Dirty Hands: Nalco owned IBT Labs

The other day I got curious to see what these dispersants were that were being dumped into the Gulf of Mexico — the ones that can break down crude oil. I had a hunch I would find my information, footnoted, right in Wikipedia, and I did. What I was not expecting was for this information to point back to one of the most horrendous scandals in the history of science.

“On May 1 two United States Department of Defense C-130 Hercules aircraft were employed to spray oil dispersant.[104] The main oil dispersants used were two forms of Corexit 9500 and 9527, made by the Nalco Holding Company, Naperville, Illinois.”

So — the military is involved; unless they lease their jets out to private industry.

It continued: “By May 15, 436,000 gallons of Corexit EC9500A and EC9527A had been released into the Gulf. Though these products were neither the least toxic nor the most effective among the dispersants approved by the EPA, they had been stockpiled in advance by BP and were available for immediate use, possibly because of close business relationships between Nalco, BP, and Exxon.”

Nalco’s shares went up when BP announced that it was buying all available reserves of Corexit even though better chemicals exist for this purpose.

I sent this information to Carol van Strum, a Planet Waves editor who has been involved with exposing the chemical industry since the 1970s, and with whom I have worked since 1993.

“[Expletive deleted] — they’re spraying friggin’ antifreeze on the water! Have you ever seen an animal that’s ingested even a tiny bit of antifreeze? It’s fatal and causes a long, painful death and there is no antidote. Haven’t looked at the other ingredients but propylene glycol alone is enough to poison the whole Gulf.”

Well, spraying “indiscriminately from the skies,” to quote Rachel Carson, and dumping it by the ton — including deep under the water, near the source.

In her next email she said she could not remember who Nalco was, but that they had a connection to dioxin. Five minutes later, she remembered — they were the owners of IBT Labs of Northbrook, Illinois. When I went to fact check this, I found that Planet Waves had already published the information years ago. Though few know this story, IBT Labs is the chemical industry’s equivalent of the church pedophilia scandal, only worse because it reached every household in the US and Canada, and many far beyond. It was where everything that could possibly go wrong was made to go wrong. IBT was a safety testing lab that went into the business of creating fraudulent studies confirming that chemicals were ‘safe’, no matter how many mice or people they killed.

Substances certified as safe by IBT included food additives, ingredients in soap and cosmetics and chemical agents of every variety. None of the studies were valid. Yes, millions of mice died — but none of the methods were valid and the company took requests to declare deadly chemicals as safe.

Planet Waves has republished an article on IBT Labs that is worth reading, though extremely disgusting. This was originally published by the Amicus Journal, of the NRDC. I recovered it and re-published it from the basement of the NRDC in Manhattan a couple of years ago.

I also covered IBT Labs, which was involved in the PCB scandal at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. This was one of the most horrendous angles on the PCB issue, since IBT’s fraudulent studies kept the chemical on the market long after the chemical and electrical manufacturers knew that it was deadly.

IBT’s role was to create fake safety data on PCBs that showed how it was non-carcinogenic. The following is from my article Conspiracy of Silence from Sierra magazine, published in August 1994.

At this point, the crisis entered its darkest hour. In order to maintain its 1971 position that “PCBs are not and cannot be classified as highly toxic,” Monsanto engaged Industrial Bio-Test Labs of Northbrook, Illinois, to do safety studies on its Aroclor PCB products.

Seven years later, IBT Labs would be at the center of one of the most far-reaching scandals in modern science, as thousands of its studies were revealed through EPA and FDA investigations to be fraudulent or grossly inadequate.

One of IBT’s top executives was Dr. Paul Wright, a Monsanto toxicologist who took a job at IBT Labs in part to supervise the PCB tests, and then returned to Monsanto. Wright was eventually convicted of multiple counts of fraud in one of the longest criminal trials in U. S. history – with his legal fees paid by Monsanto.

While fraud on the PCB tests was not raised in the IBT trial, it is strongly suggested by memos and letters that came to light in later civil lawsuits. Several of these show how, at Monsanto’s request, IBT Labs customized its studies. “I think we are surprised (and disappointed?) at the apparent toxicity at the levels studied,” Monsanto’s Elmer Wheeler wrote in March 1970 to IBT president Joseph Calandra. “I doubt that there is any explanation for this but I do think that we might exchange some new thoughts.”

In a letter to IBT Labs two months later commenting on a set of PCB test results, Wheeler wrote, “We would hope that we might find a higher ‘no effect’ level with this sample as compared to the previous work.”

In later years, Monsanto’s requests would become even more blatant. “In two instances, the previous conclusion of ‘slightly tumorigenic’ was changed to ‘non-carcinogenic,'” Monsanto wrote in July 1975. “The latter phrase is preferable. May we request that the Aroclor 1254 report be amended to say ‘does not appear to be carcinogenic.'”

Two weeks later, Calandra responded: “We will amend our statement in the last paragraph on page 2 of the Aroclor 1254 report to read, ‘does not appear to be carcinogenic’ in place of ‘slightly tumorigenic’ as requested.” Testimony about the IBT Labs scandal in a Texas lawsuit against Monsanto indicates that IBT was aware that PCBs caused extremely high numbers of tumors in test rats, with 82 percent developing tumors when fed Aroclor 1254 at 10 parts per million and 100 percent at 100 parts per million. Yet with a stroke of a pen, IBT Labs certified PCBs a noncarcinogen.

