“Note the admission that Shell employees at a drins’ production plant were used as guinea pigs in a related study of carcinogenic properties carried out by the Royal Dutch Group.”
By John Donovan
Shell pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides
The roll call of Shell toxic brands deadly to insects, crop pests and humans…
Aldrin; Aldrin Soil Pest Killer; Ant Doom; Bidrin; Coppicide; DDT; DDT Dust; Derris Dust; Dieldrin; Dieldrin Garden Pest Killer; Endrin; Heptachlor; Koto; Netelex; Phosdrin; Pillakiller; Proponex; Shell Liquid Derris; Shell Tomato-Set; Shell Weedkill for Lawns; Shelltox; Slug Doom; Slug Kill; Sulficide; Telodrin; Universal DNC Fruit Tree Wash; Vapona
The following extracts are from “A HISTORY OF ROYAL DUTCH SHELL” Volume 2: a four volume history authored by a team of four historians associated with Utrecht University who were commissioned (paid) by Shell to write a full-length history of the company from 1890 until 2007. For this purpose, the team were given unrestricted access to Royal Dutch Shells archives.
Shell internal emails in March and June 2007 reveal that Shell was fretting about the potential consequences of me obtaining the “History book”, which was due out on 5 July 2007. It has taken me sometime to get round to reading it all, but it has been well worth the effort.
Given the current topicality of Shell’s toxic legacy, I have published below related extensive extracts. (More will follow on an even more important subject.) If Shell raises objections on the issue of copyright, I will use the extracts as source material for an article which will be rather more blunt in nature than the comments made by historians paid by Shell.
Note the admission that Shell employees at a drins’ production plant were used as guinea pigs in a related study of carcinogenic properties carried out by the Royal Dutch Group. What’s the betting that they knew nothing about what was going on?
Also note that despite dire warnings of the potential damage to humans, Shell ruthlessly continued to manufacture and market these deadly toxic products until forced to stop. Once again profits were given a higher priority than any other consideration, including the health of the public, Shell customers and Shell employees.
EXTRACTS FROM “A HISTORY OF ROYAL DUTCH SHELL” Volume 2
From pages 350/351
The second significant bought-in process was also extremely successful but became the source of very serious controversy: chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides, of which the main ones were aldrin, dieldrin and endrin, known together as the ‘drin family of pesticides. The Group’s involvement with pesticides went back a long way and had originated in the search for the right kind of light oil with which to mix and spray them. Selling pesticide sprays remained a modest business until, in 1950, Shell Chemical Corporation started marketing aldrin and dieldrin as sole agents for Julius Hyman & Company, based on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal military base in Denver, Colorado.
In their ability to eradicate not only mosquitoes but also crop-destroying insects such as locusts, ants, grasshoppers, boll weevils, nematodes, and wireworms, the chemicals at first gave the impression of being little short of miraculous: for example, in 1951,when the Iranian government appealed for international help in combating its worst locust plague for eighty years, 13 tons of aldrin were flown out, and it took only two ounces (less than 57 grams) per acre to kill 98 per cent of the pests.
In a hungry world, it was firmly believed that insecticides of such potency could only be good; for the first time in the history of humanity, the ‘drins and other pesticides appeared to offer the real possibility of an end to, or at least a massive reduction in, starvation. With a proposal that seemed so morally praiseworthy as well as commercially sound, production soon followed in Group facilities outside the US. Plants for aldrin and dieldrin came on stream at Pernis in 1954, and within three years production of insecticides there had tripled. By 1972 the ‘drins were also produced in the UK, Belgium, Germany, France, and Italy. Contemporary marketing was done in good faith and with missionary enthusiasm, and repeated field trials in customer countries were particularly effective as demonstrations. Yet views changed in the light of experience. By the middle 1960s certain of these agricultural chemicals were the subject of hot international debate, and in many parts of the world their use was restricted or even banned.
