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Shell employees sterilized by dibromochloropropane – DBCP


Shell and Dow were aware for more than 20 years that DBCP caused sterility in animals and the shrinking of testicles… A Shell official had instructed that speculation about possible harmful conditions to man should be omitted from registration of the product with the United States Department of Agriculture.

By John Donovan

On 11 February, we published an article about current litigation underway in the USA courts against Shell Oil Company and Dow Chemicals relating to the extremely hazardous chemical pesticide, dibromochloropropane (“DBCP”).

We have carried out some research into the background history of Shell’s association with DBCP, which stretches back almost 60 years.

In August 1977, an Associated Press syndicated article described DBCP as A pest-controlling chemical suspected of causing sterility in men and cancer in animals…” It said that The Washington Post had revealed that Shell and Dow were aware for more than 20 years that DBCP caused sterility in animals and the shrinking of testicles. Laboratory tests were carried out in 1952 and the findings reported to Shell in 1954.


The Post said that tests conducted in the 1950s by Dow and Shell, the two biggest producers of DBCP, and published in 1961 in the Journal of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, showed that the chemical caused several medical problems in animals, including the shrinking of testicles and sterility.

Earlier this month, evidence of sterility turned up among workers at a Dow Chemical Co. plant in Magnolia, Ark., who had worked with the chemical.

At the Occidental plant in Lathrop, Calif., a small town in the San Joaquin Valley section were found to be either totally sterile or had almost non-existent sperm counts.

In a follow-up article published on 30 August 1977, AP reported Shell’s admission that “some of its workers exposed to the pesticide DBCP show low levels of sperm.”

Shell had produced DBCP in Denver from 1955, despite the lab test results. A Shell official had instructed that speculation about possible harmful conditions to man should be omitted from registration of the product with the United States Department of Agriculture.

In October 1977 the Wall Street Journal news service reported an admission by Shell of great significance and concern to employees at Shell’s Denver plant:

Shell Investigators said they had found that among 39 workers with a history of possible exposure to DBCP at a Denver plant, the mean sperm count was 25 million sperm per milliliter of semen, and six workers hadn’t any sperm.

A few days later, the news was even more frightening.

Associated Press reported:

The federal government wants permanent rules to reduce worker exposure to DBCP, a pesticide found to cause sterility in males and stomach cancer in laboratory animals.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DBCP on food crops and Dow Chemical and Shell Oil Company suspended production and recalled all DBCP products.

The U.S. ban on manufacturing of DBCP, however, did not prevent Shell and Dow from exporting existing stocks of DBCP for use on plantations overseas.

Decades later, doctors in Costa Rica began to diagnose sterility in hundreds of banana plantation workers. Health officials questioned why Dow and Shell continued to sell a product knowing that “testicular atrophy may result from prolonged, repeated exposure.”

An article published in May 2003, reported that 586 Nicaraguan banana plantation workers are “hoping a U.S. court will get them a $468 million default judgment against Dow Chemical Co., Dole Food Co. Inc. and Shell Chemical Co. that was awarded to them by a court in Managua arising from exposure to dibtomochloropropane. Exposure to the pesticide was found to have caused sterility, as well as cancer, heart and respiratory problems in the workers.

DBCP was also found in groundwater at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, near Denver. See: CHEMICAL IS CONTAMINATING WATER IN COMMUNITY NEAR ARMY ARSENAL


Denver Business Journal: Shell, Army reach $35M Arsenal settlement with state: 29 May 2008

New York Times: “Wide Impact Expected In Shell Pollution Case” (Rocky Mountain Arsenal): 21 December 1988


Environmentally, DBCP is regarded as a highly persistent and mobile pesticide. DBCP decomposes slowly in soil, and studies show that DBCP remains in soils for years and is able to migrate through certain soils. DBCP is chemically stable in water, even in very small amounts, and persists in water for years and DBCP has also been reported as a low-level air contaminant. DBCP has been widely found as a contaminant in ground and surface water in California, Hawaii, and elsewhere in the United States and abroad. In California and Hawaii, municipalities have recovered significant sums from The Dow Chemical Company, Shell Oil Company, Occidental Chemical Corporation and AMVAC for costs related to the clean-up of DBCP-contaminated water supplies. DBCP related conditions included sterility or abnormally low sperm counts, cornea damage, cancer, chronic skin disorders, compromised renal systems and damage to their pulmonary and respiratory function.

