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Ship without a conscience

May 15, 2009


Probo Koala

Probo Koala

I spent the past week working on a story that looks at whether the newest conflict-of-interest policies go too far, putting too much distance between academics and industry. After interviewing more than a handful of physicians, I began to think, “hey, maybe industry isn’t so bad after all.” And then I read this story.

Here’s the condensed version: In 2006, a ship with a cargo full of waste stopped in Amsterdam. Workers from a waste-disposal company began to unload the sludge, noticed that it appeared to be making them sick, and demanded a higher fee to dispose of what appeared to be a toxic brew (not the usual mix of oil and water). The ship’s contractor, a company called Trafigura, refused and sent the ship to look for a new port, presumably one with more easygoing workers.

The ship ended up in Côte d’Ivoire, where workers ill-equipped to deal with toxic anything began shoveling the more than 500 tons of waste into trucks, which carted the toxic slop into the city of Abidjan and dumped it on the roads and in the sewers. As many as 100,000 people living in Abidjan sickened and at least 10 died. Subsequent tests showed the waste contained hydrogen sulfide — a potentially lethal gas that smells like rotten eggs. Now 30,000 residents of Abidjan are suing.

And the corporate world wonders why it gets such a bad rap? Obviously there will always be a few bad apples, but c’mon! Foisting toxic sludge off on a poor West African country is beyond rotten. When will corporations start to understand that their livelihood depends on the health of this planet and its people?

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