(Beyond Pesticides, April 27, 2007) Health risk, environmental risk and investment risk all have one thing in common — they are all part of Amvac Chemical Corporation’s business practices. According to a Los Angeles Times investigation earlier this month, this socially irresponsible business model has led Amvac to double-digit revenue growth and a toxic legacy.
The Amvac homepage reads, “The Company’s chief strategy is to acquire niche product lines from multi-billion dollar companies that divest mature products to focus on newly discovered molecules. The Company’s products include insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, soil fumigants, defoliants, molluscides and growth regulators.”
In actuality, Amvac buys the rights to older, high risk pesticides from larger companies. Many of these pesticides, which are some of the most toxic on the market, are likely to be banned or restricted due to safety concerns. Amvac hires scientists and lawyers to keep these dangerous chemicals on the market as long as possible. The company also often skirts regulatory issues by exporting products to countries with weaker regulatory systems.
“There’s something here rather unique, which is a company that basically goes intentionally after chemicals that are in trouble because of health and safety concerns,” said Steve Schatzow, a former director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) pesticide program and now an attorney for pesticide firms. Amvac “buys them up at a discount price from the major chemical companies who no longer want to be associated” with them, he said.
The resulting human health and environmental costs have been recorded in EPA and state records, regulatory investigations and multiple lawsuits.
In 1977, nearly three dozen chemical factory workers were found to have low to zero sperm counts due to working with dibromochloropropane (DBCP) (data dating from the 1950s had shown the pesticide could cause testicular atrophy in lab animals). Amvac, which had ceased making DBCP years earlier, renewed production after the incident and quickly became the primary U.S. manufacturer. During this time EPA increasingly restricted the chemical’s registration and eventually disallowed all use in 1985.
As the domestic market waned, Amvac turned to the export market to sell DBCP. In 1978-79, Amvac supplied DBCP to a company that is now known as Dole Fruit Company. Thousands of agricultural workers were exposed, causing sterility, brain and kidney damage, including a group of 13 Nicaraguans who brought Amvac to court. The Los Angeles Times reports Amvac settled this month, agreeing to pay $300,000.
Amvac currently produces metam sodium, a widely used agricultural pesticide. The chemical has been responsible for many mass poisonings and was identified in one-fifth of all poisoning incidents in California involving 10 or more people. In 1991, a train carrying metam sodium manufactured by Amvac overturned sickening over 700 people and wiping out wildlife along a 42-mile stretch of the Sacramento River.
Amvac has also grown to become a leading manufacturer of a toxic class of pesticides called organophosphates. While EPA is phasing out and restricting the use of many of these chemicals and larger firms have scaled back organophosphate manufacturing, Amvac has bought the rights to make or sell 10 of them since 1989, according to company records and interviews. This list includes mevinphos, chlorpyrifos and dimethyl dichlorovinyl phosphate (DDVP).
Mevinphos is one of the most toxic organophosphate chemicals. It has been implicated in hundreds of poisonings, primarily farmworkers who have suffered seizures, vomiting, depression and in several cases death. When DuPont decided to stop manufacturing the chemical, Amvac bought exclusive rights and created a market in Washington apples. Poisoning incidents continued and Amvac was pressured to voluntarily withdraw the pesticide from the U.S. market. The company still sells the insecticide in Mexico, South Africa, Australia and other countries.
The list of Amvac’s irresponsible practices goes on, including dragging out negotiations with regulatory agencies and failing to adequately clean up its factory in Commerce, California. For more information, read the full story in the Los Angeles Times.