The ‘drins represented the Group’s ideal chemical product. They were well protected by patents, hydrocarbon-based, and research-intensive; they were modern and glamorous in offering an instant, technical solution to ancient scourges of mankind; they fitted in well with other manufacturing processes; and they combined low volume with stupendously high margins.
From page 399
Indeed, when aldrin, dieldrin, and endrin, which generated 90 per cent of income from agricultural chemicals, were discovered to form potentially harmful toxic residues on crops, increased research spending became necessary, hence the formation of the toxicological unit at Woodstock.
From page 401
In 1960, prompted by the emerging concerns about the toxicity of pesticides, Shell did set up a toxicological working committee in the UK. Later that year Shell Development Company in New York and Shell International Research began to exchange toxicological data. By 1964 the toxicological working committee had become a Steering Committee, and that year a Toxicological Division was created under Dr. H.G.S. van Raalte, with one office in The Hague and one in London, each advising its local central office functions and liaising with the other as necessary. The Division was responsible for all contacts with outside bodies, such as the UN- affiliated Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, in matters to do with the toxicological aspects of air, water, and soil pollution problems, and provided advice to other Group companies.
A few years later Shell Development Company in the US created ‘a focal point, a “Mr Pollution”, who covers all forms of pollution’.
From page 427/428/42/430/431
The double-edged drins
As discussed in Chapter 5, the Group possessed exclusive rights to the ‘drin family of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides, which were byfarthe most profitable products from its range of chemicals. Prominent members of the family were aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, phosdrin, and bidrin, used around the world to combat a variety of pests after amazing results achieved in Iran (1951) and in California (1952) had shown their effectiveness. The chemicals were in great demand from gardeners, cereal farmers and fruit farmers, a valuable, varied, and widely extended purchasing constituency.
From time immemorial all such producers had fought an unceasing battle against pests, weeds and fungi, but by the mid-1950s petrochemicals appeared ready to put an end to that, as was shown by a complete list of Shell garden products. Based on aldrin, Ant Doom was marketed as ‘the best and safest remedy for all types of ants’, while Aldrin Soil Pest Killer gave ‘all-purpose soil pest control’, and was safe and non-tainting. Shell Liquid Derris was rated ‘one of the best liquid controls for black fly, green fly, etc,’ Derris Dust controlled the majority of horticultural pests, and Shell Weedkill for Lawns was ‘most successful (…) water your weeds away’. Other apparent blessings for the gardener included Dieldrin Garden Pest Killer (‘non-tainting (…) more persistent than any other preparation’); Pillakiller (a ‘positive killer’ of caterpillars, apple blossom weevil, etc); 5%DDT Dust, for pea and bean weevil and similar bugs; Sulficide for fungal diseases, with ‘perfect mildew control’; and Coppicide as the ‘finest preventative for mildew’. Shell Tomato-Set helped in the setting and full development of tomatoes; Shelltox with Dieldrin had ‘exceptional residual properties’; and with just one spray of Universal DNC Fruit Tree Wash, the fruit farmer could kill the five major pests that might overwinter on his trees.
Yet over time these chemicals turned out to have very serious drawbacks. Their inherent toxicity made them difficult to handle, necessitating strict guidelines for handling and storage. In the field, the handling instructions were often rendered useless by the indiscriminate spraying of large areas from the air with blithe disregard for neighbouring people, animals, or crops.
In the United States, the Department of Agriculture sponsored such programmes in a drive to eradicate particular pests. Mixed with light oils, the pesticide compounds could easily be inhaled and stuck to the skin, through which they could enter the blood. For the same reason produce treated had to be thoroughly cleansed before food preparation. Moreover, the ‘drins were not very specific and killed other species besides those targeted. Worse, pests repeatedly exposed to spraying became resistant. Chlorinated hydrocarbons also proved to be persistent, leaving residues in the soil which washed into rivers and seeped into the groundwater. They travelled through the animal food chain via contaminated crops and pests eaten by rodents or birds, showing up in raptors laying eggs with abnormally thin shells or dying from doses built up over time. The ‘drins were also said to be carcinogenic to humans.
