Dioxin, Bhopal and Dow Chemical

Against the Current, No. 106, September/October 2003

Ursula McTaggart

“All our Environment, Health and Safety activities are driven by the `Vision of Zero’–no harm to the environment, to our people or to anyone we touch in the value chain. Why? Because it is the only acceptable objective.” –The Dow Global Public Report, 2001(1)

IN MAY 2002, WHEN a student group protested outside Dow Chemical Corporation’s national headquarters in Midland, Michigan, participants insisted that the chemical giant face the consequences of its commitment to the bottom line. As members of a global movement to hold Dow accountable for the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, India, the protestors questioned the sincerity of the corporation’s recently revised “Triple Bottom Line–economic prosperity, environmental stewardship, and corporate social responsibility.”(2)

The communities infested by Dow toxins, they argued, not only Bhopal but American cities like Freeport, Texas; Morrisonville, Louisiana; and Dow’s own hometown of Midland, Michigan, have yet to see more than one bottom line.(3) The protestors further sought to remind Dow that its 2001 merger with Union Carbide carried more than economic weight.

In 1984, an accident at a Union Carbide pesticide plant released massive quantities of toxic gas into the air above Bhopal. The initial disaster claimed the lives of 8,000 local people, and approximately 20,000 have died from related illnesses in the years since. After refusing to provide Bhopali doctors with the chemical makeup of the toxic gas on grounds that it was a trade secret, Union Carbide settled with the Indian government (which assumed the sole right to represent the Bhopali people) for $470 million.

Carbide summarily abandoned the plant, leaving survivors with a settlement of approximately $370 to $533 each, a sum insufficient to cover even basic medical expenses. In the nearly twenty years since, chemicals from the closed plant have contaminated soil and ground water in Bhopal, causing chronic illness and death from exposure-related disease.(4) Hundreds of thousands suffer blindness, near-blindness, and difficulty breathing; the disaster has also led to higher rates of cancers, birth defects, and immune disease.(5)

When Dow merged with Union Carbide in 2001, it nominally assumed the latter’s massive liabilities and assets. Since the merger, however, Dow has insisted that the Bhopal case is closed. Like Union Carbide before it, Dow has refused to offer Bhopalis even the basic compensations of medical care and a safe environment.


Activists in the ongoing movement for compensation and cleanup in Bhopal have transferred their demands to Dow in the wake of the merger. As a result, Midland, Michigan has seen a wave of protests rivaled in local memory only by the struggle over napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The student protestors of May 2002, who demonstrated outside the yearly shareholders’ meeting, faced an angry response from shareholders, one of whom advised a group of Michigan natives of South Asian descent to “go home.” A lone counter-protestor paraded his own sign across the street, spreading the ironic message that protestors “R stupid.”

As a major employer in a small, conservative town, Dow Chemical has fostered this overtly racist and hostile response by equating the good of the company with the good of the Midland people. Attacks on Dow, it insists, are attacks on Midland; some Midlanders have adopted this view, labeling activists “outsiders.”

Dow has attracted the international attention of activists because of its history of global irresponsibility. For an industrial chemical company that produces few commercial products, Dow has remarkable name recognition. Until 1998, it produced Saran Wrap, Ziploc bags, and household cleaners such as Scrubbing Bubbles and Fantastik.(6)

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. government commissioned Dow to produce napalm and Agent Orange. Since then, Dow has faced numerous charges concerning the safety of its pesticides, some of which, namely DDT and Dursban, have been ruled unsafe in the United States.(7) It has also been harangued by residents and environmentalists for toxins in soil and water surrounding several of its corporate sites, including its Midland headquarters.

In October 2002, American courts found Dow liable for asbestos contamination at Union Carbide sites from 1945 to 1980.(8) While Dow has minimally acknowledged Union Carbide’s liabilities in the United States, its stance on Bhopal remains firm.

In a letter to Dow employees on the 18th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, then-CEO Michael Parker wrote that “what we cannot and will not do–no matter where Greenpeace takes their protests and how much they seek to undermine Dow’s reputation with the general public–is accept responsibility for the Bhopal accident . . . I also hope you will not let this deter your pride in our company and all that it stands for.”(9)

Not everyone in the Midland community, of course, has accepted Dow’s attempts to link community and corporate pride. In spite of Dow’s efforts to label Bhopal activists as “outsiders,” many Midland residents have found common ground with Bhopalis. In the eyes of local environmental groups, Midland and its surrounding areas are facing the fate of Bhopal in slow motion.

The crime in Bhopal killed tens of thousands of people while the dioxin controversy in Midland centers on long-term health risks in a primarily white, middle-class population. Both movements, however, insist on the right to a safe environment and on Dow’s accountability to its communities. As participants in the movement for justice in Bhopal have increasingly frequented Midland, they have joined forces with local organizers against dioxin.

