Toxic Dust: The History and Legacy of Virginia’s Kepone Disaster

Time Period
1925 to Today
Media Type
Business & Industry
Science & Technology
Gregory Wilson

On October 5, 2017, Gregory Wilson delivered a Banner Lecture entitled “Toxic Dust: The History and Legacy of Virginia’s Kepone Disaster.”

In July 1975, news broke about workers at Life Science Products Company in Hopewell poisoned while making the pesticide Kepone, the brand name of chlordecone. Further investigations showed Life Science had contracted with Allied Chemical, a larger firm with a plant in Hopewell, to make Kepone and that both companies dumped Kepone waste into the James River and its nearby tributaries. The events led to a number of significant events, including a fishing and harvesting ban that remained in various forms through the 1980s, new state and federal environmental regulations, and federal court cases that led to the creation of the Virginia Environmental Endowment in 1977. Forty years later, Kepone remains in the James River sediment but in much reduced levels. Still, traces of Kepone have been found in James River fish today. The complete toxic effects of Kepone are not fully known, but a major public health crisis appears to be unfolding in the French West Indies from continued chlordecone use on banana plants through the 1990s. Chlordecone’s toxic global legacy led the United Nations Environmental Program to call for an end to its use. The events surrounding Kepone left an important legacy that continues to affect people and the environment in Virginia and around the world. The Kepone story is a compelling reminder of the critical ongoing importance of government oversight in the protection of human health and the environment.

Dr. Gregory Wilson is a professor of history at the University of Akron. He grew up in Newport News, Virginia, and remembers the Kepone tragedy from his youth. Dr. Wilson earned his Ph.D. from Ohio State University. He is the author of Above the Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings (with Craig Simpson), Ohio: A History of the Buckeye State (with Kevin F. Kern), and Communities Left Behind: The Area Redevelopment Administration, 1945–1965.

This lecture was cosponsored by the Virginia Environmental Endowment as part of its 40th Anniversary.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

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