Amvac Chemical in Los Angeles has found a profitable — and controversial — niche by buying manufacturing rights to older pesticides, many of them at risk of being banned or restricted because of safety concerns.
From its factory in Los Angeles’ industrial sprawl, Amvac Chemical does a booming business selling some of the world’s most dangerous pesticides.
Amvac has fueled double-digit revenue growth through an unusual business practice: It has bought from larger companies the rights to older pesticides, many of them at risk of being banned or restricted because of safety concerns.
The company has fought to keep those chemicals on the market as long as possible, hiring scientists and lawyers to do battle with regulatory agencies.
Amvac’s focus on older pesticides has come at a cost to human health and the environment, according to federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state records, regulatory investigations and a string of lawsuits.
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Accidents involving the company’s pesticides have led to the evacuation of neighborhoods and the poisoning of scores of field workers in California and elsewhere.
Amvac is a leading maker of organophosphates, a class of older, highly toxic pesticides that has been under regulatory scrutiny since the late 1980s. As larger companies stopped manufacturing some of their organophosphates, Amvac bought the rights to make or sell 10 of them since 1989, according to company records and interviews.
One, mevinphos, was banned in the United States in 1994 after poisonings in Washington state and after an EPA study found it responsible for poisoning more field workers in California than any other agricultural chemical. Amvac still sells the product overseas, according to company officials.
Amvac is not the largest producer of pesticides that have attracted regulatory scrutiny, but it stands out for its willingness to embrace chemicals abandoned by other companies.
Getting a good deal
“There’s something here rather unique, which is a company that basically goes intentionally after chemicals that are in trouble because of health and safety concerns,” said Steve Schatzow, a former director of the EPA’s pesticide program and now an attorney for pesticide companies.
Amvac “buys them up at a discount price from the major chemical companies who no longer want to be associated” with them, he said.
Amvac, a former client, fired Schatzow in 1994 after his negotiations with the EPA ended in the ban on mevinphos.
Eric Wintemute, Amvac’s chief executive, defended the company’s record. He said Amvac’s chemicals give farmers the tools to protect crops. Wintemute, son of one of Amvac’s founders, acknowledged that its products carry risks but said the company had spent more than $150 million conducting tests required by regulatory agencies and training pesticide applicators to reduce that risk.
He said that, in most poisoning cases involving Amvac products, regulators found that the pesticides were used improperly. Amvac’s products are safe if they are used according to the EPA’s safety guidelines, he said.
“We focus on how to keep our products in the marketplace,” Wintemute said. “If we have incidents, we lose an asset. We have to put safety first in order for the company to survive.”
Industry analysts said Amvac has shown a commitment to improving the safety of its chemicals.
“The largest crop-protection companies are less interested in trying to make a lot of money out of the organophosphates because they know they’re a class of chemistry on the way out,” said Philip Jarvis, publisher of the trade magazine Agrow World Crop Protection News. “If Amvac is selling these older products, at least they are older products in a safe pair of hands.”
Environmental groups contend Amvac has stalled and used legal threats to blunt EPA efforts to restrict its pesticides. They cite the case of DDVP, an ingredient in home pest strips.
An EPA review of the product’s safety has dragged on for 19 years, while the strips have remained on store shelves and in homes.
EPA officials disputed the contention that they were cowed by Amvac, saying the agency has clamped down on the company’s products when they were a proven threat to the public. With DDVP, officials said, the risk was less clear-cut. The agency ultimately required Amvac to reduce the size of pest strips used in homes.
“There are outside groups who consistently tell us, or imply, that we do what Amvac wants,” said Jim Jones, the top EPA deputy for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. “The record is so filled with documentation of us disagreeing with Amvac, it’s kind of amazing that that’s how people interpret it.”
Glenn Wintemute was an entrepreneur with chemistry and biology degrees from the University of Southern California when he bought a small pesticide company in 1963 called Durham Chemical. He later joined with a partner to run American Vanguard, the Newport Beach, Calif.-based holding company that owns Amvac.
