Files Show Dioxin Makers Knew Of Hazards
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
Published: July 6, 1983
The Dow Chemical Company knew as early as the middle 1960’s about evidence that exposure to dioxin might cause people to become seriously ill and even die, but the company withheld its concern from the Government and continued to sell herbicides contaminated by dioxin to the Army and the public, according to documents opened to public inspection yesterday.
The documents were released by a Federal district judge on Long Island who is hearing a multibillion-dollar lawsuit by 20,000 Vietnam era veterans against several chemical companies.
The records provide the fullest account to date of what chemical companies knew about the dangers of dioxin and when they knew it. Second-hand accounts of Dow’s knowledge of the dangers of dioxin contamination have been published, but the documents opened to inspection yesterday provide for the first time a detailed look into the company’s own records on dioxin.
The documents suggest that Dow and other chemical companies shielded from the Government their information that one of the herbicides, Agent Orange, contained dangerous levels of dioxin. Agent Orange was used in huge quantities by the Government as a defoliant in the Vietnam war.
Dow, whose research on herbicides has long been relied on by the Government, has maintained that, aside from a skin disease known as chloracne, the company did not know of any harm to humans from dioxin.
Yet one of the documents shows that in 1965, at a time when the Government was purchasing millions of pounds of Agent Orange, Dow’s toxicology director wrote in an internal report that dioxin could be ‘‘exceptionally toxic’’ to humans, and the company’s medical director warned, ‘‘Fatalities have been reported in the literature.’’
Phillip Schneider, Dow’s manager of media relations, said yesterday that’’we are not aware of any human fatalities related to 2,3,7,8-TCDD,’’ the most potent form of dioxin. He said that the references to fatalities in the documents must have been to other substances and that Dow’s experiences with its own workers had shown no long-term health effects from chloracne.
He and other chemical company representatives also said they had given information to appropriate Government officials and that, in addition, the Government knew at least as much as the companies did about dioxin. ‘Conspiracy’ Is Charged
But Victor John Yannacone Jr. and David Dean, lawyers representing Vietnam veterans suing the companies, charged the companies in court briefs with ‘‘outright conspiracy’’ to mislead the Government on the dangers of dioxin.
Mr. Dean said the original order from the Army specified that the herbicide supplied had to be nontoxic to humans and animals. The documents are among several hundred thousand company memorandums, letters and files turned over by Dow and other corporate defendants in the lawsuit by the Vietnam veterans, who claim injuries to themselves or their children as a result of exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides. The four-year-old nationwide lawsuit has been consolidated in Federal District Court in Uniondale, L.I., before Judge George C. Pratt Jr. The jury trial is not expected before next year.
At the request of the companies last year, the briefs and attached exhibits were allowed to be submitted under seal, closed to public examination, unlike other court papers. Last week, Judge Pratt accepted the recommendation of Sol Schreiber, a special master named to oversee the preliminary litigation, and ordered unsealed the papers that had been submitted in connection a motion by the companies to dismiss the suit, a motion the judge had denied. Documents unrelated to the dismissal motion remain under seal.
The defendant companies, in addition to Dow, which has its headquarters at Midland, Mich., are the Monsanto Company of St. Louis; the Diamond Shamrock Corporation of Dallas; Uniroyal Inc. of Middlebury, Conn., and T.H. Agriculture and Nutrition Company Inc. of Kansas City, Mo. Five other chemical companies were dropped as defendants, but some of their documents remain part of the case. Growing Debate on Dangers
The release of the new data comes at a time of growing public debate over the dangers of dioxin. There is general agreement that dioxin, an impurity formed in some chemical manufacturing processes, can cause death and serious injuries in laboratory animals. It is also agreed that exposure can cause chloracne in humans and that dioxin is highly toxic if swallowed. But, beyond that, there remains great dispute over its effects on people, and the documents released yesterday do not resolve the issue.
