Monsanto, best know today for its agricultural biotechnology products, has a long and dirty history of polluting this country and others with some of the most toxic compounds known to humankind. From PCBs to Agent Orange to Roundup, we have many reasons to question the motives of this company that claims to be working to reduce environmental destruction and feed the world with its genetically engineered food crops.
- Headquartered near St. Louis, Missouri, the Monsanto Chemical Company was founded in 1901. Monsanto became a leading manufacturer of sulfuric acid and other industrial chemicals in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Monsanto began producing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs, widely used as lubricants, hydraulic fluids, cutting oils, waterproof coatings and liquid sealants, are potent carcinogens and have been implicated in reproductive, developmental and immune system disorders.
- The world’s center of PCB manufacturing was Monsanto’s plant on the outskirts of East St. Louis, Illinois, which has the highest rate of fetal death and immature births in the state. By 1982, nearby Times Beach, Missouri, was found to be so thoroughly contaminated with dioxin, a by-product of PCB manufacturing, that the government ordered it evacuated. Dioxins are endocrine and immune system disruptors, cause congenital birth defects, reproductive and developmental problems, and increase the incidence of cancer, heart disease and diabetes in laboratory animals.
- By the 1940s, Monsanto had begun focusing on plastics and synthetic fabrics like polystyrene (still widely used in food packaging and other consumer products), which is ranked fifth in the EPA’s 1980s listing of chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste.
- During World War II, Monsanto played a significant role in the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb.
- Following the war, Monsanto championed the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture, and began manufacturing the herbicide 2,4,5-T, which contains dioxin. Monsanto has been accused of covering up or failing to report dioxin contamination in a wide range of its products.
- The herbicide “Agent Orange,” used by U.S. military forces as a defoliant during the Vietnam War, was a mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D and had very high concentrations of dioxin. U.S. Vietnam War veterans have suffered from a host of debilitating symptoms attributable to Agent Orange exposure, and since the end of the war an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese children have been born with deformities.
- In the 1970s, Monsanto began manufacturing the herbicide Roundup, which has been marketed as a safe, general-purpose herbicide for widespread commercial and consumer use, even though its key ingredient, glyphosate, is a highly toxic poison for animals and humans. In 1997, The New York State Attorney General took Monsanto to court and Monsanto was subsequently forced to stop claiming that Roundup is “biodegradable” and “environmentally friendly.”
- Monsanto has been repeatedly fined and ruled against for, among many things, mislabeling containers of Roundup, failing to report health data to EPA, and chemical spills and improper chemical deposition. In 1995, Monsanto ranked fifth among U.S. corporations in EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, having discharged 37 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, land, water and underground.
- Since the inception of Plan Colombia in 2000, the US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in funding aerial sprayings of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides in Colombia. The Roundup is often applied in concentrations 26 times higher than what is recommended for agricultural use. Additionally, it contains at least one surfactant, Cosmo-Flux 411f, whose ingredients are a trade secret, has never been approved for use in the US, and which quadruples the biological action of the herbicide.
- Not surprisingly, numerous human health impacts have been recorded in the areas affected by the sprayings, including respiratory, gastrointestinal and skin problems, and even death, especially in children. Additionally, fish and animals will show up dead in the hours and days subsequent to the herbicide sprayings.
- In the 1980s and early 1990s, Monsanto was behind the aggressive promotion of synthetic Bovine Growth Hormone, approved by the FDA for commercial sale in 1994, despite strong concerns about its safety. Since then, Monsanto has sued small dairy companies that advertised their products as free of the artificial hormone, most recently bringing a lawsuit against Oakhurst Dairy in Maine.
- In August, 2003, Monsanto and its former chemical subsidiary, Solutia, Inc. (now owned by Pharmacia Corp.), agreed to pay $600 million to settle claims brought by more than 20,000 residents of Anniston, AL, over the severe contamination of ground and water by tons of PCBs dumped in the area from the 1930s until the 1970s. Court documents revealed that Monsanto was aware of the contamination decades earlier.
Sheldon Rampton, John Stauber, Trust Us, We’re Experts (New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 2002).
Brian Tokar, “Monsanto: A Checkered History,” The Ecologist, Sept./Oct. 1998
CBS News, 60 Minutes: Herbicide Problems, January 14, 2002