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Bad Chemistry

By Peter Černuta

Photo credit: (CC-BY)

A team of scientists in hazmat suits stumble over the bright sand dunes of Denmark’s western coast. They are trying to figure out how to get rid of 170 tonnes of one the most hazardous pesticides in existence, ethyl parathion, which lies buried in a thick layer 4 to 8 meters deep in the once pristine Danish sands.

The site is the legacy of chemicals giant Cheminova, which several decades ago dumped hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste on a beach close to its industrial compound.

The site, with an ominous name, “Jetty 42”, lay there, forgotten, until the 1980s when toxic compounds started leaking into the North Sea. This prompted a response from the Danish state, which commissioned the excavation of over 1,200 tonnes of toxic sand and slapped it into 26,000 barrels that were then deposited in a salt mine in neighbouring Germany. They thought the problem was solved, but as many as 170 tonnes of the toxic substance remained in the contaminated soil. While this is only a fraction of what was dumped decades ago, it is still enough to deprive an average Danish town of its residents. “The majority of the contamination is parathion, which is a very highly toxic insecticide,” says Morten Bondgaard, leader of the international cleanup project. According to World Health Organisations (WHO) estimates, 3 grams of the substance, which is chemically related to a family of war and nerve gases, is more than enough to kill an adult person.

“[Cheminova] produced most of the toxic waste that is in there in the 50s and 60s, they had a permit to deposit the waste in the sand dunes right next to the company,” explains Bondgaard. But he is quick to add that Cheminova is not the only culprit. The Danish state had also used the site to dispose of various chemicals, as far from Copenhagen as possible. “They did it because they thought this area is so polluted anyway, and we have all this waste, so let’s dump it here.” The 3-year cleanup project Bondgaard runs is estimated to costs somewhere between 6 and 8 million euros and is expected to be complete by 2013.

And while it might seem that dumping materials of such toxicity is perverse enough, the story does not end there. The fact is that methyl parathion, a slightly less potent variant of parathion, is still being manufactured and sold to developing countries to be used as pesticide on cotton, rice and fruit, despite being practically banned in the rest of the world.

The reason for this is purely economical – money: These highly toxic chemicals, classified as Class I according to WHO hazard scale, are relatively cheap and therefore widely used in developing countries. And while developed countries such as Denmark and the rest of the EU have strong regulatory bodies and rules for the use of such chemicals, developing nations do not, and their farmers are forced to expose themselves to potentially fatal substances if they want to earn a living.

Organisations or networks such as Pesticides Action Network (PAN) working to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with safer, sustainable alternatives, have difficulties keeping up with the cat and mouse game the giant pesticides producers play as they exchange one pesticide formula for another when regulators get on to them. Kavitha Kuruganti from India’s Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a member of PAN, says: ”The pesticides campaign here in India has always talked about all the chemicals in agriculture to be eliminated. We’ve always gone about it is by proving that farming can be done without syntetical pesticides. There are many examples which reveal that pesticides are not necessary, especially to the extent they are used today.”

A lucrative market

With a pesticide market worth 6.9 billion US dollars, Brazil is a great business for pesticides producers. In 2008, the country became the world’s top consumer of agriculture pesticides (ahead of the US), and continues to use a range of dangerous pesticides banned in other countries, according to a study released by Brazil’s National Health Surveillance Agency.

Its government, much like the governments of other nations in development, are rarely in a position to prohibit them, either because their farmers cannot afford the more expensive but less hazardous pesticides, or because the chemical cartels use their power of monopoly to bully the regulators into submission.

“They do pressure the government…They do that a lot,” says Luiz Cláudio Meirelles, head of the pesticides department at the Brazilian Ministry of Health. “They [the chemical companies] tried to stop us from doing our job by going into court and issuing a restriction against our regulation, but we won. So we could actually go on with our job,” he says.

