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The Old Shell Game

May 2024
4min read


“Its vapors reach into every nook and crack, every hiding place, to seek out and kill small flying insects,” boasts the Shell Chemical Company of its popular NoPest insecticide strip. Constantly vaporizing a potent nerve gas, 2,2-dichlorovinyl dimethyl phosphate, nicknamed DDVP or vapona, one cardboard-caged Shell strip poisons flying insects in an average room for up to three months. It attacks innocent insects as well as mischievous ones, and it operates constantly and continuously, whether there are any insects in the room or not.

According to Shell, which markets the product enthusiastically and successfully, what’s bad for the bugs is fine for the family. “Housewives particularly like the product,” claimed Shell in a 1968 report, “because they can hang it in the kitchen, bedroom, living room or other rooms to rid the house of annoying bugs all summer long. … a housewife need only hang it up and she’ll have an attractive accessory for any room in thé home.” Should the happy housewife, while doing this bit of expensive (at about $2.00 per strip) interior decorating, worry about what else this ubiquitous poison might be doing when it isn’t annihilating insects, she may take comfort from the product’s Good Housekeeping Seal and the reasonable faith that an alerted government is militantly protecting the consumer against suspect pesticides.

Tobe sure, since 1947 the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act has required that all pesticides shipped in interstate commerce pass muster with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as both safe and effective when used as directed.

In addition, since 1964, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare has had power of review over applications to the U.S.D.A. for pesticide registration.

And for good measure, the Food and Drug Administration sets tolerances for pesticide residues on food, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Thus blanketed by three layers of official protection, the housewife might well believe her family certified safe in the presence of No-Pest strips. She might just as well believe in the Tooth Fairy.

To know better, though, she might have to wade through a non-best-selling publication of the U.S. Government Printing Office, a report by the House Committee on Government Operations of a study by its Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee, the Honorable L. H. Fountain of North Carolina, Chairman (gist Congress, ist Session, House Report No. 91-637). In the language peculiar to its genre, the report chronicles a complex and elegant pas de deux between the Shell Chemical Company and the U.S. government.

Among the highlights:

  • • During fiscal year 1969 alone, the U.S.D. A. apparently registered 185 pesticides over H.E.W. objections, ignoring clearly specified procedures for resolving interagency disagreements.
  • • The U.S.D.A. registered Shell’s NoPest strips even though no tolerance for DDVP residues on. food had been established by the Food and Drug Administration, or even applied for; tests had shown that the No-Pest strips did leave a residue of DDVP on food; and other units of the U.S.D.A. were prohibiting the same DDVP strips in food-processing establishments under their jurisdictions.
  • • In July, 1965, Dr. T. Roy Hansberry, a Shell employee, was the only representative appointed from private industry to a task force studying U.S.D.A. pesticide registration procedures. From 1947 through 1965 Shell had registered 162 pesticide products with the U.S.D.A. Dr. Hansberry’s personnel clearance form from the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S.D.A. claimed that the service “does not have, or know of any official business with the persons, firms, or institutions with which Dr. Hansberry has other financial interests … which might constitute a conflict of interest.” • Shell’s DDVP registration application was originally approved by the U.S.D.A. in 1963 at the insistence of John S. Leary, Jr., Chief Staff Officer for Pharmacology of the department’s Pesticides Regulation Division. Mr. Leary countermanded a subordinate’s ruling that the product be clearly marked with a skull and crossbones and the word “POISON,” and ignored continuing H.E.W. objections as well as the majority opinion of a Public Health Service panel. At the end of 1966 Mr. Leary left the government to accept a job with the Shell Chemical Company.
  • • Dr. Mitchell R. Zavon served as a medical consultant to the P.R.D. during a six-year period while he apparently served the Shell Chemical Company in the same capacity. He participated in Shell’s studies to establish the safety of DDVP, studies contradicted by independent tests. Claiming the putative objectivity of his position as a health officer (for the city of Cincinnati), Dr. Zavon wrote to an assistant surgeon general endorsing DDVP without mentioning his connection with Shell.
  • • Although DDVP was announced on February i, 1955, as a discovery by Public Health Service scientists, and the head of its research laboratory soon after proclaimed the “dedication of the invention to the public,” the Shell Chemical Company now claims exclusive U.S. patent rights to DDVP.
  • • The only pesticide registration suspended by the Pesticide Regulation Division under its legal authority was that of a Shell competitor that manufactured its own DDVP. The suspension action was initiated after a complaint from Shell.
  • • In January, 1969, Shell finally agreed to label its product “Do not use in nurseries or rooms where infants, ill or aged persons are confined.” The U.S.D.A. took no action to insure that the warning was added to stocks of the product already in distribution, or to direct public attention to the new labelling. The subcommittee report stated: “PRD deliberately left violative products on the market after cancellation or amendment of registrations.”
  • • As for DDVP residues on food, the report states: “Such residues clearly constitute illegal adulteration.” Following the publication of the subcommittee report, the Pesticides Regulation Division moved to require an additional warning on the No-Pest label: “Do not use in kitchens, restaurants, or areas where food is prepared or served.” Shell (which had preened itself the year before on the fact that the No-Pest strips “are also sold widely to … restaurants and farms”) forestalled U.S.D.A. action by applying to the F.D.A. at the last minute, and at long last, for a tolerance ruling on DDVP. Then, just before the F.D.A. was to act, Shell introduced new data, gaining an automatic ninety-day reprieve under F.D.A. procedures. Last July the F.D.A. refused to set a tolerance, and the U.S. D. A. insisted on a new label warning. But existing inventories were still to be sold with the old label, and Shell’s ads need make no mention of any health hazard.

Meanwhile, Shell’s contribution to the art of overkill, insistently promoted, continues to sell like popcorn at the movies; and it is doubtless still true, as the company claimed in 1968, that “Shell Chemical couldn’t be happier.”

—A. W.

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