The Midland movement, including local groups such as Tittabawassee River Watch, Environmental Health Watch and the Lone Tree Council, has battled for many years against Dow’s practices of environmental contamination. Diane Hebert, one of Midland’s most committed and oft-cited critics of Dow policy, has been battling the corporation with a modest cadre of committed residents since 1978. She has recently found renewed inspiration in alliances with members of the Bhopal movement.

Dow’s imposing presence and its savvy public relations techniques in the Midland area, however, have hindered efforts at solidarity between Bhopalis and Midlanders. “To speak out in this community,” Diane Hebert remarks, “you’re going to get knocked right down to the floor.”(10)

Despite the fact that 179 Michigan residents have recently filed suit against Dow for health risks and loss of property value due to dioxin contamination, Dow continues to insist that opposition comes not from residents of its beleaguered communities but from meddling activist groups.(11)

Michael Parker’s company letter addressing Bhopal (cited above) illustrates Dow’s common tactic of isolating opposition within one “outside” group of activists, typically Greenpeace. Eluding the demands of Bhopalis and Midlanders for personal safety, spokesmen for the company work instead to discredit the “extreme” actions of Greenpeace activists.

Dow Chemical maintains that its campaign for public opinion has been almost wholly successful in Midland. In a survey conducted by Dow in Midland County, for instance, 84% of respondents indicated that they had positive feelings for their local corporation. Those who responded negatively cited, in Dow’s characteristically brief language, “environmental concerns, layoffs or poor treatment of employees and communication with the public and employees.”

Dow’s survey may or may not reflect the actual beliefs of those interviewed. Although Dow touts its 84% approval rating, 68% of respondents also expressed concern about the health effects of dioxin.(12)

As the major employer in Midland, Dow wields power over all those with an interest in maintaining their jobs, their lifestyles, and the economy of the community. Many employees are reluctant, regardless of personal convictions, to criticize Dow publicly. As Hebert notes:

“[T]here’s deep denial [in Midland], and it’s understandable. Midland is an upper-middle class community. It has amenities other communities don’t have. On the side, I have people that thank me, that say, keep doing what you’re doing. However, will they do it? No. And of course there are some people that just believe Dow without looking at the facts.(13)

Dow has maintained this combination of intimidation and misinformation through an elaborate system of publicity that merges the benefits of a transnational corporation (TNC) with those of a local business. Dow promotes the integration of local pride and company pride by donating to the community and expressing its hometown values. Simultaneously, the chemical manufacturer suppresses dissent with the threat of relocation–a characteristic mark of a TNC.

Dioxin: “It’s in the Wrap!”(14)

Dioxin and its highly contested health risks have generated the most consistent and threatening dissent from Midland area residents. The current lawsuit, which is being considered for class-action status, may be a milestone in Hebert’s twenty-five year struggle.(15)

Hebert and local environmental groups further hope that a soil movement advisory sent by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to residents in June, 2003 will give credence to their own contentions that dioxin is a serious threat to public health. This set of warnings informed residents of the Tittabawassee River flood plain that hazardous activities for dioxin contamination include gardening and mowing the lawn.

Residents were advised to wear gloves and/or masks while performing such activities and to discourage children from playing in the soil. These warnings contradict Dow’s message that local dioxin levels pose no threat to public health.(16)

Dioxin, a contaminant made infamous by Agent Orange and the ensuing claims of health problems among Vietnam veterans, enters Midland water and soil primarily through chlorine production and incineration of chemical materials. After entering the Tittabawassee River through emissions and runoff from Dow, dioxin seeps into the soil around the river during floods. Area residents who do not work at Dow or live in the flood plain also receive dioxin exposure, albeit in lower doses.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the National Toxicology Program, dioxin is a cancer-causing agent. Environmentalist and biologist Joe Thornton contends “dioxin is the most immunotoxic organochlorine ever studied.”(17) In animal studies, it has been linked to an array of severe health problems, including cancer, birth defects and infertility.

As the largest dioxin releaser in Michigan, Dow plants account for 97% of all water and 96% of all soil emissions of dioxin in the state.(18) In Michigan, 33 parts per trillion (ppt) represents a normal quantity of dioxin in the soil,(19) and the MDEQ residential action criterion for dioxin is set at 90 pt.(20)

Although Dow claims that levels of dioxin in Midland are safe, little evidence supports such a claim. In fact, researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have unsuccessfully sought a safe exposure level to dioxin for more than a decade. They have seen immune suppression in rats at exposure levels that, adjusted for humans, are comparable to the dioxin “body burden” of the average American (10 ppt), not just the average Midlander.(21)

Taking these results into account, samples from the Midland area suggest serious cause for concern. In 1996, researchers found concentrations on Dow property as high as 8,840 ppt. Off-site samples, including schools and playgrounds, yielded results as high as 602 ppt. A follow-up study in 1998 found concentrations on Dow property up to 17,000 ppt. Despite the marked increase in dioxin levels on company property between 1996 and 1998, no residential areas or off-site locations were re-tested in the 1998 investigation.(22)

These studies, as well as activist efforts by environmental groups, have pressured Dow to conduct further testing–yet on its own terms. In November 2002, Dow agreed to fund and perform dioxin testing both on- and off-site provided that the state of Michigan sanction temporary dioxin levels of 831 ppt in the Midland area.