However, the unsealed records provide extensive details about the chemical companies’ concern about dioxin, including this new information:
As far back as the 1930’s, Dow workers contracted skin disorders from exposure to what now appears to have been dioxin, and company scientists had some evidence that exposure could lead to serious illness and death.
Over the years, a pattern of chloracne outbreaks related to dioxin appeared among workers in widely scattered chemical plants.
Dow and other companies shared with one another anxiety over these illnesses and other findings about dioxin, but the companies withheld their concern and some of their scientific information from the Government. When Dow in 1970 warned the Defense Department about the dangers of Agent Orange, military officials declared that they were then hearing about the problem for the first time.
Dioxin and Health Data
Dioxin, the substance at the core of the controversy, denotes a family of 75 compounds called dibenzo-para-dioxins, composed of benzene molecules and oxygen atoms. The most potent of these is known, from its chemical structure, as 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-pdioxin, or TCDD. According to accounts in Dow documents, TCDD is an impurity that was commonly formed under conditions of high temperature in the production of trichlorophenol.
Trichlorophenol is used to make 2,4,5-trichlorophenol, which is used to make 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxycetic acid, or 2,4,5-T, a herbicide that kills plants by artificially overstimulating the growth hormone. Agent Orange is a 50-50 mixture of the esters, or inorganic salts, of 2,4,5-T and another herbicide, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, or 2,4-D.
Particularly in the early 1960’s, the documents show, dioxin produced in making the trichlorophenol ended up in the 2,4,5-T and at concentrations of up to 140 parts per million in one company’s product. Later Dow, which had been producing some of the cleanest 2,4,5-T, recommended that the military not use any product with more than 1 part per million. Dow Was Biggest Supplier
Dow was not the first company to make Agent Orange for the defoliation and crop destruction campaign that ran from 1962 to 1970. But, according to a 1975 Air Force history of herbicide use in Southeast Asia, Dow became the largest of nine contractors, providing, at a price of $7 a gallon, nearly one-third of the total 12.8 million gallons supplied to the Government.
Because of the way the law is structured, the veterans, in order to win their case, must prove that Dow and the other defendant contractors knew more than the Government about the possible dangers of Agent Orange.
The defense of the chemical companies, in turn, is based on their contention that whether or not they shared all their information with the Government, the Government knew from its own research and resources at least as as much as the companies about any dangers from the herbicide.
The released documents contain several references to human deaths from dioxin exposure. They do not say exactly where the deaths are supposed to have occurred or how many people died. ‘May Be Fatal’
In a Dow company report called ‘‘Chloracne Dow Experience,’’ a section headed ‘‘Chloracne in Humans’’ states: ‘‘Usually not disabling but may be fatal.’’ A chronology notes that in 1955 ‘‘severe cases including some suspected fatalities’’ occurred in Germany.
Dow’s medical director, Dr. B.B. Holder, cited the dangers of dioxin in his review of a major outbreak of chloracne at Dow’s Midland, Mich., plant in 1964. The outbreak, which afflicted 50 workers, none of them fatally, coincided with a stepping up of production of trichlorophenol, a precursor of Agent Orange, to meet growing war needs.
‘‘The clinical picture of the disease is one that primarily affects the skin,’’ Dr. Holder wrote. ‘‘In extreme exposures to certain chlorinated compounds, a general organ toxicity can result. This is primarly demonstrated in the liver, hematopoietic and nervous systems.’’ Hematopoietic refers to the body’s blood-forming system.
The stimulation of certain skin glands produces multiple blackheads along with bacterial cellulitis, he said. ‘‘Many patients demonstrated continuation of the skin lesions several years after complete removal from the exposure.’’
After the skin manifestations, Dr. Holder went on, may come the onset of ‘‘psychopathological and other systemic findings. Their occurrence is seen only in extreme exposures and has a direct dose relationship. Fatalities have been reported in the literature. There is no specific treatment for this disease.’’
