WASHINGTON - U.S. companies, including some of the largest and most respected, are profiting from the overseas sales of dangerous products that threaten the health and safety of millions of people in the world's most vulnerable nations.
The U.S. government does little or nothing to stop these sales. Indeed, it has been an advocate for some of the deadliest products. For example:
-- The Environmental Protection Agency won't let Dow-Elanco sell its weed-killer Galant to U.S. farmers because it may cause cancer. But Dow-Elanco sells Galant in Costa Rica.
-- The Food and Drug Administration banned the painkiller dipyrone from sale in the United States 14 years ago because it can cause a fatal blood disorder. But Winthrop Products sells dipyrone in Mexico City.
-- The U.S. surgeon general tells Americans that cigarettes kill. But the U.S. trade representative tells Taiwan to drop trade barriers to American cigarettes or the United States will retaliate. Three manufacturers alone - Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Brown & Williamson - sell 185 million packs of cigarettes a year to Taiwan, which had wanted to prevent their import.
America's overseas trade in tobacco, banned or unlicensed pesticides, hazardous drugs and toxic wastes involves billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs. There is no way to put a dollar figure on all of this trade.
The federal government doesn't report shipments of banned products. Companies help maintain the veil of silence, refusing to divulge sales figures.
But the scope of this international trade is immense. In 1989, the United States' total tobacco exports - cigarettes and tobacco leaf - amounted to $5 billion and 125,000 U.S. jobs, according to the Cigarette Export Association.
Overseas sales of pesticides not approved by the U.S. government total $758 million a year, the National Agricultural Chemicals Association says. Between 700 and 1,000 U.S. jobs are at stake in the export of these products, according to the staff of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The industry's estimate is nearly 8,000 jobs.
It's impossible to put a price tag on the overseas sale of drugs that are banned in the United States - the government doesn't monitor the overseas subsidiaries that the U.S. firms use to produce the drugs.
And there's no way to tell how much of the $21.2 billion in foreign pharmaceutical sales by U.S. companies involves the marketing of domestically proscribed medicines, often without warning consumers about side effects, in Third World countries where powerful drugs can be bought over the counter like aspirin.
Moreover, no one knows the ultimate cost foreigners pay for America's profits and paychecks. Third World countries lack the consumer advocates and aggressive news media that alert Americans to dangerous products. Often illiterate victims don't know who - or what - to blame.
But occasionally, incidents come to light that hint at the impact of exposing people in Third World countries to products that are unsafe - or safe only under the strict controls the U.S. government requires to protect Americans:
-- In Costa Rica, a doctor directs a visiting U.S. reporter to the grave of a 15-year-old boy in a remote village. Heriberto Obando died in 1988 after using his bare hands to spread a bag of Counter, an American Cyanamid pesticide so toxic that the Environmental Protection Agency restricts U.S. sales to trained workers.
In Costa Rica, where illiterate farmers often can't read warning labels and are too poor to afford the safety equipment required in the United States, Counter is available off the shelf in farm-supply stores.
-- In Pakistan, seven infants died in 1989 and 1990 after their parents treated the babies' diarrhea with Imodium, a medicine sold by a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.
Since 1980, the World Health Organization has warned Third World doctors not to use Imodium because it can paralyze a child's intestines. For months a local doctor begged the company to pull the product from stores, but it didn't do so until a British television program broadcast footage of dying babies.
-- In Taiwan, teenage smoking rates jumped 10 percent between 1985 and 1987, the year after U.S. officials threatened the Asian country with trade sanctions if it did not let U.S. cigarette companies sell and aggressively promote their products there.
In a street behind a high school, a visiting American doctor counted 17 large posters for U.S. cigarettes. Until anti-smoking activists protested, the price of admission for a rock concert was five empty Winston packs.
"If Saddam Hussein did the same thing, it wouldn't surprise me. But this is America, a leader in so many of the good things on this planet," says lung specialist Dr. Prakit Vateesatokit, who objected - in vain - to the same high-pressure tactics of U.S. trade officials in Thailand. U.S. companies won the right last fall to export cigarettes there.