Some of the above information is sourced from a legal document filed in the current litigation.

We have described Royal Dutch Shell as being an evil company. Its shameful conduct in this matter, once again giving higher priority to profits than to the health of its own employees (and other parties coming into contact with DBCP), provides further proof of this contention.


Shell’s Actions Will Speak Louder Than Words

Corporate Victims

Published: April 7, 1997

To The Editor

In your March 31 editorial ”Citizen Shell,” you rightly say that Royal Dutch/Shell must be pressed to live up to its new statement of business principles.

The first thing Shell should do is to recognize the terrible legacy left by a pesticide it invented, dibromochloropropane, or DBCP.

Shell or its subsidiaries continued to sell this product for use in the third world for several years after it was banned in the United States. As a result, tens of thousands of men in Africa, the Caribbean, the Philippines and Latin America were sterilized (news article, Dec. 6, 1995).

For more than a decade these men, whom I represent, have waged a legal struggle for fair compensation.

Rather than treating the claims fairly and compensating those who are shown to have been injured, Shell has spent more than 10 years evading the claims with procedural maneuvers. Fewer than 5 percent of the affected men have ever been compensated.

Shell could go a long way toward showing that it means what it says in its new statement of principles by compensating these victims of its conduct.


Dallas, April 1, 1997

The writer is a lawyer.

Citizen Shell

Published: March 31, 1997

A quarter-century ago, businesses argued that protecting the environment was not their job. Few American companies would say so today. A similar change may be developing in corporate attitudes about human rights. Companies are increasingly recognizing that their actions can affect human rights, and that respecting rights can be in their business interest.

The latest may be Royal Dutch/Shell, the world’s largest oil company. This month Shell issued a new set of business principles that call for respect of human rights ”in line with the legitimate role of business.” Shell says it will consult with local groups before beginning sensitive projects. It also will require managers to report on whether operations comply with human rights criteria. Given Shell’s dismal record, the company’s promises on human rights may be empty ones. But if Shell acts on its new commitments, it can become a better citizen.

The movement for business involvement in human rights began in the United States in the early 1990’s, after a wave of clothing and shoe companies began to use contractors in the Third World. These factories frequently employ children, pay starvation wages and intimidate union organizers.

In 1991, Levi Strauss wrote the first corporate code of conduct. It commits contractors to good labor practices and pledges that Levi Strauss will assess a nation’s human rights record before doing business there. About 100 American companies now have such codes.

They often go unenforced. Two years ago, the Gap became the first company to allow local labor, church and human rights leaders to monitor a notorious contractor plant in San Salvador. Conditions at the plant have since improved markedly. The idea is spreading to other apparel companies.

Shell, too, should permit independent monitors, but that is only a part of the solution for oil companies, which are often entangled in abuses that go beyond their own installations. Oil-rich governments, which can be among the world’s most oppressive, tend to have close and complex relationships with companies that produce large chunks of their earnings.

In Nigeria, the line between Shell and the local security forces was often blurred in the oil-rich Ogoniland. Nigerian police in the region were lent to Shell, which financed the purchase of their weapons. In one incident in 1990, Shell called the Mobile Police Force for security. After a clash in which a policeman was killed, the police massacred 80 villagers and burned 495 houses, according to a Government report. Shell’s Ogoniland production is now suspended.

Shell’s operations bring in more than 40 percent of the Nigerian dictatorship’s revenue. Shell refused calls to use its influence in 1995 when the Government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists who fought Shell and the Government for environmental cleanup and Ogoni rights. The men were convicted of murder in a sham trial that Shell never criticized. Two days before the executions, Shell urged that the sentences be commuted on humanitarian grounds.

Consumers and advocacy groups must now persuade other energy companies, some with equally questionable records, to join Shell in a human rights policy. They must also press Shell to live up to its new statements. As with the environment, the more people are attuned to human rights, the more corporations will see a reputation for responsibility as a profitable asset.


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