Specter of Pesticide Returns
By Néfer Muñoz*
Nearly 40 years later, workers on banana plantations in Central America are mobilizing for reparations for the problems caused by the pesticide Nemagon, including cancer and sterility.
SAN JOSE - "This is a crime against humanity," Victorino Espinales, a 48-year-old Nicaraguan peasant farmer and activist says of the continued impacts of the pesticide Nemagon, used widely throughout Central America's banana plantations in the 1960s and 1970s.
Nemagon, whose active ingredient is dibromo-chloro-propane (DBCP), was used to fight the pests that attack the banana tree, source of one of the region's leading exports. But the farm workers point out that the pesticide not only killed insects, but also devastated the health of the women, men and children who worked or lived near the banana plantations.
Espinales, president of the 7,000-strong Association of Workers and Former Workers Affected by Nemagon and Fumazone (another commercial name for DBCP), told Tierramérica that the consequences of pesticide use have included sterility and cancer.
Workers from Costa Rican and Nicaraguan banana farms have taken to the streets in recent weeks to demand compensation from the U.S.-based companies that own the plantations. Several dozen lawsuits are under way in Central American and U.S. courts on paying damages to the families affected.
The accused include Dow Chemical, Occidental Chemical Company and Shell Oil Company, manufacturers of Nemagon, and Del Monte Corporation International, Standard Fruit Company, Dole Limited Company and Chiquita Brands, the transnational banana giants that used the pesticide on their plantations.
According to Espinales, the companies sold or used the pesticide although they were aware of its harmful effects. In fact, he said, the first confidential studies about the impacts of DBCP on human health were conducted back in 1958 at Dow Chemical and Shell's instruction.
Because of its volatility and persistence, the compound caused physical damage among banana workers and their families living nearby, say the litigants. In Nicaragua alone, there are believed to be 110,000 people affected, either directly or indirectly.
"This is one egregious example of how pesticides can harm public health," Costa Rican microbiologist Ana Ramírez said in a conversation with Tierramérica.
In the early 1980s, Ramírez conducted a study that linked the increase in sterility among the banana-worker population to the rise in exposure to Nemagon.
DBCP is a highly reactive compound that clashes with DNA molecules and can cause genetic mutations, according to Ramírez. When these changes occur in sex cells, they manifest in reproductive problems or sterility, and when they occur in other types of cells, they can trigger cancer, says the scientist.
Numerous cases of sterility were found in 1977 among workers at one of the DBCP plants in the U.S. state of California. In 1980, a U.S. study involving rabbits showed that exposure to DBCP caused partial or total atrophy of testicles and sharply reduced sperm count.
Those results parallel the findings of Ramírez's study of human subjects exposed to the chemical in Costa Rica.
The U.S. government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pulled Nemagon off the market in that country in 1979, citing its toxic effects on chromosomes (DNA) as well as its persistence in the environment and potential for contaminating air and water. Costa Rica banned it in 1978.
But according to the banana workers' unions Nemagon use continued throughout the 1980s on banana plantations throughout Central America, and companies buried tanks of the pesticide, which are now believed to be leaking and causing further contamination.
The women affected by Nemagon reported increased cases of spontaneous abortion, cancer of the uterus and breasts, liver problems and joint pain.
Men exposed to the chemical suffered sterility, weight-loss, loss of hair and rashes.
"This is a veritable tragedy," Francisco Fiallos, Nicaragua's prosecutor-general, told Tierramérica. He said the Nicaraguan government fully supports the legal demands of its citizens affected by the pesticide.
In the lawsuits filed in Nicaragua, three categories of claims were created: 100,000 dollars for every man left sterile, 50,000 dollars for those who have extremely low sperm count, and 25,000 dollars for other health problems.
Those who settled out of court with the chemical and banana giants received just 100 dollars.
Fiallos pointed out that the government cannot freeze assets of the companies that pulled out of Nicaragua after the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took power in 1979. Legal claims could be more successful in U.S. courts, he suggested.
The local representative for the banana transnational Chiquita Brands declined to make a statement to Tierramérica, saying the matter is being handled by the company's headquarters in the United States.
* Néfer Muñoz is an IPS correspondent.