products, Fumazone and Nemagon.

That transformation took place through interlocking processes of testing, production, and promotion that generated sometimes complementary, sometimes competing explanations of how the chemical would affect not only the agricultural crops and the nematodes it was meant to control, but also the bodies of humans who were exposed to it. In the 1950s and early 1960s, U.S. regulation of markets for new pesticides was still developing, even as synthetic chemicals increasingly became a part of everyday life. In the context of popular and scientific optimism about these still-novel products, Dow and Shell initially marketed DBCP as a chemical that offered control of a new and unfamiliar pest. Marketing used the language of science not only to teach farmers of the existence of the nearly microscopic nematodes, but also to offer DBCP-based products as the best way to control the newly discovered threat. This science-based marketing was accompanied by an economic argument meant to convince farmers that products containing DBCP would boost their bottom line.

Postwar confidence in the new pesticide technologies was not unbounded, and despite the allure of a scientific fix to the problems of agriculture, the use of chemicals meant to poison pests also raised the specter of human health harms. Government regulation and the science of toxicology seemed to offer a resolution of the tension between the benefits and risks of pesticides. However, the standards developed for warnings and precautions rested on the problematic assumption that scientific research would provide reliable information to prevent dangerous products from reaching the market. The history of DBCP reveals something very different: scientific evidence was not a neutral arbiter of pesticide safety, but was itself subject to various and conflicting interpretations. What emerged was a series of scientific narratives that developed in a process of interaction between companies and regulators and that significantly downplayed alarming animal test results in favor of an interpretation of DBCP as "safe for human use." These narratives supported only one conclusion: the continued production and use of DCBP in the United States, with few protections for those exposed to it.


The pineapple industry, begun around the turn of the twentieth century when the United States forcibly annexed the Hawaiian Islands, had much in common with commercial fruit production elsewhere in the world, including the burgeoning orchard business in California and Florida and banana plantations in Central America. Established in the late nineteenth century, these sites were similarly characterized by large single-crop plantings that depended on low-paid labor and novel distribution networks. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Hawaiian and Central American sites were also part of the U.S. turn to expand geopolitical and economic spheres of influence beyond the continent. On both the islands and the isthmus, U.S. innovators in industrial, corporate agriculture produced "exotic" fruit for the mainland market, and the growing agricultural industry increasingly required the use of pesticidal agents to allow its produce to reach its intended markets in a condition that would appeal to consumers.

By the mid-twentieth century, Hawaiian pineapple growers—agroindustrialists who managed large-scale cultivation as well as canning of the fruit—dominated the world market. However, planting large stretches of land with a single species of pineapple made their crops more vulnerable to pests. This type of monocropping, or monoculture, reduces plant and animal diversity. As a result, fewer animal species survive, because habitat and sources of food are severely limited. Those species that do survive are often the pests that thrive on the crop itself, usually damaging it in the process. Not kept in check through competition from other species, their numbers expand, and their effects on the crops earn them the title of "pest."

In Hawaii, one of the organisms that flourished in the pineapple fields was the root-knot nematode, a wormlike, soil-dwelling species belonging to the phylum Nemata. These tiny creatures emerged as "the most critical of the soil pests" for pineapple growers on the islands. Growers were worried because root-knot nematodes fed on the root system of the pineapple, impairing its ability to attain nutrients from the soil. Nematode-affected pineapples wilted and sometimes failed altogether, resulting in financial losses for the growers. To rid themselves of the profit-eating worm, growers turned to the chemical industry.

The first chemical widely adopted for nematode control was chloropicrin. The most widely used poison gas of World War I, chloropicrin was produced for battlefield use by the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service, which collaborated with the Federal Entomology Service and other federal agencies to test its potential against insects. Beginning in the 1930s, this erstwhile weapon was applied to soils before the pineapples were planted, assuring a nematode-free field. Chloropicrin was both effective and cheap; the government was selling it as war surplus at rock-bottom prices. But the inexpensive chloropicrin supply was running out by the 1940s, and pineapple cultivation was becoming even more important to agroindustrialists in Hawaii. Pineapples were the Hawaiian Islands' second most lucrative crop, and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor were subsidized by the U.S. government as a wartime necessity. Production boomed—by 1945 three-quarters of pineapples grown worldwide came from Hawaii—and research efforts went into finding new chemical controls for the nematode. By the late 1940s, chloropicrin had been largely replaced with two new soil fumigants—dichloropropene-dichloropropane (DD) and ethylene dibromide (EDB). But those chemicals had their own limitations—they killed not only nematodes but plants as well, and so both DD and EDB had to be applied to soil well before planting. A new chemical was needed to fully secure the uninterrupted commercial production of the lucrative crop.

