24. The No-Pest Shell Game

Source: E Magazine, PO Box 5098 Westport, CT 06881, Date: November/December 1992, Title: "The Shell Game," Author: Diana Hembree and William Kistner

SSU Censored Researcher: Mark Lowenthal

SYNOPSIS: It wasn't long after the original Shell No-Pest Strip, sold by the Shell Chemical Company (a division of Shell Oil Company), became a popular household item in 1966 that serious scientific questions were raised about its safety. By 1971, every Shell pest strip manufactured in the U.S. bore a label warning buyers not to hang the strips in a room occupied by babies, the elderly or the infirm; it also warned consumers not to use the strips in kitchens, hospitals, nurseries or restaurants.

Finally, in 1987, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study officially linked the active chemical in pest strips dichloros, or DDVP -- to an unusually high cancer risk. By then the controversial device had all but disappeared from stores and homes in the United States.

This was not the case in Mexico. To find the strips widely marketed today, as revealed in an investigation by journalists Diana Hembree and William Kistner, all you have to do is go across the border to Mexico. There, in many drugstores and supermarkets, you can buy the DDVP laced pest strips (called Shelltox Matavoladores -- "flying-insect killer") from Shell Mexico. However, the popular product does not carry a label warning Mexican consumers of possible cancer risk from exposure to DDVP. Even worse, for more than 20 years, Shell Mexico's instructions for using the pest strips contradicted the safety warning labels required in the U.S. In fact, the packaging advised buyers to hang them in kitchens, bedrooms and just above baby cribs. This now discontinued label has not been recalled and is still found on shelves in popular supermarkets.

Dr. Joseph Ross, professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Medicine, describes Shell Mexico's pest strip instruc-tions as "appalling." Noting that infants are more sensitive than adults, Ross stresses that hanging a pest strip above a baby's crib "is potentially extremely hazardous. The [instructions] are unconscionable. They're just heartless. It's shocking to me that great corporations with reputable people would allow this to happen."

Shell Mexico and Shell Oil Company are both wholly owned subsidiaries of the Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell.

This story, of 1992 vintage, is reminiscent of Project Censored stories dating back to 1976 when the #3 Censored story revealed how major corporations were selling banned pesticides and drugs to Third World countries. A conservative World Health Organization study estimated that some 500,000 people, the majority of them in Third World countries, were poisoned annually by banned pesticides and drugs at the time.

It also reveals that unethical and immoral marketing practices by multinational corporations, applying inadequate standards to Third World countries, continue to endanger foreign consumers to this day.

COMMENTS: Speaking on behalf of herself and co-author William Kistner, author Diana Hembree, of the Center for Investigative Reporting, reports, "The subject of `The Shell Game' -- the multinational's questionable marketing practices in the Third World-received little or no media attention last year.

"Our story examined the flaws in Royal Dutch Shell's regulation and oversight of one of its popular household pesticide products, No-Pest Strips (whose active ingredient, DDVP, is linked to cancer, blood disorders, nerve damage and genetic damage) in Mexico. Shell Mexico advised consumers to use the pest strips around infants and in kitchens, thus completely contradicting health and safety warnings required on Shell pest strips in the U.S. This is the first time, to our knowledge, that a story has ever exposed the difference in Shell's marketing standards. (Searches through Nexis, Dialog and Journal Graphics data files failed to turn up any stories on the subject).

"Although the dumping of banned or dangerous U.S. products in other countries has received some publicity over the years, less attention has been paid when a hazardous product developed here is manufactured and sold by local subsidiaries in another country -- without safety-warnings.

"Millions of consumers in the United States, Mexico and other countries would benefit from wider exposure of this subject in the mass media by being more wary of DDVP pest strips, which expose people to a suspected carcinogen 24 hours a day. Although Shell stopped making its controversial pest strips years ago, other U.S. made pest strips containing DDVP have quietly made their way onto the market in recent years; if the American public realized that medical reports have linked DDVP with leukemia and fatal blood disorders in children, they would be better able to protect themselves from exposure to pest strips and popular bug sprays containing DDVP.

"Consumers in Mexico, Nicaragua and Bolivia, where Shell Mexico strips are found, would also be able to make an informed choice when considering whether to buy a DDVP pest strip, and where to hang it. At the very least, they would know that Shell pest strips sold in the U.S. warned consumers not to hang the pest strips around infants, the elderly, in kitchens, hospitals, or the sick and infirm.

"Pest strips containing DDVP are also reportedly sold in Australia and Japan, where the public would also benefit from a greater knowledge of DDVP hazards. Finally, wider exposure of the flawed testing and regulation of pesticides like DDVP night stir more calls for reform.

"The parent company-in this case, the Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell benefits from the limited coverage [given this issue] because its wholly owned subsidiaries can likely sell more pesticide products if marketing standards are looser in poorer countries. Also, without media scrutiny, the multinational's regulatory staff has little incentive to promote the same marketing standards for pesticide safety in a developing country as those used, for example, in the United States.

"Although Royal Dutch Shell officials told us that the parent corporation always shared the latest in scientific studies on the safety of DDVP and other pesticides with Shell subsidiaries, this was apparently not the case with Shell Mexico.

"In addition, a Royal Dutch regulator's assertion that DDVP is 'not hazardous to humans, but specifically hazardous to flies' contradicts data from the EPA and National Center for Toxicological Research as well as medical studies from the U.S. and other countries; such a statement suggests that, in the absence of media attention, the multinational has little incentive to amass up-to-date health and safety research on the pesticides used in its products.

We mailed 'The Shell Game' to various environmental groups and pesticides companies as well as to sources in the article, some of whom responded with calls or letters. Altemet has distributed the story as published in E Magazine; in this way, we hope to reach a larger audience in the United States. We are also considering translating the story into Spanish for distribution through newspapers such as Excelsior or La Jornada, or helping with a short news story for Univision News, broadcast to households throughout Mexico and much of Central and Latin America."

David, R. Ellison, an attorney with Ellison, Hinkle & Bayer, in Ventura, California, who represented a family in a little publicized law suit filed against the Shell Chemical Company over the original Shell No-Pest strip, expressed his feeling about the issue raised by Hembree and Kistner: "It is incredible what corporate greed will drive people to do -- it is unfortunate there are not more whistle-blowers, but at least we have competent and capable investigative reporting that can function within the atmosphere of a free press.

"Though sometimes I feel like an ant on the beach with a 40-foot tidal wave coming, it is still nice to stand up for what you know is right and to fight for the truth of those principles."