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Company Documents Reveal Agent Orange Producer Warned Of Hazards In 1957

December 27, 1988 GMT

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ A manufacturer of Agent Orange and other dioxin-tainted herbicides knew of dangers to its workers for 12 years, but rejected safety modifications because they could have hurt productivity, documents show.

Diamond Alkali Co., whose plant in Newark produced the herbicides between 1951 and 1969, received a series of memos in 1957 from C.H. Boehringer Sohn, a West German chemical manufacturer, warning of the dangers of a nameless byproduct of the manufacture of certain herbicides.

The byproduct eventually became known as dioxin and has been linked to skin diseases, liver damage, birth defects and some forms of cancer.

The memos were among confidential company documents provided to The Associated Press by an attorney, who acted on condition of anonymity, involved in litigation over the herbicides.

Company officials referred questions to attorney George McCarter of Newark, who said in a telephone interview that he and the company could not comment because of a pending lawsuit.

In 1967, Diamond Alkali merged with the Texas-based Shamrock Oil and Gas Co. to form the Diamond Shamrock Corp., which has its headquarters in Dallas. The New Jersey plant was closed in 1969.

Boehringer sent the memos to its competitors around the world after the West German company learned the hard way: A 1953 explosion at its Hamburg plant exposed 37 workers to the herbicide 2-4-5-T, and many of them developed a severe skin condition known as chloracne and eventually suffered liver damage.

The West German company, worried about the long-term effects of the contamination, tore the plant down and redesigned its production process to virtually eliminate dioxin. It offered to help its competitors, including Diamond Alkali, to do the same.

After a 1960 explosion at its plant, Diamond Alkali rebuilt it with little change in design, despite plant manager John Burton’s recommendation that some of Boehringer’s methods be adopted, the memos show.

David J. Porter, a Diamond Alkali researcher who acted as a liaison with the West Germans, seemed to be impressed with the West Germans’ methods, according to an internal company memo dated Sept. 18, 1957.

″In view of our problems with chloracne problems in our plant, it would certainly seem in order to check these observations, if possible, in trial plant runs,″ Porter wrote.

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But in papers filed with Essex County Judge Leo Yanoff, who is hearing the lawsuit against Diamond Shamrock, company researcher T.W. Fraser Russell questioned the feasibility of the West Germans’ ideas.

″Those suggestions, specifically concerning temperature and dilution, would have resulted in a far less productive and significantly less economic operation of the plant,″ he said.

The documents are expected to figure in a lawsuit pending in Essex County Superior Court on behalf of 21 former workers at Diamond Alkali’s plant, their relatives and some long-time residents of Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, the site of the plant.

The lawsuit charges that the company fradulently withheld information about the dangers of dioxin from the employees and the government.

State environmental officials in 1983 called the neighborhood one of the worst dioxin contamination sites in the nation and ordered a $16 million cleanup.

″It is clear that contrary to current beliefs, Diamond Shamrock knew in the late 1950s that its process for producing herbicides exposed workers to great risk and could have been altered,″ said plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Gordon.

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