Working behind the scenes of such scientific miracles was Paul Wright. In July 1976, after returning to Monsanto, he was given a $1,000 award for “forestalling EPA’s promulgation of unrealistic regulations to limit discharges of polychlorinated biphenyls.” A year later, IBT Labs was found out, and Wright, Calandra, and another IBT exec were eventually convicted of federal fraud charges.

9 thoughts on “Dirty Hands: Nalco owned IBT Labs”

  1. In snow country, you put anti-freeze in your windshield wiper water wells so that snow and ice does’t build up on your screen while you are driving in below zero weather.

    What in tarnation does this stuff do to disperse oil?

  2. Oh god. Big huge thanks to you Eric for publicizing this. I knew the dispersants were similar to anti-freeze but didn’t know the ugly details.

    The photo being circulated on the web of dolphins swimming in dispersant kills me.

  3. this is all too awful.

    according to wiki, propylene glycol is less toxic to animals and people than older types of antifreeze, but that in a water supply the big issue how much oxygen it requires to biodegrade (far more than raw sewage):

    “Propylene glycol is known to exert high levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) during degradation in surface waters. This process can adversely affect aquatic life by consuming oxygen aquatic organisms need to survive. Large quantities of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the water column are consumed when microbial populations decompose ethylene glycol.

    The oxygen depletion potential of airport deicing operation discharges is many times greater than that of raw sewage. For example, before application, Type I propylene glycol-based deicing fluid is generally diluted to a mixture containing approximately 50% propylene glycol. Pure propylene glycol has a five-day biochemical oxygen demand (BOD5) concentration of approximately 1,000,000 mg/L. A typical diluted propylene-based deicing fluid could therefore have a BOD5 concentration of approximately 500,000 mg/L. In comparison, raw sewage typically has a BOD5 concentration of approximately 200 mg/L. The amount of fluid used to deice a single jet depends on the nature of the precipitation event and the size of the aircraft but can range from a couple hundred to several thousand gallons. Therefore, deicing a single jet can generate a BOD5 load greater than that of one million gallons of raw sewage. A large hub airport often has several hundred flights each day.

    Sufficient DO levels in surface waters are critical for the survival of fish, macroinvertebrates, and other aquatic organisms. If oxygen concentrations drop below a minimum level, organisms emigrate, if able and possible, to areas with higher oxygen levels or eventually die. This effect can drastically reduce the amount of useable aquatic habitat. Reductions in DO levels can reduce or eliminate bottom-feeder populations, create conditions that favor a change in a community’s species profile, or alter critical food-web interactions.”

    the footnote for this section leads to a 2009 EPA study of airport deicing:

  4. I believe I read once long ago that when oil is drilled, something else is pumped into the place/s where the oil once was. (Unlike a coal mine which is simply emptied.)

    So – what is filling or will eventually fill the void since the “hole” is not being capped? – seawater? what underwater landmass shifts might take place based on this displacement of liquids of vastly different density? and what does that mean to above ground land mass etc?

    I fear there is more afoot than loss of food, water, “wild”life from oil contamination.

    Anyone know about this stuff?

  5. When GE contaminated the Hudson with tons of PCBs, then blew the Ft. Edward dam sending the chemicals downstream, into NY Harbor, the LI Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, none of it recovered, decades on. The fishing industry was shut down and PCBs can be found in sediments of the entire river, and all of the harbor, and beyond. GE paid about $5 million damages, if I recall. These companies are treated like they OWN the Earth; they think they do. If the oil industry had to clean up its mess, it would spend all of its profits doing so. So their profits come directly from environmental pollution.

    This is a point of no return of the Gulf of Mexico and its coastlines; and likely for the Florida Keys, Cuba, and the Bahamas, and anywhere the loop current connects; and if it enters the Gulf Stream, that’s the whole Atlantic. We don’t know if or when the oil flow will be stopped. Under one scenario, it flows till the oil runs out. And it is coming out under incredible pressure.

    Under any other scenario, we’re talking many times the Exxon Valdez — one Valdez every five days of flow, or less — depending on how much is actually coming out. When an ecosystem is disrupted so brutally, it rarely comes back; and it never comes back to what it was. The question is: how far does the damage go?

    Re ground water, the connection is through rainwater. If a hurricane comes and churns up that oil and it ends up in clouds, and rains back onto the Earth, it will eventually wind up in aquifers; though they are fairly well insulated from sea water. You don’t hear of people drilling a well and hitting salt water (unless fossilized, such as under Michigan).

  6. BP is, indeed, going on the basis of “out of sight, out of mind.”

    Question: can the water from the Gulf get into the general ground or well water that people inland drink? Aside from not being able to eat the seafood from the Gulf region for possibly decades which is more than bad enough, what happens if the drinking water supply becomes contaminated statewide? Is that even possible?

    It seems to me that we’re looking at the Gulf region as being one very large Superfund site that perhaps can never be decontaminated.

    I don’t know.

  7. Many thanks to Eric and Carol van Strum. So, from this we can conclude that the dispersants are actually quite toxic, that they create these vast “out of sight, out of mind” underwater plumes of crude oil, that the motive has nothing to do with cleaning up the mess but making a profit from it? Like maybe it was done on purpose to boost revenue? Gee whiz.

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