But the Army, as early as 1959, had also encountered data on deaths connected with dioxin. According to a document still partly classified, Dr. Friedrich Hoffman, a chemical warfare specialist and chief of the Agents Research Branch at Edgewood Arsenal, Md., reported that he learned in Europe ‘‘startling information’’ about the toxicity of a compound he identified as dioxin. He said it has caused ‘‘several deaths of workers in the plant.’’
In court in May, Mr. Yannacone said that Dr. Hoffman’s secret report concluded ‘‘that dioxin should not be used for chemical warfare because it is too deadly.’’
In the 1930’s, Dow introduced a line of chlorophenol woodpreservatives called Biocides. According to a 1975 Harvard University doctoral dissertation on dioxin by Robert William Baughman that is quoted in part as a court exhibit to the veterans’s case, Dow had hardly begun marketing the chemical when reports of severe chloracne associated with the chlorophenols began reaching the medical literature. One case in 1936 reportedly involved 300 to 400 Mississippi lumber workers stricken with ulceration, severe pimpling or thickening of the skin, urinary disturbances or leg cramps.
The following years brought other outbreaks. In 1949, Mr. Baughman reported, 228 workers at a Monsanto 2,4,5-T plant in Nitro, W.Va., developed chloracne as the result of an industrial accident. Other symptoms, he said, included ‘‘severe pains in skeletal muscles, shortness of breath, intolerance to cold, palpable and tender liver, loss of sensation in the extremities, demyelination of peripheral nerves, fatigue, nervousness, irritability, insomnia, loss of libido and vertigo.’’
Chloracne problems continued to plague the Nitro plant for the next 20 years. In 1968, the medical director of Monsanto, Dr. R. Emmet Kelly, wrote in a brief memo on the situation in Nitro: ‘‘I don’t want to be cynical, but are there any employees in the Department who don’t have chloracne already?’’ ‘Dreaded Substance X’
In 1955, according to to the Dow chloracne history, a West German company, C.E. Boehringer Sohn, sought information about chloracne from the Givaudan Corporation, a maker of hexachloraphene, which later was also found prone to dioxin contamination.
Givaudan referred the request to Dow, and Dow responded with a letter to Boehringer ‘‘describing the hazards and precautions for safe handling of 2,4,5-trichlorophenol.’’
In 1957, the Dow account continues, Boehringer sent Dow and other known trichlorophenol manufacturers an account of its research on chloracne. The Boehringer letter described the ‘‘danger points in the process and the limits which had to be observed in order to avoid producing acne exciter in trichlorophenol and in 2,4,5-T acid.’’
The ‘‘exciter’’ or irritant, the ‘‘dreaded substance X,’’ Boehringer reported to Dow in 1957, was tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin - TCDD.
This ‘‘remarkable letter’’ was sent to all makers of trichlorophenol, according to another Dow document entitled ‘‘Chloracne Dow Experience.’’ But, the same Dow document noted, the ‘‘letter was filed and forgotten.’’
Pattern of Illness
The next few years witnessed chloracne outbreaks at various herbicide plants. In 1963, Dr. Richard W. McBurney visited a plant of the Diamond Alkali Company, later Diamond Shamrock, in Newark, N.J., a site found in recent weeks to be heavily contaminated with dioxin.
Dr. McBurney wrote that he saw similarities with a disease known as Porphyria Cutanea Tarda: ‘‘This disease is a disease of the blood forming elements of the body in which the hemoglobin of the red blood cells is broken down and essentially the spleen, liver and kidneys are affected to a greater or lesser extent, depending upon the ingestion of such a chlorinated benzene.’’
A spokesman for Diamond Shamrock in Dallas said that the company had known of the chloracne problem and contacted the appropriate public officials for help. Meetings to Develop Strategy
The 1964 outbreak of chloracne at Dow’s Midland plant stirred considerable concern, although the workers seem to have suffered no lasting consequences. But complaints from Dow customers and word that the Government was asking questions prompted a series of meetings to develop a strategy for avoiding Government regulation.