Wintemute had big plans, aiming to take on pesticide giants such as Dow Chemical. But his company was deeply in debt by the late 1970s.
A pesticide scandal then broke in California’s Central Valley in 1977. Nearly 36 workers at an Occidental Petroleum factory in Lathrop were found to have low or zero sperm counts.
Suspicion focused on one of the factory’s primary products: dibromochloropropane (DBCP), a pesticide used to wipe out worms in soil. Tests dating to the 1950s had shown the product could cause testicular atrophy in lab animals.
The EPA suspended most uses of DBCP within months of the Lathrop sterility findings. Dow Chemical and Shell Chemicals, the primary makers, said they were ceasing production.
Where others saw danger, Wintemute saw opportunity. Amvac, which had ceased making DBCP years earlier, renewed production after the EPA suspension, according to Amvac board minutes and state records. Amvac quickly became the primary U.S. manufacturer of the chemical, according to the EPA.
With domestic sales down because of the EPA scrutiny, Amvac turned to foreign markets, supplying DBCP to Standard Fruit (later Dole Fruit) in 1978 and 1979 for use on Latin American plantations, company records show.
In 1979, the EPA proposed banning the chemical permanently in this country. During hearings, Wintemute defended the product, disputing government tests.
Amvac persuaded the EPA to allow continued use of DBCP for pineapple crops in Hawaii. In exchange, Amvac agreed to produce a safety guide for users and closely monitor levels of DBCP in groundwater. After wells in Hawaii showed signs of contamination, the pesticide was banned in the United States in 1985.
In late March, Amvac agreed to pay a total of $300,000 to 13 Nicaraguan workers who charged in a lawsuit that they became sterile after being exposed to DBCP. In court papers, the company denied wrongdoing. Dow and Dole remain defendants in the case, scheduled to be tried in Los Angeles next month.
In a recent deposition, Glenn Wintemute said Amvac had issued stringent safety recommendations before selling DBCP.
Leadership stays in family
In 1994, weeks after Amvac agreed to withdraw mevinphos in the United States after the Washington state poisonings involving apple-orchard workers, Glenn Wintemute stepped down as president. Now 82, he continues to serve as co-chairman of the board and is a major stockholder. He was replaced by his son, Eric, who has spent most of his career at the company.
During the 1990s, organophosphates came under intense scrutiny. In 1993, a National Academy of Sciences report raised concerns that the compounds might affect children’s neurological development. A few years later, the EPA began a 10-year review that ultimately imposed bans and tighter restrictions on the compounds.
Bigger companies also were developing pesticides that were less toxic to the environment and targeted specific pests. Major companies such as Monsanto were introducing genetically modified seeds that resisted attacks by insects and fungus.
Amvac saw a business opportunity in the regulatory pressure and the willingness of big companies to sell the rights to manufacture or market organophosphates, especially those with low sales.
Since Eric Wintemute took over, the company has acquired organophosphates at a rapid pace. Today, the company makes or sells 10 of about 30 such pesticides still on the market. Of 25 chemicals Amvac has acquired since 1989, the Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit anti-pesticide group, lists 17 as “bad actors,” compounds deemed especially dangerous to human health or the environment.
In its current literature, Amvac says it aims to acquire “niche product lines from basic research companies that divest mature products in order to focus on” new chemicals. Amvac boasts of increasing sales through a “diligent commitment to regulatory challenges” and through marketing campaigns designed to “breathe new life” into old chemicals.
The strategy has turned Amvac into one of the most profitable and fastest-growing pesticide companies in the nation. Although its revenues are a fraction of those of the biggest pesticide companies such as Monsanto and Dow, its profits increased by an average 24 percent a year over the past five years, although last year the company experienced a slowdown.
Eric Wintemute said the company improves on the safety of the chemicals it acquires, providing training for users, improving labeling and investing in technology such as the SmartBox. The system allows farmers to load pesticides into an enclosed applicator towed behind a tractor, limiting chances for accidental exposure.