Some of the negative effects from drins were recognized early on. Bataafsche’s Amsterdam laboratory had already experimented with chlorinated hydrocarbons before the Second World War. In 1947 the biologist C. J. Briejer, who had done this work, was appointed head of the Dutch government’s Department of Plant Pathology, and in that capacity he began to sound the alarm on the effects of pesticides. In 1949 he published a fundamental article criticizing their ongoing indiscriminate use, following that with others highlighting specific effects, including the increasing resistance of insects. Six years later the British journal Chemical Age castigated experiments on cattle carried out by Shell with’ drins as possible systemic preventatives of infestation by insects. Oral doses had killed yearling Hereford cattle in less than five hours, but with subcutaneous injection only one animal died among many. The periodical considered that this was going too far: there was no point if residues in the carcass meant the meat was unfit for consumption, and there was a clear sense of disgust: ‘we cannot help feeling that on the whole this is a chemical venture that interferes too grossly with natural complexities and had better be abandoned. It was indeed abandoned, but the criticism was notable in coming from other professionals.
Gradually evidence about the wider effects of pesticides reached the public domain. In 1957 two British veterinary doctors established a clear link between bird deaths and the ingestion of dieldrin-dressed grain, which helped to explain the unusual numbers of dead birds in the British countryside. Other effects, particularly the persistence in soil and water and the spread through wildlife, took time before being noted and scientifically proven, partly because of the difficulty in measuring the sometimes infinitely small traces and in establishing the causal nexus between disparate phenomena. A year after setting up its toxicological unit at Sittingbourne in 1958, the Group started fundamental research there into the mechanisms of resistance to pesticides and into compounds, ‘preferably with low mammalian toxicity’, which would not show such resistance. In response to the emerging problems, scientists strove to find safer variants of the ‘drins. Proponex was marketed as ‘safe and easy to handle’, and in January 1958, improved applicators were introduced for Shell garden products including Ant Doom, now available as a dry powder in ‘Puffit’ packs.
A few months later Netelex was brought in as a non-toxic, non-corrosive hormone weedkiller for nettles, brambles and briars, along with dry Slug Doom and liquid Slug Kill. Phosdrin, claimed to last only three days in the crop, was introduced in 1957-58 as ‘a new wonder insecticide [which) should silence the concern about the residues of toxic pesticides in food crops’, and was initially hailed as ‘yet another example of expenditure on research and development paying handsome dividends’. Its sales at first were good, but by 1961 the figures were already falling ‘seriously, principally because of its high cost and high toxicity.’ Lastly in this run of new products,early in 1962 Telodrin was brought to the market as the most efficient and versatile insecticide yet discovered, after more than 400 field trials in 65 countries. Acting on the insects’ nervous system on contact, it was claimed not to affect the flavour of crops, damage plant tissues, or pose risk to human beings, provided of course that the recommended safety precautions were taken.
In June of that same year, the New Yorker magazine began its pre-publication serialization of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
Trained as a marine biologist, Carson had gradually developed an interest in the environmental damage done by pesticides, and she used Briejer’s work to support her scientific analysis of causes and effects. Silent Spring marks the birth of the modern environmental movement. Its shocking analysis of the impact of DDT and other chemical pesticides on nature found an immediate resonance. The book had a huge public impact in the US, where President Kennedy ordered his Science Advisory Committee to conduct a special investigation into pesticides. The committee recommended a gradual reduction of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides, working towards an eventual ban.
Elsewhere, Silent Spring was widely noticed and translations quickly appeared; its direct influence on public debate and government policy was greatest in Sweden, Britain, and the Netherlands.
Carson’s message quickly garnered support. In 1963 the British environmental organization Nature Conservancy presented a comprehensive study to the government about pesticide residues found in all terrestrial, freshwater, and marine wildlife species from around the British Isles. The study also established a link between the marked decline of certain birds of prey and the spread of pesticides. From its evidence, Nature Conservancy concluded that persistent organochlorine insecticides were by their nature uncontrollable and the organization therefore recommended a total ban on aldrin, dieldrin, heptachlor, and endrin.
