The Poison Connection

A "gas leak" in a Matamoros chemical plant wafts a poison and paper cloud toward a corporate office in Houston

Matamoros, Mexico
"Paracaidistas," they call them, when they first arrive. Parachutists. Whether it's the sheets of plastic covering the roofs of the wood-and-tin shacks, or the sensation that the residents of these squatters' towns one day just appeared, as if they had fallen from the sky, the description somehow makes sense. At least it makes sense in Colonia Chorizo, which clings to two strips of land along the railroad right-of-way northwest of this border city.

Walk the fence that divides Chorizo (which means "sausage") from the Parque Industrial del Golfo and you follow the recent history of the expatriate chemical companies that found a home in this border town's "Chemical Row." The first is Retzloff, which, until it shut down in 1992 -- after being featured on ABC's PrimeTime Live -- had manufactured pesticides, and in the course of that production had filled a now-covered holding pond with a waste stream that included benzene, a known carcinogen. Next is Asarco, which, until it closed in 1993, processed zinc and lead battery plates; Asarco is believed to be responsible for the elevated levels of lead in residential neighborhoods on Chemical Row. Then comes Stepan Chemical, which -- after it was the target of a media campaign organized by U.S. church groups -- switched from the production of pesticides to surfactants and emulsifiers.

Just past Stepan, sitting between a vegetable-oil plant and the long-abandoned Insecticidas Longoria, is Productos de Preservacion, incorporated in Delaware as "Idacon" but operating out of a Houston corporate office.

Idacon's office suite on Harwin Drive poses no threat to its southwest Houston neighbors. But in Matamoros, Idacon's plant produces pentachlorophenol, a wood preservative. Pentachlorophenol, or "penta," as it is known, has a history as long as its name, and dirtier than the ditch into which Productos empties at least some of the waste from its Matamoros plant.

Pentachlorophenol (abbreviated PCP) was once produced by U.S. petrochemical heavyweights like Monsanto and Dow Chemical, but today only Vulcan Chemical's Wichita, Kansas, plant produces penta north of the Rio Grande. However, the chemical can be found on 43 U.S. Superfund sites, where the waste from wood treatment plants that used pentachlorophenol as a preservative remains a serious problem -- a problem which, according to Carol Van Strum, an Oregon-based writer who researched and wrote a book for Greenpeace (The Politics of Penta, 1989) on pentachlorophenol, defies easy solution. Pentachlorophenol is very stable and therefore persistent. It doesn't go away. "PCP is the garbage can of the chlorophenols," says Van Strum. "It's the easiest to produce, because the chemical process used to make it doesn't have to be stopped. It is a fully chlorinated phenol that includes hexa dioxin, the second most dangerous type of dioxin, and has been associated with a lot of serious health problems. Leukemia, for example, has been associated with penta."

Penta is dangerous because it does precisely what its chemists intended it to do. "This product was designed to kill, totally," Van Strum says. "It is known as the all-purpose killer. It kills bacteria, insects, mildew, woodrot. So at one time it was put into everything, it was put into rubber seals on bottles of canned goods, in detergent..."

It was through detergent that the general public began to understand exactly how deadly penta is. In a series of investigative reports published by the Kansas City Star in 1984, environmental reporter Myron Levin took a critical look at pentachlorophenol. Newborn infants, Levin wrote, were the first casualties in a chemical assault that Van Strum argues should have been stopped at least 20 years ago. "Three of the babies poisoned in their cribs died. The pesticide that got them may still be stalking the ones who survived," wrote Levin. The pesticide found to be the cause of death of three infants who died in a North Dakota hospital was the pentachlorophenol in the detergent that the hospital used to wash bedding and diapers. Levin didn't stop with hospital and press reports of the 1966 infant deaths; he followed the trail of the survivors, who were 17 and 18 years old in 1984, when the Star published his series of articles, "Penta, Deadly and Pervasive."

Reporting his findings, Levin wrote, "The Kansas City Star recently traced five of the children who were poisoned by the detergent but lived. The fate of some in this group might be said to be a coincidence -- or a bitter warning." One of the children was found in a home for the mentally retarded. Another had a minor learning disability. A third child was stricken with an unusually fatal leukemia when she was twelve but had survived, and "her chances now seem to be good." The other two children, Levin reported, were then (1984) in good health.

December 1992: The Psychological Gas Leak
As the news spread of the deaths of the newborns, detergent manufacturers stopped using penta in their products. But the chemical continues to be used as a wood preservative and remains a hazard to those who produce and work with it, or come in contact with it. It's also a threat to the paracaidistas of Colonia Chorizo, and to the downwinders in two large residential colonias that lie across the street on the northwest side of Chemical Row. Residents of the Uniones and Esperanza colonias have complained for years about fumes from Productos's penta plant, Stepan's plant and the two plants that have recently shut down.

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