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Dow is the world's largest producer of plastics including polystyrene, polyurethanes, polyethylene terphthalate, polypropylene, and synthetic rubbers. It is also a major producer of the chemicals calcium chloride, and ethylene oxide, as well as various acrylates, surfactants, and cellulose resins. It produces many agricultural chemicals, perhaps being most famous for its pesticide Lorsban. On the consumer level, its most well-known products include Saran wrap, Ziploc bags, and Styrofoam.
The Dow Chemical Company was founded in 1897 by Herbert Dow in order to extract chlorides and bromides from brine deposits under Midland, Michigan. Its initial products included bromine and bleach. Even in its early history, the company set a tradition of rapidly diversifying its product line. Within twenty years, Dow had become a major producer of agricultural chemicals, elemental chlorine, phenol and other dyestuffs, and magnesium metal.
In the 1930s, Dow began production of plastic resins, which would grow to become one of the corporation's major businesses. Its first plastic products were ethylcellulose in 1935 and polystyrene in 1937.
In 1930, Dow built its first plant to produce magnesium extracted from seawater rather than underground brine. Growth of this business made Dow a strategically important business during World War II, as magnesium became important in fabricating lightweight parts for airplanes. Also during the war, Dow and Corning began their joint venture Dow Corning to produce silicones for military and later civilian use.
In the postwar era, Dow began expanding overseas, founding its first foreign subsidiary in Japan in 1952, with several other nations following rapidly thereafter. Based largely on its growing plastics business, it opened a consumer products division beginning with Saran wrap in 1953. Based on its growing chemicals and plastics businesses, Dow's sales exceeded $1 billion in 1964, $2 billion in 1971, and $10 billion in 1980.
Today, Dow is the world's largest producer of plastics, and with its 1999 acquisition of Union Carbide has become a major player in the petrochemical industry as well.
During the Vietnam War, Dow assisted the United States' military effort by producing the incendiary napalm and the herbicide Agent Orange. Negative health effects from exposure to these chemicals resulted in lawsuits for many years thereafter.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, consumer groups began publicizing that Dow Corning's silicone breast implants caused numerous health problems including breast cancer, autoimmune diseases including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and various neurological problems. This led to numerous lawsuits beginning in 1984 and culminating in a 1998 class action settlement in which tens of thousands of plaintiffs accepted a $3.2 billion award. In 1999, however, an independent review of all previous research on the issue concluded that the implants, even when ruptured, caused no major health problems beyond local hardening or scarring of the breasts.