That same year the journal Science reported DDT and dieldrin contamination in rivers allover the United States.
In 1964, the British govern- ment’s Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances used in Agriculture and Food Storage also recommended that the use of aldrin and dieldrin should cease except for very limited purposes.
The pesticides industry of course reacted indignantly to the charges levelled by Carson’s book and subsequent confirmations. Velsicol, the holder of the original ‘drin patents and still a major pesticides producer, attempted to have Silent Spring withdrawn by threatening its publisher with legal action to obtain damages for bringing its products into disrepute.
The industry counter attacked along three main lines. First, doubts were raised about Carson’s scientific credentials, as a single, female, marine biologist allegedly writing outside her sphere of competence, whose emotional appeal to reason ruled her work out of serious academic debate. Company representatives and researchers contested the solidity of the evidence and the causal links presented. Second, scientists were mobilized to reassure the public with an avalanche of statements that pesticides were both vital for world food production and essentially safe if used with the right precautions.
From page 433/435
Third, the pesticides producers exercised pressure on government departments of agriculture, with which they had collaborated in pest eradication programmes, to obtain support by public reassurances about the safety and necessity of pesticides for modern farming, and to forestall any initiatives for a ban.
As a leading pesticide manufacturer, Shell adopted the same attitude as the rest of the industry, refusing to accept the evidence and retreating into an ivory tower of scientific and technocratic certainties.
Rather than recognizing that the problem lay in the essence of the products themselves, the Group considered the furore about pesticides as a public relations problem to be solved by educating the public with better information. Why would the company have opted for a stubborn policy of denial, so markedly different from the more open-minded attitude taken over other issues?
First, the controversy appeared to remain isolated, limited to a few countries and to small sections of the population there. The 1969 Group environmental survey noted that pesticides caused substantially less concern than sulphur dioxide emissions, leaded gasoline, surface water pollution, or marine pollution, ‘and then only in more developed countries. As with lead in petrol though, there is a kind of submerged neurosis which could easily burst out if telling evidence of harm from residues were produced and publicised.
Second, ‘drin sales suffered very little from the negative publicity. The total volume of aldrin sold in the US peaked in 1966, four years after the publication of Silent Spring. The Group’s annual sales of pesticides peaked in the same year and subsequently remained more or less stable, but profits per ton rose, so the market continued to accept the products readily. A third, obvious reason lies of course in the profitability of the ‘drlns. In 1965, a fairly typical year, pesticides generated 14 per cent of the sales and 23 per cent of the profits from the chemical function.
Fourth, as noted before, environmental thinking during the 1960s focused on individual nuisances. Shell simply would not accept the side effects of its pesticides as a public nuisance; from the scientific viewpoint then current, the residues in wildlife posed no danger to human life at all, and they were a small price to pay for the great benefits to food production.
However, the fundamental reason why Shell refused to change its mind lies in the fact that there were really very few incentives to do so. In every case discussed above, environmentally friendly policies were inspired by the discovery of cost savings or other advantages, by the need to keep up with market trends, or because the cost of removing a nuisance yielded a benefit in the form of favourable publicity.
Despite a considerable effort to develop new types of pesticides, Group researchers could find no alternatives for the ‘drins with similarly strong patents, and with the efficiency of the ‘drins but without their disadvantages. In 1967, the Conference noted that it appeared unlikely that the Group would ever get ‘an alternative insecticide as ubiquitous – or as profitable – as dieldrin’.
