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Shell, Dow Hid Cancer-Causing Chemical in Pesticides, Contaminating Drinking Water for Millions

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Shell, Dow Hid Cancer-Causing Chemical in Pesticides, Contaminating Drinking Water for Millions

For decades, Shell and Dow hid a highly potent cancer-causing chemical in two widely used pesticides, contaminating drinking water for millions of people in California and beyond, according to lawsuits detailed in a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG).


The chemical 1,2,3-trichloropropane or TCP, was formerly an unwanted and ineffective byproduct in Dow's Telone and Shell's D-D pesticides. Internal documents uncovered in lawsuits filed by communities in California's San Joaquin Valley show that the companies saved millions of dollars a year by not properly disposing of TCP, a chemical a Dow scientist once called "garbage," as hazardous waste.

Shell stopped making D-D in 1984 and Dow later took TCP out of Telone, but not before it contaminated the tap water supplies of 94 California utility districts serving 8 million people.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency testing program found TCP in tap water supplies for about 4 million people in 13 other states between 2013 and 2015, but the chemical is unregulated at the federal level and in every state except Hawaii.

Regulators in California will meet next week to decide whether to set a legal limit for TCP in tap water. Shell and Dow have paid multi-million dollar settlements to some communities to pay for filtering TCP out of water supplies, but dozens more cases are pending.

Dow and Shell "should have taken it out and disposed of it properly as a toxic waste. But that would have cost them a lot of money, so they left it in and continued to sell these pesticides to farmers throughout California," said Asha Kreiling, an analyst with the Community Water Center, which along with Clean Water Action has pushed the state to set a legal limit.

"This is an outrageous story of how Shell and Dow essentially got farmers who bought the pesticide to pay to help them get rid of a hazardous waste," said Bill Walker, EWG's managing editor and co-author of the report. "How many other hidden examples are there of chemical companies endangering communities through toxic deception?"

TCP was synthesized in the 1930s as one of many byproducts from the manufacture of a chemical used to make plastics. After pineapple growers in Hawaii found that the mixture of byproducts could kill microscopic worms called nematodes, Shell and Dow began marketing slightly different formulations of the mixture and eventually D-D and Telone became the second most heavily used pesticides in California.

But San Francisco attorney Todd Robins, who represents many smaller communities whose water is contaminated with TCP, said the companies knew TCP was useless as a pesticide—in fact, it made the products less effective. Yet both Shell and Dow claimed on the labels that the products were 100 percent active ingredients—false claims that violated federal regulations for registering pesticides. Robins also said the companies knew as early as 1952 that TCP in fumigants did not break down in soil and could migrate into groundwater. Once there, it persists for centuries.

In 2009, California state scientists set an extraordinarily low public health goal for TCP in drinking water of less than 1 part per trillion. Public health goals are not enforceable legal limits but minimal risk levels expected to cause no more than one case of cancer in a million people who drink and shower with the water daily for a lifetime. The only chemical with a lower California public health goal is dioxin, considered one of the most toxic substances known to science.

Staff of the California State Water Resources Control Board have proposed a legal limit of 5 parts per trillion, the lowest level current technology can reliably detect. A public hearing on the proposed standard, which is supported by Community Water Center, Clean Water Action, EWG and other groups, will be held April 19 in Sacramento.

"Shell and Dow put greed for profits ahead of the health of the people who bought and used their products," said Andria Ventura, toxics program manager for Clean Water Action. "We can't reverse the tragic consequences, but setting a drinking water standard that's fully protective of public health can stem the threat going forward."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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