A public meeting in Midland concerning the consent order attracted 130 people, the majority of whom expressed their approval. Some argued that dioxin testing is wholly unnecessary.(23) The efforts of local environmental groups, however, along with the impending end of Governor John Engler’s term and charges of illegality from several MDEQ officials, brought the order to a halt in the last days of December.(24) Dow has yet to reach a new agreement about the future of dioxin testing.

Dow’s reluctance to continue testing in Midland stems from the fact that statistical data on the health effects of dioxin exposure in humans remain inconclusive. Dow prides itself on its twenty-two publications, eighteen in peer-reviewed journals, examining the effects of dioxin (the majority of these investigations took place in the 1970s and 80s).

The validity of these publications has been questioned by numerous organizations, but even Dow’s notoriously inconclusive studies have acknowledged “that cohort members may have incurred increased risk of death due to some specific causes,” including “a small but significant increased risk of kidney cancer,” as this 1996 study concluded.(25)

Other, independent studies have produced slightly different results. For instance, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published a landmark study in 1999 of 5,132 American workers exposed to dioxin from twelve different plants. These researchers found:

“[a] statistically significant positive trend for cancer mortality with increasing exposure, with a 60% excess of mortality for all cancers combined in the highest exposure group. The excess of all cancers in those subjects with highest exposure was not specific for any type of cancer, paralleling other recent studies.”(26)

A 1991 study likewise reported a “small but significant increase in mortality from all cancers combined. The observed increase is consistent with a carcinogenic effect of TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-ioxin).”(27)

Studies conducted on the dangers of dioxin, both by Dow and independent researchers, have addressed dioxins impact only on exposed workers, many of whom suffered extreme exposure unlikely to occur in the general population. It remains difficult to assess the risks of a contaminated community, and current statistics indicate that Midland’s cancer and birth defect rates are consistent with those of Michigan as a whole.

The MDEQ and Michigan Department of Community Health are currently planning the first study involving residents of Midland’s most contaminated region: the Tittabawassee River flood plain. This study promises to add little to current knowledge, however, as it will investigate only twenty-five current residents, yielding insufficient statistical data and ignoring many individuals who have suffered health problems since they have moved away from the flood plain.

Facing conflicting results from internal and external studies, many in the local community remain skeptical about a connection between Dow-produced dioxin and cancer or birth defects. Reliable studies concerning the public health risks of dioxin are both sorely needed and difficult to obtain from a scientific standpoint.

For the time being, non-corporate sources provide the most reliable information. Even independent sources, however, face corporate pressure in releasing their findings. In 2000, for instance, the Department of Health & Human Services changed its classification of dioxin from a “reasonably anticipated human carcinogen” to a “known human carcinogen.” Predictably, its ruling was disputed by an industry trade association.

The classification was ultimately upheld in a Federal Court of Appeals. To the dismay of dioxin-producing corporations all over the country, the court ruled that its decision was reasonable and based on sufficient evidence.(28)

Dow, in a move reminiscent of tobacco company denials about the connection between smoking and lung cancer, continues to publicize the fact that scientists have been unable to forge a conclusive link between dioxin and human health problems. Evidence of dioxin’s toxicity, however, abounds.

As Thornton notes, as of 2000, “there have been 18 separate assessments of dioxin’s carcinogenicity, involving five different species of experimental animals, both sexes, five routes of exposure, and high and low doses over short and long periods of time. In every case, dioxin has caused cancer.”(29)

“Three Faces” of the Bottom Line

Dow aims to soothe and silence local fears with a three-pronged strategy that Art Kleiner, in his own reading of the corporation in the early 1990s, identified as the “three faces of Dow:” traditional Dow, antagonistic Dow, and environmentalist Dow.

Traditional Dow views itself as a family business based on the legacy of its founder, Herbert Henry Dow. Antagonistic Dow appeared in the 1960s, `70s and early `80s, when it faced its heaviest attacks from protestors over napalm and Agent Orange. Environmentalist Dow has emerged only in the last fifteen years, when the corporation began to present a friendlier, more responsible face to the public.(30)

In fact, Dow seems to have overtly adopted Kleiner’s categories in its own recent PR development: the Triple Bottom Line. Antagonistic Dow represents the standard bottom line of economic prosperity while traditional Dow matches the corporation’s definition of social responsibility, which can more accurately be termed philanthropy. Environmentalist Dow, of course, reflects the third bottom line: “environmental stewardship.”