The first of many unsuccessful attempts to stop America's hazardous exports came 14 years ago with the discovery that U.S. companies had dumped millions of children's pajamas treated with TRIS, a suspected cancer-causing chemical, on the Third World after the U.S. government banned their sales in the United States.
Nearly four years later, after intense public debate and congressional investigations, President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12264 on Jan. 15, 1981, to rein in companies that export toxic pesticides, drugs and other products the federal government won't allow to be sold here.
The nation had an obligation, Carter said, "not to export to unsuspecting nations products which we ourselves would not allow in our country."
Thirty-three days later, President Ronald Reagan - in one of his first acts as president - revoked the Carter order.
Invoking the anti-regulatory credo that would characterize his eight years in office, Reagan said Carter's plan "would result in a cumbersome regulatory program, costly to both the public and private sectors." The Carter order put U.S. exports "at a competitive disadvantage," Reagan said.
Consumer advocate Esther Peterson, who cochaired the task force that developed the Carter order, has another explanation: "He paid off his friends in the pharmaceutical industry and chemical industry and the Chamber of Commerce."
In the 10 years since, the U.S. government has given exporters of hazardous products a virtual free hand through policies and actions that have led to a double standard on health and trade issues.
Today the United States has not taken even the first step: outlawing the exports of banned and unregistered pesticides.
Legislation to that effect was defeated in Congress last year. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, accused the Bush administration of "playing the key role in killing it," a charge administration officials deny.
With no law to stop them, U.S. companies every hour export nearly a ton of pesticides that have been banned, canceled or withdrawn from the U.S. market, according to a new study of Customs Service records by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education.
In a round trip known as the "circle of poison," the banned chemicals sometimes end up back in the United States on imported foods.
Chemical companies also export pesticides that are legal in the United States but extremely toxic, the foundation's study shows. That poses risks to Third World workers, who lack the protections against the pesticides that are required for Americans who use them.
In the case of cigarettes, arguably the most lethal U.S. export, the federal government has taken its most active role. Since 1985, it repeatedly has promoted the sale of cigarettes in Asian countries at the behest of a powerful industry hard hit by the government's warnings to Americans about the health hazards of smoking.
Thus, at the same time that federal health officials were urging Americans to quit smoking, U.S. trade officials were busy pressuring Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and South Korea to accept U.S. cigarettes or face tough trade sanctions.
"The Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde approach to world health," anti-smoking activist Gregory Connolly calls it.
According to British epidemiologist Sir Richard Peto, of all the children alive in the world today, 250 million will die prematurely from smoking in the next century, 70 percent of them in Third World countries.
Many victims, health activists charge, will be lured to smoking by an equally pernicious U.S. export - tobacco advertising designed to "associate smoking American cigarettes with the American dream," says Ted Chen, professor of public health at the University of Massachusetts.
Two decades after the United States banned cigarette commercials on television, U.S. officials persuaded the Japanese government to delay a ban on similar commercials, a 1990 congressional investigation found. Afterward, up to 90 cigarette commercials were televised each day in Japan, two out of three hawking American brands with leggy Western models and Tom Cruise look-alikes - many of them broadcast during children's shows.
Critics say U.S. companies' export of hazardous products, especially to the Third World, exposes ethical failures of U.S. business and government.
"We're saying they may be dangerous for us and the law won't let us do anything to our own people, but if we can make money doing it to you, we'll do it. I think it's immoral for a company to do that, but it's even more immoral for a government to allow them to do it," Leahy says.
Bush administration officials argue that as long as a product such as tobacco is legal, or companies warn countries about the dangers of the product, there is no obligation to tell the rest of the world what to do.
"The administration's view is that we shouldn't act as Big Brothers or Sisters to these other countries, trying to decide what's good or bad for them," says William Jordan, who formulates pesticide-export policies at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
For the most part, though, the morality of hazardous exports is an issue many corporate presidents and high government officials would prefer to simply ignore.
Among those who refused requests for interviews were the chief executive officers of Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Brown & Williamson, Dow Chemical, Shell Oil, Johnson & Johnson and Upjohn; as well as William Reilly, the head of the EPA; Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher; U.S. trade representative Carla Hills; Republican National Committee Chairman Clayton Yeutter, who was formerly agriculture secretary; and Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan.
"It's not in the company's best interests to start . . . speculating about corporate morality," said a spokesman for Dow Chemical, explaining why no company official would be available to discuss why, as a lawsuit alleges, Dow in the late 1970s continued to export a banned pesticide to Costa Rica that left hundreds of farm workers sterile.
The few top officials in government and industry who would talk - or the underlings and public- relations experts standing in for them - insist their consciences are clear.
Company officials are not troubled that government agencies and world health organizations consider their products unsafe. They say those agencies and organizations are wrong, their critics misguided.
"Good science is being ignored," says DowElanco's chief toxicologist, James Gibson, of proposed legislation to outlaw exports of its unlicensed weedkiller Galant.
Poor countries, they say, need the chemicals to grow food and wipe out disease, need the drugs for healthier lives, need the "quality" U.S. tobacco to satisfy the world's smokers. Any risks, they argue, are far outweighed by the benefits.
Besides, government and industry officials add, Americans aren't the only ones selling these products. And in today's global economy, foreigners will just get their products from companies in other countries, depriving Americans of profits, paychecks and trade benefits without helping anyone.
"What's the difference whether they smoke our cigarettes or somebody else's cigarettes?" asked Peter Collins, a U.S. trade official who argued the case for tobacco exports to Thailand. --------------------------------
WHAT WON'T SELL AT HOME GOES OVERSEAS Every day, U.S. companies or their overseas subsidiaries export or sell abroad products that are banned, restricted or considered life-threatening here at home. Sales of cigarettes, drugs, pesticides and toxic waste worry health workers and environmentalists in many countries.
MEDICATION: The U.S. banned sales of painkiller dipyrone at home 14 years ago - but its U.S. manufacturer sells the drug freely in Mexico.
CIGARETTES: While the U.S. surgeon general told Americans that cigarettes kill, U.S. trade representatives told Taiwan to drop roadblocks to the flow of U.S. cigarettes - or face trade retaliation. U.S. cigarette exports to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, in billions of packs 1985, 0.34 billion -- 1990, 2.7 billion.
PESTICIDES: Hazardous pesticides exported from the U.S. - March to May 1990 - in millions of pounds: KNOWN OR SUSPECTED TO CAUSE ILLNESS # 8.1 RESTRICTED USE 6.6 BANNED, CANCELED OR WITHDRAWN 3.9 EXTREMELY TOXIC 0.7 # Known or suspected to cause cancer, adverse reproductive effects.
HAZARDOUS WASTE: Canada imported 143,000 tons of U.S. toxic waste in 1990 - more than any other country. -----------------------------
THREE MONTHS OF TOXIC PESTICIDE EXPORTS A survey of U.S. customs records shows almost 9,400 tons of pesticides which are legal yet extremely toxic or suspected to cause health problems were shipped from the U.S. to countries worldwide between March and May 1990. ;
; TOXIC PESTICIDES SHIPPED TO DEVELOPING COUNTRIES Between March and May, 1990 by tons ;
; Sri Lanka 1,242 ; Syria 469 ; Guatemala 463 ; Costa Rica 379 ; Thailand 371 ; Indonesia 344 ; South Korea 334 ; El Salvador 256 ; Brazil 255 ; Colombia 250 ; Chile 211 ; Argentina 181 ; Ecuador 156 ; Singapore 155 ; Panama 120 ; India 120 ; Honduras 107 ; Philippines 100 ; Taiwan 90 ; Zimbabwe 68 ;
; Source: Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education. ;