“If we believe a product has a problem, we would not sell it,” he said.
Larger companies said they sold their chemicals to Amvac because they thought it was a responsible steward. For instance, Dow licensed the organophosphate chlorpyrifos to Amvac in 2006 because it was impressed with SmartBox.
Environmentalists are skeptical of Amvac’s efforts to mitigate the health risks of its products. They say consumers and farmers often ignore labels or misuse equipment.
Agriculture experts and scientists also say that there often are less-toxic alternatives to Amvac’s products, although the other options are often costlier.
Keeping old chemicals on the market, said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center, a Rhode Island nonprofit that promotes organic farming, has “perpetuated completely unnecessary, high-risk exposures for both farmworkers and the environment.”
Amvac’s latest battle is over one of its biggest sellers: metam sodium, the third-most-widely-used pesticide in the country. Farmers inject metam sodium into the ground or sprinkle it on fields before planting crops such as carrots, potatoes and strawberries. Once in the soil, the compound gives off a gas that kills bugs and bacteria.
Since the late 1980s, the chemical has been linked to several mass poisonings.
Many incidents have resulted from mistakes by applicators. Applied incorrectly, the gas can waft off fields and into nearby neighborhoods. The result is similar to a tear-gas attack: victims suffer watery eyes, constricted throats and difficulty breathing, then vomiting and dizziness.
In 1991, a train carrying metam sodium made by Amvac overturned in the Sacramento River near Dunsmuir. A toxic cloud sickened more than 700 people, and the chemical wiped out virtually all wildlife along a 42-mile stretch of river.
A study found that several victims developed long-term asthma from the high-level exposure. Amvac paid $2 million as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by California but admitted no wrongdoing.
The accident did little to slow Amvac’s interest in metam sodium. During the late 1990s, Amvac acquired the rights to the chemical from two competitors. Marketing efforts resulted in a 13-fold rise in sales, according to a corporate presentation. Amvac now controls 60 percent of the metam-sodium market.
In 1999, metam sodium manufactured by an Amvac competitor was linked to an accidental poisoning of more than 170 people in Earlimart, Calif., according to court files and state records. Three years later, more than 250 people were sickened around nearby Arvin in an accident involving Amvac’s metam-sodium product, according to state records.
The incidents attracted the attention of California and the EPA, which long had been concerned about the effects of pesticides drifting off farms.
In 2003, the EPA reported that metam sodium played a role in one-fifth of all poisoning incidents in California affecting 10 or more people.
A preliminary EPA analysis in 2004 suggested the safe use of metam sodium required buffer zones as large as a mile between fields and population centers.
Amvac, worried farmers would stop buying metam sodium if such large buffers were required, hired a consultant whose computer model indicated smaller buffer zones — as little as a few hundred feet in ideal conditions — would protect public health.
The EPA and California are expected to announce new restrictions on the use of metam sodium and other soil fumigants this year.
Wintemute said metam sodium is safe under current restrictions so long as it is used properly. He said that he was confident the industry had learned from the “poorly handled” incidents in California, and that the risk of an accident had decreased.
Michael O’Malley, a doctor at the University of California, Davis, who has studied metam-sodium incidents, disagreed. “You have a big volume, close to a community. You’re rolling the dice,” he said.
A poisoning is no mere possibility for the people of Edmundson Acres, the neighborhood evacuated during the 2002 incident near Arvin.
One minute, families were sitting outside enjoying a summer night. The next, adults and children began screaming, choking and vomiting.
An investigation determined that the farming company that applied Amvac’s product erred by not quickly spraying water over a nearby field to prevent gas from escaping.
Locals say it is only a matter of time before somebody else makes a similar error. “We can’t just pack up our stuff and leave. I think it should be safe,” said Janette Serna, who was sickened in the incident. “We’re not guinea pigs.”