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Organic Consumers Association

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Years Before Vietnam, the Chemical Industry Knew About Dioxins

On 17 November 1953 a catastrophic accident took place at a German chemical plant owned by BASF (Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrik). Production went badly out of control and dozens of workers came into contact with the reaction contents, which contained the chemical dioxin (principally 2,3,7,8-TCDD). These workmen developed chloracne, what a Monsanto medical doctor was later to describe as “horrible skin eruptions with nearly blister-like welts and some ulcerations where infections ensued”  (link p506). These welts were found on “the face, neck, arms, and upper half of the body.”

Symptoms spread insidiously: a week after the accident six BASF workers were ill, two months later sixteen, a year later 60 workers showed symptoms. They complained not only about their pustules, but also of insomnia, dizziness, joint pain, and a loss of libido.

Ten days after the initial accident, BASF placed caged rabbits into the facility for “24-48 hours”. Two weeks later, not a single animal remained alive. An autopsy showed them to have died from acute liver failure.

The industry keeps the poison a secret

Dioxin is a chlorinated chemical compound that occurs especially when certain chemicals, such as trichlorophenol, overheat. Chemical companies have used trichlorophenol for decades in the production of pesticides. It is this manufacturing route that caused dioxins to become known worldwide as an unintentional contaminant in the defoliant “Agent Orange”, which the US Army deployed massively in the Vietnam war. Up to this day local people and soldiers are suffering its consequences.

But the letter from the Monsanto physician, stamped “Confidential”, is dated 1956, well before the Vietnam war. It is part of an extensive correspondence between German chemical manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim and US chemical group Dow. From such correspondence it can be concluded that the chemical industry knew of what one called “the extraordinary danger of the tetrachlorobenzodioxin”, yet kept it secret.

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