By 1951, the Pineapple Research Institute (PRI), a research group founded by the Hawaiian Pineapple Packers' Association, had come up with a chemical with promise: DBCP. Like the nematicides before it, it was a fumigant. The liquid form of the chemical was injected into the soil at a depth of six to eight inches, usually with a mechanized applicator that was pulled behind a tractor, introducing the chemical into the soil through chisel-like injectors. Once injected, the liquid quickly volatilized, dispersing throughout the soil in vapor form. Although it was applied like its predecessors, the new compound had a powerful advantage over other nematicides. As the trade magazine Farm Chemicals noted about DBCP: "For the first time, an effective nematicide that can be injected into sites of certain living plants without injury, became available."

The chemical had promise, both as a way to control nematodes and as a moneymaker. Two companies—Dow and Shell—would transform the compound into two branded products—Fumazone and Nemagon—that would dominate the DBCP market for decades to come. Even more significantly, the research and marketing efforts of these two private corporations would author the scientific narratives by which DBCP's impact on human health would come to be understood.


The expanding market for synthetic pesticides at the mid-twentieth century was only part of a much larger agricultural transformation. Farming in the United States had been undergoing a process of specialization and concentration for several decades. By 1939, Carey McWilliams had documented the struggles of laborers in California's "factories in the field." In the years after World War II, the pace of industrialization picked up, and food production became increasingly specialized and mechanized. As the number of farmers plummeted and the size of individual farms swelled, growers increasingly "measure[d] 'success' in terms of a narrowly defined set of economic and productivity criteria." Enlightenment values of reason, science, and control over nature suffused the transition to factory farming, and pesticide chemicals seemed key to meeting the requirements of this emergent agriculture by promising both agricultural abundance and unprecedented control over nature.

Synthetic pesticides had been developed precisely as a scientific tool for controlling the numerous pests that could threaten crops grown in specialized cultivation. As early as the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, arsenical compounds were being used in orchard cultivation and were associated with the development of a modern and research-based industrial agriculture in the United States. Federal funding for agricultural experiment stations in the first half of the twentieth century privileged basic research, and the development of new pesticides was part of an approach that saw science as the driver of a prosperous agricultural sector. Around World War I, the growth of the chemical industry intertwined with federal war efforts, exemplified in the conversion of chloropicrin from weapon to insecticide. By the 1940s, another chemical with roots in federal war efforts came to exemplify the promise of scientific control. Dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, was a powerful and persistent broad-spectrum bug killer. This organochloride was effective in low doses, had a long-lasting effect, and killed a wide range of insects. In the multifront theater that was World War II, a little DDT—applied to people rather than plants—went a long way toward controlling the lice that spread typhus and the mosquitoes that brought malaria to troops and civilians in North Africa, Italy, and elsewhere. To many nonscientists, the white powder seemed a scientific miracle on the order of other new disease-fighters: the sulfa drugs and penicillin. Glowing press for DDT in the United States suggested the wartime tool might have civilian applications. The chemical was characterized as "one of the great scientific discoveries of World War II." Together with other "repellents and insecticides," DDT was considered by some to be "the biggest contribution of military medicine to the civilian population after the war—a contribution even greater than blood plasma." In 1945, the War Production Board, on the advice of the DDT makers themselves, authorized the sale of DDT for nonmilitary uses. Time magazine predicted that the insecticide would "wipe out the mosquito and malaria ... liquidate the household fly, cockroach and bedbug, [and] control some of the most damaging insects that prey on the world's crops." The manufacturers of DDT promoted the chemical for household and industrial use as well as for fruit, vegetable, and dairy production.