Kleiner notes that all three Dows continue to exist in today’s corporation, but he does not address the effect these public images have had on the Midland community. As a TNC, Dow’s environmental face plays a crucial role in its global image: Only under the guise of an environmentally conscious company can Dow refute charges from the Bhopali community or from Midland residents.

As a corporation that maintains its original global headquarters in Midland, however, the traditional and antagonistic identities remain important in defining and defending Dow as a local corporation. Today, Dow’s global image relies on publicity for individual acts of environmental responsibility and social justice, while its local image operates through cultural and educational philanthropy carried out in the Dow name.

Dow’s motto, “Living. Improved Daily,” serves as a vehicle to link consumer goods to corporate philanthropy. The corporate website features “headline news stories” centered upon its sweeping slogan, and in order to access these stories, one must click on the major visual focus of the Dow page. In November 2002, this was an image of a soccer ball.

The website’s focal image–unrelated to the production of pesticides or industrial chemicals–varies according to the topic of the headline, and it typically illustrates Dow’s philanthropy or global contribution to quality of life. Choice examples, like the lollipop that graced the screen in July 2002, reflect the corporation’s benevolence toward children. In that case, Dow illustrated its chemical contribution to flavored children’s medicines.(31)

The soccer ball similarly represented the plight of a British elementary school for disabled children. Upon discovering that the playground lacked proper surfacing for wheel<->chair access, Dow contributed materials to pave the school grounds with recycled rubber and a Dow-manufactured polyurethane binder.(32)

The “headline” that inspires the site’s changing graphic almost inevitably addresses Dow’s humanitarian actions. The secondary articles fall into two categories. The first, echoing the central headline, describes humanitarian uses for Dow products, usually accompanied by an account of a specific donation. In one such article Dow announces its contribution of Styrofoam insulation for Habitat for Humanity Homes in Korea.(33)

The second category advertises commercial uses for Dow products, exemplified by an article on more comfortable, fashionable clothes due to Dow’s elastic fibers. At the end of each story, Dow reminds us that it improves our lives daily both through “new fibers from Dow [that] stretch the imagination” and through “playground surfaces that allow year-round fun for everyone.”(34)

These headlines/advertisements equate global acts of philanthropy with the development of commercial products like stretch jeans. The ostensibly intimate association between “social responsibility” and success in the capitalist market lends credence to Dow’s Triple Bottom Line.

But while each bottom line holds equal space on the website, the three objectives certainly do not receive equal corporate attention. “Economic Prosperity” in the form of capitalist growth necessitates ever-increasing production and sales. As Thornton notes, in order to increase production while decreasing toxic emissions, corporations like Dow would have to flood huge amounts of money into expanding environmental protections faster than product growth.

Even such wholesale commitment to environmental technology would, moreover, only slow the rate at which Dow releases toxins into the environment. Despite its professed commitment to the “Vision of Zero–no harm to the environment, to our people or to anyone we touch in the value chain,” Dow has no intention of reconsidering its dependence on the dangerous chlorination process or of supporting environmentally friendly alternatives to its own products, from pesticides and dry cleaning products to PVC building materials.(35)

In other words, there is little chance that Dow will abandon its economic interests in hazardous chemical production in order to make a genuine effort at environmental rehabilitation.

Dow’s flimsy commitment to its two unusual “bottom lines” emerges when the corporation’s profits are threatened, as they have been in the last several years. Although net sales for Dow in 2002 totaled $27.6 billion, corporate stock registered a loss for the second year in a row, leaving investors nervous and unwilling to make concessions that may compromise economic benefits.

To protect such interests, Dow cut its 2002 philanthropic donations by $6 million from 2001; in addition to its 4,500 layoffs in 2001 due to the merger, Dow also plans to cut 3,000 to 4,000 jobs globally in 2003.

Its social responsibility to Bhopal, too, remains subordinated to the true bottom line. Dow informs readers of its “2002 Global Public Report” that “we are aware of potentially significant legal risks associated with [assuming responsibility for the Bhopal tragedy], and we will not compromise our obligation to protect our shareholder interests.”(36)

While Bhopalis received neither just compensation nor the “humanitarian” donation Dow has been promising for years, CEO William Stravropoulos amassed $3.1 million in total compensation, including stock option grants.(37) The executive officer also retains $5.96 million in unexercised stock options.

Stavropoulos’ salary places Dow’s $22 million in global philanthropic contributions into perspective. These donations would sustain approximately seven such executives (excluding unexercised stock options).(38) The $22 million in donations represents Dow’s sole commitment to “social responsibility.” In fact, Dow confuses philanthropy with social responsibility, and in doing so allows isolated acts of philanthropy to stand in for human rights.