From page 436/437/438
On the eve of the British publication of Silent Spring, the company distributed a leaflet entitled ‘For Your Information: Chemicals and Our Food’ to staff. This was followed with a special issue from Shell Briefing Services to Group companies, visits of expert UK journalists to the Group’s Woodstock laboratory, and training sessions in television techniques for spokesmen of the Association of British Manufacturers of Agricultural Chemicals. A film was sponsored giving both sides of the question, and Shell Transport’s Annual Report for 1962 took a firm line: ‘Agricultural chemicals play an essential part in ensuring better yields from the land. Fertilizers raise the productivity of the soil, herbicides kill the weeds, and pesticides destroy the insects and other pests that today deny man so much of the yield from all the crops he sows. These vital chemicals are sometimes attacked as “upsetting the balance of nature”, as dangers to bird and animal life, and even as a threat to human health. Such claims are greatly exaggerated: man “upset the balance of nature” the first time he grew a crop.
The riposte came under the general title of ‘Progress and Prospects’. Its length (more than one whole page out of three) and the wide range of other Shell responses showed how dangerous the criticisms were seen to be. The approach of Silent Spring’s UK publication in 1963 prompted a long memo from the chairman of Shell’s Agricultural Products Committee, C. L. Raymond, to the DCC. Pointing out that Carson was working outside her field of marine biology, Raymond noted that US government scientists and independent scientists considered her book useless as a scientific assessment, through its bias and innuendo. But he acknowledged the expected effect of the book and the risk it posed, and he recorded an interesting part of the Group’s reaction: ‘A large amount of toxicological work has been carried out by, or on behalf of, the Group in respect to Group pesticides. Until recently the Group’s policy was to “play down” toxicology, the word itself almost being banned. This policy has now been reversed, but the result of the earlier policy has been that little of the Group’s toxicological work has been published and laboratory reports have had a very restricted circulation.’
Raymond also identified a ‘powerful need to educate the public and co-operate with Government scientific advisers’. The secrecy formerly associated with the Woodstock laboratory was thus seen to have been a mistake: the industry could defend itself better from a critical public by sharing its information, proving it was doing everything possible to protect the public. Should the Group launch some ‘aggressive’ PR?
The CMD thought so, until counselled otherwise: regrettable though it might be, Shell was not actually a name that sprang to peoples’ minds when the chemical industry was mentioned, and its purposes might be better served through trade associations rather than directly. Likewise in the United States, where the pesticides controversy was growing and Congressional hearings were about to start, it was decided not to change Group PR policy ‘at this rather critical moment. We would not wish to appear unduly on the defensive’ . Instead it was felt again that the problem would be better tackled by the industry than by individual companies, but ‘Meanwhile studies will of course continue with special reference to the “side effects” of pesticides in humans.’
Therefore the publication, only two months later, of the Advisory Committee’s recommendation of a ban on ‘drins came as an unpleasant surprise. It was not so much the imposition of a UK ban that Shell feared: if accepted and acted upon there, the effect on Group business in the UK would be relatively unimportant, but if that lead were followed elsewhere it could assume serious proportions. The Group made immediate high-level representations to various departments of the British government, as well as interested bodies such as the National Farmers’ Union.
In preparing thereafter for a meeting with the Minister of Agriculture, a potential dilemma was recognized. If the Minister refused to permit a study of Shell’s compromise proposals (which the archives do not specify) and if he instead asked the Group to go along with the report’s recommendations voluntarily, then the CMD felt that agreeing to do so would constitute ‘an admission that the Group had acted irresponsibly, even improperly, in promoting the sale of the “condemned” substances for its own gain. On the other hand, a negative answer might well be represented as a “defiance” of the Government, the will of the people, etc. and be damaging to the Group in its relations both with the Government and the public.’
The CMD clung to the interpretation that the controversy stemmed from a genuine difference of scientific opinion, and consequently managing directors felt that the Group could not properly accept recommendations which, on the basis of its own research, knowledge, and experience, it considered to be ill- founded. To sidestep this dilemma, Shell accepted an extension of the earlier voluntary scheme agreed over Kotol to provide the government with information on new pesticides or new uses for old ones and on the properties and safety of chemicals marketed. As a result the recommendations of the advisory committee were not implemented at once.