The rhetoric of pesticide promotion echoed militaristic terms. During and after the war years, U.S. consumers were urged to "fight your insect enemies," an admonition that equated mastery over household pests with U.S. military victory. Agribusiness responded favorably to these urgings: sales of synthetic pesticides shot up and by 1949 surpassed the use of metal- and plant-based formulas. The postwar years saw similar growth in the chemical industry, as pesticide production rose from just under 125 million pounds in 1947 to over 637 million pounds in 1960. By then, the Korean War had ended in a stalemate and the Soviet threat loomed large. But the United States still hoped to prove its mastery over the lowly bug.

After World War II, as deprivations fell away in the United States and an assortment of new consumer and scientific technologies seemed to offer comfort and plenty, pesticides promised bounty as well as control. A clear motive for chemical control of pests was to ensure a profitable harvest. While individual farmers were likely to base estimates of pesticides' benefits on a case-by-case financial calculus, some pesticide proponents envisioned a utopian "era of plenty." The abundance they envisioned would spread beyond national borders to encompass the impoverished nations of the world, where the United States was now vying with the Soviet Union for military, political, and cultural hegemony. In May 1955, for example, a Public Health Service official, addressing the annual meeting of the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, argued that pesticides would help "swell the food supply" and "curb and eliminate diseases" worldwide. This vision fit neatly with the ideology President Truman had outlined in his 1947 Doctrine that Third World population growth, hunger, and lack of scientific and technical development necessitated the judicious application of U.S. technology and capital. According to the president, "More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate, they are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant." In this troubling context, Truman asserted that "greater production [was] the key to prosperity and peace. And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge." In language that echoed Truman's but emphasized the nefarious role of pests in creating human misery, a Shell entomologist wrote in 1954 that "half the world is presently underfed, ill-housed, poorly clothed, and suffering from insect-borne disease." For that scientist, and for many others in the United States of the 1950s, the science of pesticides offered the key to creating the prosperity and abundance that would eliminate hunger and cure disease on a global scale.


Not surprisingly, Shell and Dow would mobilize powerful ideas about pesticides' ability to provide both scientific control and agricultural abundance in their efforts to sell DBCP. However, the companies faced a challenge. Unlike DDT, which controlled familiar pests like the "mosquito ... household fly, cockroach and bedbug," DBCP targeted a pest that most farmers knew little to nothing about. The nematode was almost microscopic. Nematodes lay hidden in the soil and their effects on plants were not always obvious. In order to sell DBCP, then, Shell and Dow had not only to promote the pesticide, but also to publicize the pest it was meant to control. The companies used the themes of scientific control and agricultural plenty to market both the nematode and the nematicide.

Except for special cases like pineapple growers, most U.S. farmers in the mid-1950s knew nothing about nematodes. As one plant pathologist described the pests: "Nematodes that parasitize plant roots are insidious pests. Being of microscopic size and hidden in the soil, they may easily escape detection. Moreover, the symptoms they cause often are so slight or nondescript that they either do not attract enough attention to cause concern or are attributed to other unfavorable circumstances." As A. L. Taylor, a nematologist with Shell, would explain in a history written in the early 1980s, "Many farmers had never heard of nematodes and had certainly never seen any. Some were familiar with root-knot nematode galls, but did not know what caused them and did not associate their presence with reduced growth and yield." Farmers' ignorance of the nematode meant that before Dow and Shell could sell farmers a pesticide, they would have to explain why nematicides were necessary and how to fit them into their daily practice of farming. As Taylor would recall decades later, the promotion of nematicides in the chemicals' infancy involved a number of steps:

To sell nematicides, farmers must be persuaded to believe that:

1. There are little worms called nematodes which attack crop plants. Nematodes, which are too small to recognize without a microscope, exist in enormous numbers in farm fields.

2. Nematodes damage roots and are a primary cause of reduced plant growth and crop yields.

3. Nematodes can be controlled by application of nematicides.

4. Control results in increased crop yields.

5. With crops of moderate to high value per acre, the selling price of the yield increase is 4 to 5 times the cost of the nematicide and its application.

6. Nematicides are therefore a good investment.


Excerpted from Toxic Injustice by Susanna Rankin Bohme. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Roots of Optimism and Anxiety
2. DBCP on the Farm
3. Unequal Exposures
4. An Inconvenient Forum?
5. Making a Movement
6. National Law, Transnational Justice?


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