On March 19, 1965, Dow invited representatives of Monsanto, Diamond Alkali, the Hooker Chemical Company and the Hercules Powder Company to Midland to discuss ‘‘problems of health’’ associated with findings of ‘‘highly toxic impurities’’ in 2,4,5-trichlorophenol and related materials.
At the March 24 meeting, Dow discussed its recent chloracne outbreak and its 25 years’ experience testing its chemicals on rabbits’ ears. The meeting, according to a Diamond Alkali representative, E.L. Chandler, ‘‘was obviously designed to help us solve this problem before outsiders confuse the issue and cause us no end of grief.’’ Letter Warns of Consequences
Shortly afterward, on June 24, 1965, Dr. Verald K. Rowe, toxicology director for Dow, wrote to Ross Mulholland, bioproducts manager of Dow Chemical of Canada. The letter noted the dangers of dioxin and warned of consequences to Dow.
‘‘As you well know,’’ he wrote, ‘‘we had a serious situation in our operating plants because of contamination of 2,4,5-trichlorophenol with impurities, the most active of which is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin. The material is exceptionally toxic; it has a tremendous potential for producing chloracne and systemic injury.
‘‘One of the things we want to avoid is the occurrence of any acne in consumers. I am particularly concerned here with consumers who are using the material on a daily, repeated basis such as custom operators may use it.
‘‘If this should occur, the whole 2,4,5-T industry will be hard hit and I would expect restrictive legislation, either barring the material or putting very rigid controls upon it. This is the main reason why we are so concerned that we clean up our own house from within, rather than having someone from without do it for us.’’
The letter concluded: ‘‘I trust that you will be very judicious in your use of this information. It could be quite embarrassing if it were misinterpreted or misused.’’
Informing the Government
Some of the released documents suggest that Dow and other companies, while exchanging with each other information about dangers in the product, withheld key data from the Government.
On April 22, 1963, a Dow official, C.L. Lynn, director of registration for the Bioproducts Department, wrote to Brigadier General Fred J. Delmore of the United States Army Munitions Command, Chemical-Biological-Radiological Agency, at the Army Chemical Center in Maryland.
He wrote: ‘‘We have been manufacturing 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T for over ten years. To the best of our knowledge, none of the workmen in these factories have shown any ill effects as a result of working with these chemicals.’’
On another occasion cited in the documents, another chemical company became aware that the Government’s testing of its Agent Orange mixture was less accurate than its own. But the company, Hercules Inc., which was later dropped from the lawsuit by Judge Pratt, withheld its method because, a Hercules researcher noted, ‘‘It is possible that their method may be giving beneficially higher analysis, particularly on 2,4-D, than our own method.’’ ‘Taken Out of Context’
Robert Hessler, a spokesman for Hercules in Wilmington, Del., said yesterday that the memo was being ‘‘taken out of context’’ and that the employees involved were no longer there to provide further information.
In 1970, records show, Dow officials met with military officials to share their concerns over dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange. It followed this up with a letter to the Secretary of Defense, Melvin R. Laird, that noted that the Pentagon was considering reinstituting its defoliation program in Vietnam.
The letter said in part: ‘‘There is abundant evidence that 2,3,7,8-tertachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin occuring as an impurity in 2,4,5-T is highly toxic.’’ It urged the Secretary to set specifications to insure that products with no more than one part per million of dioxin be used.
Dr. Robert Darrow, a military official who had met with Dow executives several months earlier in the Pentagon to receive the same information, recalled later in a deposition that he was ‘‘surprised’’ to hear Dow’s warning.
‘‘In other words,’’ he said, ‘‘this represented information that we were receiving for the first time in this respect on the dioxin situation.’’
Illustrations: Table of how dioxin is formed (Page B10) Chart of simplified form by which TCP is made (Page B10) photo of Victor John Yannacone and David Dean (Page B10) photo of Judge George C. Pratt Jr. (Page B10)