For instance, Michael Parker frequently insisted during his tenure as CEO that Dow had no obligation to aid the people of Bhopal but that the company was nevertheless considering a humanitarian contribution to the Bhopal fund.(39) Such contributions are frequently recognized in Midland and around the world by attaching the Dow name to buildings and institutions.

The other aspect of social responsibility as represented in Dow’s 2001 and 2002 Public Reports is the company policy of encouraging employees to donate their own time and money to charities. In fact, in 2001 Midland employees nearly matched their employer in donations to the Midland area, giving $1.3 million to charitable organizations in comparison to Dow’s $1.9 million in local contributions.

While warning employees that they may not use company time to participate in community service, Dow measures and publicizes its own probity through the independent acts of its workers.(40)

The Hometown Team: Midland Chemics

While the corporate website presents Dow’s global public image through advertising and accounts of environmental and social philanthropy, Dow manufactures its local corporate image by other means. In Midland, the Dow name clings to numerous public institutions, most of which perform educational or cultural functions in the community.

For instance, the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library (Midland’s sole public library) and the local botanical Dow Gardens both accept contributions from the Dow Chemical Company Foundation and the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. The latter is an organization operated by members of the Dow family and presided over by a Board of Trustees that includes Michael Parker.(41)

While the corporation’s own donations enhance its reputation in Midland, the H.H. and G.A. Dow Foundation stresses Dow’s personal link to the community because it re<->mains in the hands of the Dow family. Through contributions to the arts and education, Dow establishes a socially responsible and culturally tasteful image in its home town.

Both foundations likewise support the political aims of the corporation. In these cases, however, the Dow name accompanies its money more discreetly. Many local politicians, for instance, depend upon Dow for financial support and local publicity. Michigan Democrats have complained that Dow illegally assisted Michigan Senator Tony Stamas (Republican) by placing campaign calls to local residents from Dow phones.(42)

Republican U.S. Representative Dave Camp received $11,000 from Dow Political Action Committees (PACs) during the 2001-2002 election period and invests a substantial amount of money in Dow stock.(43) Former Republican U.S. Representative and current Court of Appeals judge Bill Schuette has long relied on Dow money as the step-son of former Dow chairman Carl Gerstacker.

The Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank centered in Midland, also receives a large portion of its operating revenue from Dow Chemical and the Dow heirs. In 1997, the H.H. and G.A. Dow Foundation gave $1 million to support the construction of the Mackinac Center’s new headquarters, and since then it has contributed at least $100,000 yearly.(44) Dow Chemical further contributed $80,000 to the Center in 1996 and $75,000 in 1997.(45)

Like the local political arena, the Midland school system has historically served as a training ground for factory workers, scientists and administrators at Dow. Consequently, Dow has done its best to leave its imprint on Midland’s public school system. Midland houses two large public high schools, H.H. Dow High and Midland High (Midland High athletic teams compete as the Midland Chemics).

In conjunction with the National Science Teachers Association, Dow produces a yearly science curriculum for high schools across the country. Curricula from the late 1990s include lesson plans entitled “Shake it Up Baby! Cations and Chelates in Detergent Solutions” and “It’s in the Wrap! Physical Properties of Food Wraps.”(46)

Using these lesson plans, Dow scientists visit schools in Midland (and in Dow towns across the country), teaching students to identify scientific principles with Dow products. As preparation for possible employment at Dow, children learn the processes of research and development that lead to the production of Saran Wrap and cleaning solutions. Science, they learn, is commercial product development.

In fact, Dow even targets elementary school children in its “educational” advertising campaigns. In a chemistry pamphlet stamped repeatedly with the corporate logo and designed for use “at home or in the classroom,” Dow outlines instructions for science experiments. Following each experiment is an outline of the underlying scientific principle and an example of a product that exhibits this principle. For instance:

“using these principles, a new kind of plastic called polymers are more affordable because they drastically lower the viscosity of the plastic during the manufacturing. These plastics are used in packaging that keeps food fresher, longer. So you and your family can eat healthier foods.(47)

Such advertisements for Saran Wrap and aerosol products (bearing false logic like the claim that Saran Wrap leads to healthier eating) invade and commercialize supposedly educational science experiments.

Dow Chemical’s corporate propaganda in Midland, spread through the political system, the public school system, and public cultural centers, masks a threat of transnationalization. Masao Miyoshi defines a TNC as “promot[ing] loyalty to itself among shareholders, employees, and clients rather than to its country of origin or host countries,” and Dow exemplifies Miyoshi’s description in its adamant refusal to deal adequately with contamination in Midland or Bhopal.(48)

Environmentally conscious Midlanders like Diane Hebert face resistance from local people who view Dow jobs in Midland as increasingly precarious. Such fears are difficult to dismiss: Dow’s Michigan Operations employ a total of 6,000 local residents (many more work for Dow indirectly, through contractors), and the Steelworkers Local 12075 represents 1,100 workers who rely on Dow for union-level pay and long-term stability.