The tide against pesticides reached a peak during the early 1970s. In 1972, the use of DDT was banned in the US, and during 1973-74 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held public hearings about a ban on aldrin and dieldrin in the US. The hearings concentrated on the charge that these pesticides could cause cancer of the liver. Again Shell tried to fight the case on scientific grounds. Expert witnesses contested the evidence for the alleged carcinogenic properties, and presented counter-evidence including a long-term study carried out on staff at the Pernis ‘drin plant, which had observed a lower than expected incidence of cancer.
It was to no avail; the Agency imposed a partial ban on aldrin and dieldrin in 1974 and a total ban the following year. Other countries soon followed, and by 1990 they had become the world’s most widely circumscribed class of insecticides, with their use either banned or severely restricted in approximately 150 countries.
As their step-by-step banning proceeded, the Group closed their production and ceased their sale in countries where it was no longer permitted.
When production ceased in the US, the ‘drins left a dreadful legacy at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a huge site of 27 square miles (nearly 7,000 hectares) west of Denver, Colorado. The US government had produced chemical weapons there during the Second World War, and in 1947 had leased part of the land and the buildinqs to Hyman to make pesticides and herbicides, as Shell Oil subsequently did. The ‘drins were manufactured separately from the USArmy’s chemicals production, which included mustard gas, white phosphorus, napalm, and GB1 nerve gas (also known as sarin). But disposal of the large quantities of toxic waste generated by the combined civilian and military production was undertaken jointly, by pumping the wastes into unlined trenches and pits. By the middle 1950s, soil, groundwater, and surface water were contaminated with aldrin, dieldrin, and arsenic; crops around the Arsenal suffered damage; ponds and lakes within the Arsenal were dying. As complaints mounted, efforts were made to contain the situation. An artificial evaporation lake of 93 acres (230 hectares) was dug and lined with asphalt; a well two miles deep was sunk on Army authority for the pressurized disposal of waste below the groundwater level. It was used from 1962 to 1966, when its use was discontinued after a series of earthquakes, possibly caused by the lubricant effect of the accumulating waste liquids. The pollution at Rocky Mountain Arsenal would lead to lengthy litigation between Shell Oil and the US government during the 1980s about the clean-up costs (see Volume 3. Chapter 5).
From page 441
Similarly, trends in the gasoline market could not be forced, as Shell Oil’s premature launch of lead-free gasoline showed. On the other hand, with pesticides neither the market nor governments exercised a pressure for change, so the Group continued selling the ‘drins until gradually forced to phase them out by legislation.
From page 446
This was Shell at its most self-absorbed, a technology-driven enterprise keeping its eyes fixed on an ever-receding horizon, with scant regard for common business yardsticks such as return on assets or shareholder returns. Its attitude towards growing public environmental worries was initially similarly inward-looking and carried by a conviction of knowing best, which found its most deplorable expression in the stubborn refusal to accept the toxicity of the ‘drins.
LA Times: Shell Oil to Pay $1 Billion for Toxic Waste Cleanup: December 20, 1988
(SAN FRANCISCO In a massive lawsuit among major corporations, a jury ruled Monday that Shell Oil Co., and not its 250 insurance companies, must pay upward of $1 billion for the toxic waste cleanup at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal north of Denver.)
2.2 Summary of clinical effects
Absorption can occur by inhalational, dermal, and gastrointestinal routes. Clinical toxicity from aldrin actually is due to its rapid metabolism in the body to dieldrin. Symptoms reflect CNS toxicity due to GABA neurotransmission inhibition: headache, tremors, giddiness, hyperexcitability, seizures and coma. Most deaths are intentional or accidental exposures to concentrated amounts. Aldrin is used in various formulations which include emulsifiable concentrates, wettable powders, granules, dusts and solutions in hydrocarbon liquids (deJong, 1991).
Links to Additional Information:
- Centers for Disease Control
- World Health Organization
- U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency