The Inhuman Element

Flip through The Economist and you will find a particularly eye-catching, full-page advertisement. Instead of the pouty-lipped glamour girl feature, you’ll notice a woman with more wrinkles than there are words, her eyes digging into yours. Aesthetically plastered on this well-photographed face, there are two pastel-colored letters – Hu. This is Dow Chemical’s expensive yet effective way of getting us to connect chemistry with humanity, to lead us to believe that the second largest chemical corporation in the world is working to develop technology where everyone – yes, even this woman from Fiji – will be able to smile. The Human Element. It’s simple. It’s genius. It’s a lie.

Dow Chemical launched the Human Element campaign as a way to rebuild its image as a responsible corporation, committed to protecting human lives. This could not be farther from the truth. My connection to Dow goes back to when I first heard about a city in the heart of India known as Bhopal. It was there that the world’s worst industrial disaster struck the slums in the impoverished margins of the city; a gas leak took place at the Union Carbide pesticide plant on December 3, 1984. Eighteen years later, Dow purchased Union Carbide even though criminal charges were pending in India since the factory had not been cleaned of its toxic mess. Hundreds of thousands have died due to the gas exposure since then, yet Dow refuses to claim responsibility for the clean up of the factory site. Its spokepeople claim that Union Carbide was not owned by Dow at the time of the gas leak; therefore, Dow isn’t responsible for the survivors’ well being. However, another incident took place when Union Carbide was not a subsidiary of Dow – a group of asbestos workers in Texas sued Union Carbide for not warning them of the dangers of handling asbestos. In 2002, Dow Chemical paid two billion dollars to these workers. In both cases, Union Carbide had not been a part of Dow. In one case Dow paid its dues, while in the other it conveniently ignored the communities suffering an ocean away.

Business classes, recruitment officials, and many magazines paint a fairly rosy picture of Dow Chemical. Let’s be honest – it would be difficult to look at one of Dow’s Human Element advertisements and not be touched by the pleasant savior-like quality of its message. Hidden behind those glossy full-page posters are the stories of communities directly affected by its crimes. Let’s start with Vietnam.

Dow was one of the leaders in chemical warfare, creating herbicides like Agent Orange which contained a highly toxic chemical called dioxin. Agent Orange wiped out hundreds of acres of forest cover that affected the genes of millions. In fact, numerous scientific studies have shown that dioxin has left a haunting legacy in generations of Vietnamese families. The famous Life photograph of a naked girl child running down the street shows the affects of napalm – another Dow brainchild. I will spare you the gruesome details of the children still being born with deformities, both physical and emotional.

In Nicaragua, banana plantation workers were not informed that Dow’s pesticide Nemagon had been banned in the United States due to a correlation between exposure and male sterility. No labels warned the Nicaraguan workers of Nemagon’s dangers. Similarly, Dursban was a pesticide banned in America as it caused neurological damage in children. Dursban is still being manufactured and sold in India today.

Spoof on Dow's motto - Living. Improved Daily

The town of Midland, Michigan is not too happy with the fact that it’s home to Dow’s headquarters. Dioxin contamination is widespread in the Tittabawassee River floodplains, home to more than two hundred men, women, and children. The dangerous levels of this chemical led the state of Michigan to issue the following warning: “Avoid allowing children to play in soils”. Learning about communities like these makes me wonder – are these families not part of Dow’s commitment to saving the world? Does The Human Element only exist on paper? In Plaquemine, Louisiana vinyl chloride pollution has increased liver, brain, and lung cancers. In Seadrift, Texas Dow’s benzene emissions have killed the once thriving fishing industry in its coastal wetlands. Dow’s toxic legacy is widespread, and yet we don’t hear the anger it’s generating in communities all over the world.

Can the Dow monster be defeated? Just ask the Varkari residents of Pune, India who have been resisting the construction of a Dow Research and Development plant. Sometimes blocking roads with their bullock carts, sometimes with their bodies, the Varkaris have vehemently protested the continuation of Dow’s irresponsible deeds in their fifteen villages. Communities have come out in hordes – some estimated at ten thousand – and have succeeded in stalling the construction. They did it with conviction, courage and a refusal to give up.

It’s seldom that one hears the voices of Dow’s victims, silenced by corporate greed and corruption. After all, Dow Chemical donates quite a bit of money to our school, and recruiters are regular visitors at our campus. Why would there be a reason to jeopardize this symbiotic relationship between corporation and university? One gets money while the other receives an outstanding pool of applicants. There is no reason, of course, unless we open our eyes to the true face of Dow. We too have the power to resist the growth of this company by choosing not to support it at our campus.

Many South Asians claim the engineering sections of UT-Austin as their second homes. You might have applied to interview with Dow at some point. You might be doing research in the Department of Chemical Engineering that Dow actively funds. Your exposure to this company might be limited to seeing a Human Element advertisement. You might have just realized that Dow Jones is completely different from Dow Chemical. Whatever the case might be, I want you to be concerned – for your health, for your life, for your future. The CEO of Dow Chemical, Andrew Liveris, is rumored to be a possible Secretary of Energy for the Obama administration. This definitely will not be the last you will be hearing of Dow Chemical. But we must refuse to be swayed by propaganda or allow UNICEF-esque pictures hide the truth about Dow.

Photo Courtesy: Studentsforbhopal

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  1. Sucharit says:

    Nov 20, 2008


    Very well written Pragya!

    The facts pointed out in this article are something we should all become aware of.. Thanks!

  2. GSJ says:

    Nov 20, 2008


    I thought I knew a lot about the disaster, but this article opened my eyes to even more issues regarding it. It’s frustrating how Dow paid damages in the US, but refuse to do so in India.

    I’ve attended talks given by Dow recruiters here at UT, and I must say that you’re right about how they build themselves up to be this company that truly cares about the environment and the world. At one point, I almost forgot that this was the same company that owns Union Carbide.

  3. Ravi says:

    Nov 20, 2008


    In all fairness,

    The Texas case you talked about involved people who hadn’t had their case settled in court yet unlike the Bhopal one. So, yes, Dow does have all of Union Carbide’s liabilities. But, the situations are different. I don’t think Dow ever claimed that Union Carbide’s liabilities weren’t its own.

    Anyway, I agree with you. Dow is irresponsible for taking advantage of legal loopholes to reduce costs and oversight. However, the simple fact is that most companies these days, whether it be Nike, Google, Yahoo, or some clothing company, are willing to infringe on other people’s life, liberty, and property to make a bigger profit.

  4. Mike Sabanos says:

    Nov 22, 2008


    It’s amazing how companies can get with wrongdoing. In today’s economic climate, the cities and states are ready to turn a blind eye to concerns for human safety based on past performance in return for assurances for doing it better next time. While deplorable, this gives them a chance to participate in the economic benefits.

    The real question is – how to force such companies to own up to their actions. Lobbying the government to enforce local laws may be one way

  5. Mamta says:

    Nov 23, 2008


    Well written Pragya. You have given a clear view for the readers. How big corporations like Dow Chemicals avoid responsibilities and still make profit. I am thinking about boy-coting any products by Dow…and spreading the word.

  6. Gunjan Multani says:

    Dec 3, 2009


    Hey Pragya:
    Everything that has been stated above is so true, that such an instance should have never occured in the humanity kind.

    Gunjan Multani.

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