Community members have recently feared for the security of these jobs as they watched Dow announce 125 layoffs in Midland between January and April of 2003.(49) Faced with an economically terrifying picture of Midland without Dow, many choose to remain silent about the company’s environmental abuses, both in Michigan and around the world.

The Changing Face of Activism

The strength of TNCs in today’s world has changed the face of activism. Dow’s current and former products–in forms like Dursban, dioxin, napalm and Styrofoam–affect the entire world.

Dow employs workers in regions such as South America, Hong Kong, Canada and Germany. At the same time, Dow promotes its image as a hometown company with permanent roots in Michigan. Dow’s massive program of cultural propaganda and economic influence in Midland has considerably stanched the flow of local dissent.

The movement for justice in Bhopal, on the other hand, has become increasingly vocal and widespread. The International Coalition for Justice in Bhopal currently represents the survivors of the gas leak, and its membership includes Bhopalis and activists from around the world. In the past months, Bhopalis have traveled to the United States to participate in protests with members of organizations such as Greenpeace and South Asian student groups.

Activists have personally confronted Dow executives all over the world, challenging Dow’s stance on Bhopal and presenting executives with brooms to signify Dow’s responsibility for waste clean-up.(50)

The persistence of the Bhopal movement stems from the grassroots organization of Bhopalis themselves. Survivors and current residents still affected by contaminated water and soil refuse to be silenced or contained.

Like Bhopalis, Midlanders have the potential to gain worldwide support in fighting back against Dow. The University of Michigan contingent of Justice for Bhopal has been particularly vocal in its desire to join forces with the Midland community.

Shivani Patel, co-facilitator of Ann Arbor’s branch of Justice for Bhopal,(51) describes the attempt to join the two movements not just in Michigan, but globally: “There is no excuse to put profit ahead of human life, and the Coalition for Justice in Bhopal was formed last December to remind Dow of its liabilities in Bhopal while working in solidarity with the activists dedicated to Dow’s environmental contamination of Michigan.”(52)

Located within 100 miles of Midland, the Ann Arbor activists have a stake in articulating the movements in Midland and Bhopal. Ryan Bodanyi, also a co-facilitator of the group, has pressed the University of Michigan to condemn Dow’s socially irresponsible behavior.

“[Midland’s] contamination,” Bodanyi says, “like Bhopal’s, has poisoned tens of thousands of people; Dow’s response, as in Bhopal, has been to stonewall and skirt the issue and to try to avoid a proper clean-up. The only difference is that this time, it happened in our own backyard.”(53)

Midlanders, unlike Bhopalis, have some measure of economic power as Dow stockholders, executives, employees, and middle-class neighbors. The growing activist movement in Midland, in solidarity with that in Bhopal (and in other Dow-contaminated locations globally), could put substantial pressure on the corporate giant.

The 179 Michigan residents currently suing Dow predict that, if their suit is granted class-action status, they will be joined by as many as two thousand local residents.(54)

Such a message from Dow’s hometown could have a powerful effect. As Miyoshi notes, global relations of power continue to determine “outside” and “inside” relationships even when TNCs destroy geographic barriers.(55)

In the past decades, environmentalists have pressured Dow into a program of lowering emissions.(56) Today, activists have the opportunity to enforce and enhance Dow’s environmental commitments. Shivani Patel hopes Midlanders will hold Dow to its promises of social and environmental responsibility.

“As many people have noted,” she adds, “Dow’s pollution of Midland is equivalent to the Bhopal gas leak in slow motion–Midland is a disaster waiting to happen. In both cases, Dow Chemical neglects its legal and ethical responsibility to the local people and the environment; the corporation’s behavior is clearly contrary to its own motto: `Living. Improved Daily.’”(57)

POSTSCRIPT: Since this article was written, the Indian government has sought the extradition of Warren Anderson, chairman of Union Carbide in 1984, for his role in the Bhopal gas leak. The U.S. government, however, is unlikely to deliver Anderson without a fight.(58)