With the resources giant chemical corporations like Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Bayer CropScience and also Cheminova have at disposal, it is difficult not to imagine them being able to create enough pressure to have their way. In the case of methyl parathion in Brazil, it took an international campaign to give the Brazilian regulator the power to start the re-evaluation process. “There is a way of regulating this kind of pesticides, that every five years, the product is re-evaluated, but we don’t have that in Brazil,” explains Cláudio Meirelles. “So only when the story has an international effect, we are able to re-evaluate its effectiveness and side effects.” A similar account is also heard from Brazil’s non-governmental sector. Fernanda Sirineo from the Permanent Campaign Against Agrochemicals and For Life, a coalition of Brazilian farmers, NGOs, and student groups against the corporate takeover of the agriculture and spiralling pesticide contamination, tries hard to explain in English what they are up against: “Brazil’s government has been very permissive with those factories that produces pesticides… because our legislation doesn’t prohibit [it] and the government is subordinate to transnational factories.”

Brazil is now in the process of re-evaluating several dangerous substances, including methyl parathion, to ban them from use. “When we do a re-evaluation, we have to discuss with whoever is interested on the topic, like the companies, and it’s not easy,” he says. And indeed, it isn’t.

“You don’t bite the hand that feeds you”

Such pressures are not limited to the developing world alone. Even in Denmark, the home of Cheminova and, supposedly, one of the richest, happiest and least corrupt countries in the world, such companies wield a frighteningly potent yet evasive clout. Cheminova has a curious ownership structure – the University of Aarhus, through the Aarhus University Research Foundation, holds a controlling stake in the company for historical reasons, and receives between 3 and 5 million euros in dividends per year, depending how well the company is doing. But influence, it seems, flows in the same direction as the money. “There is a lot of money in the foundation which is then given for research at Aarhus University, so it’s obvious to anyone who wants to study this that there is a connection,” says Mette Jensen, a retired researcher from the National Environmental Research Institute (NERI), which is part of the university.

“There is an ongoing discussion among researchers that we are not going to have connection with the industries because we will be in their pockets, more or less. Of course they [the industries] have all these nice talks about how they will not intervene in your research, but everyone knows this is not the way it functions in reality. In reality, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

In 2009, Jensen and four other researchers NERI, raised the question of whether Cheminova should cease to manufacture and sell methyl parathion and other highly hazardous substances. They were promptly threatened with a warning from the institute’s management.”We made a small survey among our colleagues and we sent the results of the survey to the chancellor of the university, but then our own director in the research institute didn’t want this criticque to come out, and the five of us were asked to talk to him and we were taken in individually and told that we are not to go forward to go with the case. They said it wasn’t a matter of freedom of speech, but a matter of misusing the email system, and this was, of course, nonsense.” Jensen decided to press forward, and the event sparked a large media debate over the freedom of speech at Aarhus University. It wasn’t until her trade union threatened with a lawsuit that the situation was resolved. ”They were very good. If they hadn’t done this I would have been fired probably,” Jensen says.

”There has been much silence about the case now,” she adds. Many employees at NERI are against the connection between Aarhus University and Cheminova, but most of them don’t want to step forward and talk about it, she explains.

”I got much support from my colleagues in face to face conversations: ’very good that you dare to take it forward, I’m a chicken and I dont dare’… people don’t like it but they don’t want to come forward,” she says.

”They think it can damage their career, and thats also the case probably. It would probably have damaged mine, at least if I wanted to be a manager or something like that”.

The question whether the Danish university should remain ‘hyggelig’ with a controversial pesticide manunfacturer is thus dragging on, and so does the dilemma whether it is ethical at all to sell highly-toxic pesticides to developing countries. Despite issuing many ”Corporate Social Reports” featuring lofty achivements, picture-perfect village projects and photographs of farmers dressed up in full protective gears that would normally cost them their yearly income and are hardly wearable in tropical heat, Cheminova continues nonchalantly to sell methyl parathion to Brazil.

But Ms Sirineo remains optimistic: ”We have started the Campanha in Brazil and a lot of organizations are joining the campaign. It is getting better.”

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