2 May 2012



Monsanto was created in 1901. The company's first product was the artificial sweetener saccharin. In the 1920s Monsanto expanded into basic industrial chemicals. During the Second World War Monsanto contributed to research on uranium for the Manhattan Project, which lead to the atomic bomb. Monsanto continued to operate a nuclear facility for the U.S. government until the late 1980s. During the 1940s Monsanto also become a leading manufacturer of synthetic fibres and plastics, including polystyrene - ranked fifth in the EPA’s list of chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste. From the 1940s onwards Monsanto was one of the top 10 US chemical companies.

Following the Second World War, Monsanto championed the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture. Its major agrochemical products have included the herbicides 2,4,5-T, DDT, Lasso and Agent Orange, which was widely used as a defoliant by the U.S. Government during the Vietnam War and which was later shown to be highly carcinogenic. The Agent Orange produced by Monsanto had dioxin levels many times higher than that produced by Dow Chemicals, the other major supplier of Agent Orange to Vietnam. This made Monsanto the key defendant in the lawsuit brought by Vietnam War veterans in the United States, who faced an array of debilitating symptoms attributable to Agent Orange exposure. Internal Monsanto memos show that Monsanto knew of the problems of dioxin contamination of Agent Orange when it sold it to the U.S. government for use in Vietnam.

Agent Orange contaminated more than 3 million civilians and servicemen, and an estimated 500,000 Vietnamese children have been born with deformities attributed to Agent Orange, leading to calls for Monsanto to be prosecuted for war crimes. No compensation has been paid to Vietnamese civilians and though some compensation was paid to U.S. veterans, according to William Sanjour, who led the Toxic Waste Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "thousands of veterans were disallowed benefits" because "Monsanto studies showed that dioxin [as found in Agent Orange] was not a human carcinogen." An EPA colleague discovered that Monsanto had apparently falsified the data in their studies. Sanjour says, "If [the studies] were done correctly, they would have reached just the opposite result."

The success of the herbicide Lasso had turned around Monsanto's struggling Agriculture Division, and by the time Agent Orange was banned in the U.S. and Lasso was facing increasing criticism, Monsanto had developed the weedkiller "Roundup" (active ingredient: glyphosate) as a replacement. Launched in 1976, Roundup helped make Monsanto the world's largest producer of herbicides.

The success of Roundup coincided with the recognition by Monsanto executives that they needed to radically transform a company increasingly under threat. According to a recent paper by Dominic Glover, "Monsanto had acquired a particularly unenviable reputation in this regard, as a major producer of both dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) - both persistent environmental pollutants posing serious risks to the environment and human health. Law suits and environmental clean-up costs began to cut into Monsanto's bottom line, but more seriously there was a real fear that a serious lapse could potentially bankrupt the company."

Such a fear was not misplaced. By the 1980s Monsanto was being hit by a series of lawsuits. It was one of the companies named in 1987 in an $180 million settlement for Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange. In 1991 Monsanto was fined $1.2 million for trying to conceal the discharge of contaminated waste water. In 1995 Monsanto was ordered to pay $41.1 million to a waste management company in Texas due to concerns over hazardous waste dumping. That same year Monsanto was 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. In 1997 The Seattle Times reported that Monsanto sold 6,000 tons of contaminated waste to Idaho fertilizer companies, which contained the carcinogenic heavy metal cadmium.

Then in 2002 the Washington Post ran an article entitled, "Monsanto Hid Decades Of Pollution, PCBs Drenched Ala. Town, But No One Was Ever Told". Monsanto began production of polychlorinated biphenyls in the United States in 1929. PCBs were considered an industrial wonder chemical - an oil that would not burn, was impervious to degradation and had almost limitless applications. Today PCBs are considered one of the gravest chemical threats on the planet.

Monsanto produced PCBs for over 50 years and they are now virtually omnipresent in the blood and tissues of humans and wildlife around the globe. These days PCBs are banned from production and some experts say there should be no acceptable level of PCBs allowed in the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says, “PCB has been demonstrated to cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system.” But the evidence of widespread contamination from PCBs and related chemicals has been accumulating from 1965 onwards and internal company papers show that Monsanto knew about the PCB dangers from early on. For instance, toxicity tests on the effects of two PCBs in 1953 showed that more than 50% of the rats subjected to them died, and all of them showed damage.


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