  1. “The Dow Global Public Report, 2001,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/publicreport/2001/index.htm, October 23, 2002.
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  2. Ibid.
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  3. Freeport, Texas houses Dow’s largest manufacturing plant. Morrisonville, Louisiana was the highly contaminated site of a Dow plant that produced the components of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) building materials. In 1989, Dow began a campaign to buy out and relocate nearly all of Morrisonville’s 300 citizens. By doing so, the corporation hoped to avoid the bad publicity and expense of a law suit. See Joe Thornton, Pandora’s Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000, 308.
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  4. “Dow: Life Poisoned Daily,” Greenpeace USA Home Page, http://www.greenpeace usa.org, November 23, 2002.
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  5. Plaintiff’s Motion for Class Certification, Statfeld v. Allemang, No. 00CV334, (S.D.N.Y. filed April 2000), available at http://www.bhopal.net/fulldowclass.html.
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  6. Dow continues to produce the chemical components to these products. The rights to the commercial products themselves now belong to SC Johnson. The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com, December 3, 2002.
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  7. In 2000 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned Dursban for over-the-counter sales and household uses but allowed limited agricultural use of the pesticide to continue. DDT has been banned in the United States. “Agreement Reached to Eliminate Dursban Pesticide for Nearly all Household Uses,” EPA Newsroom, http://www.epa.gov/epahome/headline_0608.htm, June 8, 2000. “DDT Regulatory History: A Brief Survey (to 1975),” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/ddt/02.htm, July, 1975.
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  8. April Vitello, “Jury Finds Union Carbide Liable in Asbestos Lawsuit,” The Associated Press State and Local Wire, Lexis-Nexis Academic, October 25, 2002.
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  9. Original emphasis. “An Open Letter to All Employees, on the Tragedy in Bhopal, India 18 Years Ago,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/dow_news/corporate/2002/20021128a.htm, November 28, 2002. Shortly after this letter, on December 12, 2002, Dow’s board of directors fired Michael Parker due to the corporation’s “disappointing financial performance” and elected a former CEO, William Stavropoulos, to take his place. For more information, see Beth Medley Bellow, “Shakeup at Dow,” The Midland Daily News, http://www.ourmidland.com, December 13, 2002.
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  10. Diane Hebert, telephone interview, June 23, 2003.
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  11. Kathie Marchlewski, “Judge Reviews Dioxin Suit,” The Midland Daily News, http://www.ourmidland.com, June 24, 2003.
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  12. “Midland Operations Community Survey,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/facilities/namerica/michigan/outreach/survey.htm, July 13, 2003.
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  13. Diane Hebert, op. cit.
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  14. “It’s in the Wrap!: Physical Properties of Food Wraps,” 1996 Dow/NSTA High School Lesson Plans, http://www.dow.com/about/corp/social/edu96.htm, February 15, 2003.
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  15. Marchlewski, op. cit.
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  16. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, “Soil Movement Advisory for Private, Public, and Commercial Projects,” 2003. Available at: http://www.deq.state.mi.us/documents/deq-rrd-TR-Advisory-dioxin-Color-Final.pdf
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  17. Thornton, op. cit., 148. According to Thornton, organochlorines are “chlorinated organic substances . . . that dominate all lists of global contaminants and environmental hazards. Organochlorines are produced when chlorine is used in the chemical, paper, water treatment, and other industries, and they include a variety of familiar and obscure plastics, pesticides, solvents, refrigerants, and accidental by-products.” Thornton, vii.
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  18. “New Federal Data Shows Dow Largest Total Dioxin Emitter in Michigan,” The Michigan Environmental Council Report Volume 20.3 (June 2002). Available at: http://www.mecprotects.org/MER/JUN02/dow.html
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  19. Even “normal” levels of dioxin likely stem from industrial pollution, despite industry claims that most dioxin in the environment is naturally occurring. See Thornton, op. cit., 216-229 for a critical examination of these claims.
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  20. “Dow Chemical Talks About Tittabawassee Dioxin Find,” The Associated Press State and Local Wire, October 16, 2002. Although the MDEQ’s residential action criterion is the most frequently cited, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) gives a drastically different action criterion: 1000 ppt. Such disparate figures reflect the confusion surrounding the safety of dioxin exposure–and perhaps corporate influence on government regulations.
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  21. Thornton, op. cit., 92, 148.
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  22. Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), “Petitioned Health Consultation: Dioxin Contamination in Soil in Midland, Michigan,” by Linda Larsen et al (2001). Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HAC/PHA/midland/midland.html
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  23. Beth Medley Bellor, “130 Attend Dow Consent Order Hearing,” The Midland Daily News, http://www.ourmidland.com, November 22, 2002.
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  24. Mike Tyree, “Michigan, Dow Chemical Deal Falls Apart,” Associated Press Online, Lexis-Nexis Academic, December 27, 2002.
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  25. Jonathan Remlow et al, “Mortality in a Cohort of Pentachlorophenol Manufacturing Workers, 1940-1989,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine Volume 30 (1996), 180, 193.
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  26. Kyle Steenland et al, “Cancer, Heart Disease, and Diabetes in Workers Exposed to 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute Volume 91.9<D> (May 5, 1999), 784.
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  27. Marilyn Fingerhut et al, “Cancer Mortality in Workers Exposed to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin,” The New England Journal of Medicine Volume 324.4  (January 24, 1991), 217.
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  28. “Appeals Court Upholds Dioxin Ruling,” Chemical Market Reporter, December 3, 2001, 9.
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  29. Thornton, op. cit., 189-90.
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  30. Art Kleiner, “The Three Faces of Dow Chemical: Understanding Dow Chemical’s Environmental Change of Heart,” Garbage, July/August 1991, 53.
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  31. “OPTIM* Glycerine Helps the Medicine Go Down,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/dow_news/feature/2002/07_10_02/index.htm, July 10, 2001.
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  32. “King Lynn’s Playground: Getting Into the Swing of Things,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/dow_news/feature/2002/10_24_02/index.htm, October 24, 2002.
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  33. “Styrofoam Insulates Korean Habitat Homes,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/dow_news/feature/2001/10_08_01/index.htm, October 8, 2001.
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  34. “Get Fashion, Comfort and Easy Care with DOW XLA* Elastic Fiber,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/dow_news/feature/2002/10_02_02/index.htm, October 2, 2002. “King Lynn’s Playground: Getting Into the Swing of Things,” op. cit.
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  35. “The Dow Global Public Report, 2001,” op. cit. For an in-depth look at alternatives to pesticides, dry cleaning, and PVC building materials, see Thornton, op. cit.
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  36. “The Dow Global Public Report, 2002,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/publicreport/2002/index.htm, and http://www.dow.com/public report/2002/responsibility/bhopal.htm, July 3, 2003.
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  37. “2003 Proxy Statement,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/financial/2003prox/index.htm, May 8, 2003.
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  38. “The Dow Global Public Report, 2002,” op. cit. “The Dow Global Public Report, 2001,” op. cit.
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  39. “The Dow Global Public Report, 2001,” op. cit.
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  40. “Volunteerism Guidelines,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/about/corp/social/volguide.htm, July 9, 2003.
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  41. The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation Home Page, http://www.hhdowfdn.org, December 14, 2002.
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  42. Ben Kohrman, “Stamas Uses Illegal Campaign Cash: Michigan Democratic Party Complaint Alleges Illegal Contributions to Tony Stamas,” News from the Michigan Democratic Party, http://www.mi-democrats.com/press/2002pr/stamasb.pdf, September 20, 2002.
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  43. See www.opensecrets.org for PAC contributions to US Representatives.

