What Dow Chemical Doesn’t Want You to Know About Your Water (VIDEO) | Civil Eats

What Dow Chemical Doesn’t Want You to Know About Your Water (VIDEO)

Earlier this year, I was contacted by a PR firm working for Dow Chemical to contribute a 60-second video for The Future We Create virtual conference on water sustainability the company launches today. As a vocal advocate for strict regulation of toxic chemicals—especially for food and farming—I was surprised the company would approach me. Dow is the country’s largest chemical maker, and profits handsomely from developing some of the world’s most polluting products, many of which are widely used in industrial and consumer goods as well as agriculture.

In the video I submitted, which you can watch below, I stress that one of the greatest threats to clean water is chemical contaminants—and that Dow Chemical has a long history of water pollution. The PR representative e-mailed to say “unfortunately we can’t use your video,” but that she would be happy to include me, still, if I would consider re-recording it. When we discussed what that would mean she said, no “fingerpointing;” they wanted a “positive, inclusive discussion.”

I believe in inclusiveness and engagement, but I also believe we must pursue those principles within a context that is honest. To do otherwise is to participate in what is popularly called “greenwashing,” painting a veneer of environmentalism on an otherwise unchanged product or practice—a corporate strategy many of us are all too familiar with.

In this spirit, I felt it would be disingenuous to engage in a conversation about water sustainability, for a campaign paid for by Dow Chemical, without pointing out the direct relationship between Dow’s core business products—a source of its $8 billion in profit last year—and toxins in our environment.

At the same time Dow launches this initiative, the company is actively fighting multiple lawsuits from communities who contend their water has been polluted by the company, including from its hometown manufacturing plant in Midland, Michigan. In 2007, the EPA detected the highest level of dioxin ever discovered in the country’s rivers or lakes in waterways near Dow’s global headquarters. Dioxin levels in some places were a thousand times higher than the residential standard, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. A recent study found women living in Midland, as well as Saginaw and Bay counties, have significantly higher rates of breast cancer; dioxin was to blame. A class action lawsuit is pending.

“In the backyard of Dow’s corporate headquarters, the company for decades through philanthropy, public relations, and politics has made the choice to push back at every regulatory level instead of addressing their dioxin contamination of 52 miles of freshwater and Lake Huron,” said Michelle Hurd Riddick of the Saginaw Bay grassroots environmental organization, Lone Tree Council. “The company has mastered the art of greenwashing while poisoning a whole watershed and getting away with it.”

Community members in another Midland—Midland, Texas—filed suit earlier this year against Dow and three other companies for contaminating groundwater there with hexavalent chromium. Barred from use in the European Union because of its toxicity, hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen. The EPA’s own hazard report notes that exposure, including through contaminated drinking water, “may produce effects on the liver, kidney, [and] gastrointestinal and immune systems.”

Dow also continues to drag its heels and fight regulators in order to continue production of some of its most toxic and water polluting products.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

In 2000, for instance, the EPA announced it was phasing out approval of Dow’s insecticide, and potent neurotoxin, Dursban for new home construction in the United States because the product is linked to serious illnesses and even death in children. Five years later, the chemical was still in use in U.S. homes. And in 2003, Dow settled a $2 million lawsuit with the state of New York, the largest penalty ever in a pesticide-related case, for repeatedly violating an agreement about proper advertising of Dursban and making misleading safety claims.

Dow is also a leading manufacturer of Bisphenol-A (or BPA), used in numerous consumer products such as baby bottles, children’s toys, and the linings of food cans. It’s a particularly dangerous chemical, with proven toxicity even in low doses, especially in utero. The National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program has found the chemical may increase the risk of certain cancers and alter brain development. The chemical, a synthetic estrogen, has also been linked to reproductive and hormonal problems. New research is showing that a vast majority of Americans is exposed to low concentrations of BPA not only through consumer products, but from surface water, too.

The future we should be creating is one in which everyone has access to clean water. No one should worry whether their water is tainted with endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, or neurotoxins—produced by Dow or any of the country’s other biggest chemical manufacturers. Dow has the power, and resources, to do more than create a faux “inclusive conversation” about water sustainability. The company should discontinue its most toxic products and pay to clean up communities it has contaminated. Until it does, I will not be complicit in its greenwashing.

The article also appears on TheNation.com

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

Anna Lappé is a widely respected author and educator, known for her work as an advocate for justice and sustainability along the food chain. The co-author or author of three books and the contributing author to 13 others, her work has been widely translated internationally. She is the founder or cofounder of three national organizations, including the Small Planet Institute, Small Planet Fund, and Real Food Media. Alongside her work as the Strategic Advisor to Real Food Media, Anna directs a food grantmaking program for a family foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Mitchell
    Great job! Too bad they didn't use the clip.
  2. Audrey
    Way to go, Anna! This is truly fantastic. Thanks for exposing Dow's greenwashing and hypocrisy. It should also be noted that they are the same company that refuses to compensate the victims of the Bhopal disaster, for which they are liable. Here's some background (which I'm sure you know about - this is for your readers and fans!): http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/dow-cannot-run-legacy-bhopal-sponsoring-run-water-events-2010-04-16
  3. Thanks Mitchell and Audrey. Yes! And take a look at the video from Corporate Accountability Intl on the Bhopal/Dow connection at www.youtube.com/user/afuturewecreate
  4. Thanks Anne! I've written in the past about Dow's pollution of local aquifers in Louisiana and its participant in blatant environmental racism. In an effort to buy its way out of fixing the problem, it was also big supporter of "Run For the Planet"-- heavily supported by Al Gore's Live Earth (!?!?!)-- to help people around the world gain access to clean water. Couple problems with that, of course: Dow is a big contributor to polluting water ... and it's latest business? Water filtering, to sell in the countries where the water is already polluted. It was amazing to me the celebrities -- and media -- that signed on with the "Blue Planet Run" (http://planetgreen.discovery.com/work-connect/dowchemicals-runwater-activists-fightback.html) ... Wonder if it might have had something to do with the double-truck advertisements Dow bought in magazines from the New York Times and down to promote it? Thanks again for you post. Jon

More from

Food Safety


A farmer harvests coffee beans in a plantation along the Mekong River in Thailand. (Photo credit: Sutiporn Somnam, Getty Images)

Climate Solutions for the Future of Coffee

In the face of severe climate change, farmers, researchers, and coffee devotees are refocusing on agroforestry and developing hardier varieties and high-tech beanless brews to save our morning cup of Joe.


Far From Home, the Curry Leaf Tree Thrives

Zee Lilani of Kula Nursery stands among her curry leaf tree starts in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja)

A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping

Changing How We Farm Might Protect Wild Mammals—and Fight Climate Change

A red fox in a Connecticut farm field. (Photo credit: Robert Winkler, Getty Images)

Across Farm Country, Fertilizer Pollution Impacts Not Just Health, but Water Costs, Too

An Illinois farmer fertilizes a field before planting. (Photo credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images)