The story so far, amplified with new detail – Stage 1 • Stage 2 • Stage 3 • Stage 4
Joseph Plant was born a healthy, happy baby. His parents, Rose and Ash Plant, set him up in a crib by a window in their house in Charleston, West Virginia.
Soon Joseph started losing his reflexes and acting as though his stomach hurt.
He was unable to keep food down.
Joseph had blisters all over him and he started excreting a yellow fluid through the pores of his skin.
The Plants took Joseph to the doctor, they learned that his diaphragm had stopped working properly so that when he breathed, his lungs moved out of sync with each other.
The Plants consulted several other doctors, all of whom were baffled. “One of them said he had a virus; another said he had a milk allergy, etc.“*
“Now we know it was because he couldn’t breathe,” said his mom in a later interview.*
The Plants suspected that their son had been poisoned by pesticides.
Once a month, the Plants had a local pest control company send someone to their house to spray for ants, roaches and other bugs.
Three weeks after they brought Joseph home from the hospital, the exterminator paid them a visit. He followed his usual routine, coating baseboards and windowsills throughout the house with a pesticide called Dursban mixed with another organophosphate pesticide Propetamphos – including, it turned out, the bedroom where the newborn lay sleeping.
Joseph’s crib was right below the windowsill, the exterminator was not aware that Joseph was in the room when he did it. By the time he sprayed the windowsill, it was too late.
The active ingredient in Dursban is Chlorpyrifos. It is one of the most common pesticides used by pest control companies.
Every year in the United States, there are thousands of cases of Chlorpyrifos poisoning. An EPA analysis found that the chemical was suspected in 17,771 incidents reported to U.S. poison-control centers between 1993 and 1996. More than half the cases involved children under 6.
Symptoms include headaches, nausea, muscle weakness, loss of reflexes, vomiting, abdominal cramping and diarrhoea, dizziness, tiredness, leg cramps, nerve damage, asthma, and birth defects.
Dursban is produced by Dow Chemical. Dow began manufacturing Dursban 1965 and advertised Dursban for use as a household pest controller, for lawn care, schools, day-care centers, office buildings, on farms and use by pest and termite exterminators.
Though aware of chlorpyrifos’s dangers to health, Dow said Dursban lacked “long term (health) effects” and claimed that there was “no evidence of significant risk to the environment.
In 1995 the EPA caught Dow hiding hundreds of health related lawsuits involving chlorpyrifos and fined the company $876,000 for belatedly reporting 288 possible adverse reactions.
That same year, Mohamed Abou-Donia, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University reported that Dursban could be more toxic in combination with other chemicals than alone, or more toxic in repeated small doses than in a single large one. “It should not be used inside the home,”he said.
Faced with the traumatic injury and lifetime of expensive medical bills, the family decided to sue Dow Chemical to recover some of the damages.
At first, the company followed its normal course of action and prepared to fight the case in court.
But Dow changed its mind when animal tests performed by Professor Abou-Donia showed that chlorpyrifos, when combined with the other chemical, caused “catastrophic destruction” of the nervous system in lower doses than it would have alone.
At that point the company decided to settle with the family for more than $10 million although the exact terms of the out-of-court settlement are not known because the family had to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Dow AgroSciences counsel Relford doesn’t regret the decision to settle: “We were facing a jury trial in West Virginia, in state court, involving a five-and-a-half year-old little boy who was paraplegic and respirator-dependent,” he says. “And we couldn’t look at that case . . . and not have a huge amount of sympathy for Joseph Plant.” Nor, presumably, could the jury.
In June 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the banning of most uses of Dursban, also known as chlorpyrifos, because of concerns the pesticide was harmful to the public health, particularly children.
After the US household ban, Dow Chemical simply switched production and sales of Dursban overseas, particularly targeting poorer countries with lax regulatory systems.
In India, Dow produces and distributes Dursban, claiming it is safe for people and its sales literature claimed Dursban has “an established record of safety regarding humans and pets.
Today, at ten years old – an age when most kids can swing a bat or kick a soccer ball – Joseph is confined to his home with 24-hour nursing care and must use an oxygen system to breath. Since he was poisoned as an infant, Joseph has experienced no muscle growth, no nerve development, and no bone growth.
Value as a story:
This round of research now fills in a lot of gaps in our knowledge of Dursban and Dow’s behaviour. It introduces a new dimension in showing that despite knowing the dangers the company is still marketing the chemical outside the US.
It’s now getting strong, but it can actually get much stronger still. This piece is crying out for emotions, feelings, heart-broken words of the family, to bring it to life and make us feel the tragedy.
It is not yet at the point where the reader is going to boil off the page.
*For this exercise we have changed the names of the family and all quotes from Joseph’s parents are imagined examples inspired by the real case. Quotes attributed to the corporation are accurate as reported.