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  44. 44. Dow Foundation donations can be found at The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation Home Page. Other major contributors to the new headquarters were also related to the Dow family or to Dow Chemical. The Rollin M Gerstacker Foundation, named for the father of former Vice President and Chairman of the Board of Dow Chemical, donated $500,000. The Towsley Foundation, named for the daughter of H.H. Dow and her husband, donated $150,000. The Strosacker Foundation, named for another Vice President of Dow, donated an additional $150,000. Jim Ferency, (Mackinac Center for Public Policy Watch,) http://www.mindnet.org/~ferencyj/,1998.

  45. (Dow Chemical Company Foundation,( Capital Research Center, www.capitalresearch.org, July 11, 2003. The Dow Chemical Company Foundation balances out such right-wing contributions with substantial yearly grants of $50,000-$200,000 to mainstream environmental groups such as Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy, and the Conservation Fund. Grants like these (common among many multinational corporations seeking to control environmentalist dissent) bolster Dow(s environmental reputation while encouraging the nation(s major environmentalist groups to depend upon and cooperate with industry.
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  46. Lesson plans available at: http://www.dow.com/about/corp/social/rlp.htm.
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  47. (Chemistry: The Enabling Science,( The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, http://www.dow.com/about/corp/social/rlp.htm, December 12, 2002.
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  48. Masao Miyoshi, (A Borderless World? From Colonialism to Transnationalism and the Decline of the Nation-State,( Critical Inquiry Volume 19 (Summer 1993), 736.
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  49. (Dow Chemical Co. Will Lay Off 125 Michigan Employees by May, the Company Announced Wednesday,( Associated Press State and Local Wire, Lexis-Nexis Academic, January 15, 2003.
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  50. (Bhopal Activists Confront Dow CEO Michael Parker,( Greenpeace USA Home Page, http://www.greenpeaceusa.org/bhopal/, October 23, 2002.
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  51. Justice for Bhopal, Ann Arbor is a branch of the larger International Coalition for Justice in Bhopal.
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  52. Shivani Patel, telephone interview, February 17, 2003.
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  53. (Dow had directly contributed over $10 million to the University [of Michigan] by September 2000,( Bodanyi notes, (placing it among the top 26 all-time donors to the University.( Ryan Bodanyi, (University is tied to Dow and Bhopal Disaster,( Editorial, The Michigan Daily, http://www.michigandaily.com, January 9, 2003.
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  54. Marchlewski, op cit.
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  55. Masao Miyoshi, (Sites of Resistance in the Global Economy,( boundary 2 Volume 22.1 (Spring 1995), 71.
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  56. Kleiner, op. cit., 57.
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  57. Patel, op. cit.
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  58. (India Asks US for Warren Anderson,( Bhopal.net, http://www.bhopal.net/welcome2.html, 1 July 2003.
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ATC 106, September-October 2003