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A Circle of Poison

Pesticides in the Plantations

by JACQUELYN GODIN

For the period of May, 2007, the USDA reported the total value of monthly agricultural imports to the U.S. amounted to $6.1 billion. Of that total value, 15 percent arrived here from Mexico, 15 percent from Canada, three percent from Chile and three percent from Brazil (USDA April 2007). Latin American produce historically has found a warm welcome in the U.S.; however, these products often carry on them dangerous pesticide residues. Most recently, on July 18, President Bush set an urgent timetable of 60 days for the newly formed Cabinet-level committee to announce safety limits on produce, especially on food products being imported into the U.S.

According to a Trade and Environment Database (TED) case study regarding pesticide use in Mexico, which is published online by American University, "Toxicity threatens U.S. consumers in the ‘circle of poison’ effect in which unregistered or banned pesticides are exported to Mexico and sprayed on crops whose produce is then exported back to the U.S." More specifically, dibromochloropropane (DBCP) was banned in the U.S. in 1979, yet it continues to be used on crops in developing hemispheric countries such as Nicaragua and Costa Rica, years after its cut-off date. Since then, there have been numerous reports of the chemical’s baleful effects. But in the months to come, tropical plantation workers will finally have their day in a U.S. court, as they try to seek compensation for the residual harm arising out of pesticide use which, for many of them, has ruined their lives. The trial began on July 19 in a Los Angeles courtroom and is expected to last two to three months.


Not Acknowledged to be Dangerous Until Symptoms Are Exhibited

The Pesticide Action Network of North America describes DBCP as a carcinogen, a ground water contaminant, a developmental or reproductive toxin and a suspected endocrine disruptor. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that DBCP can potentially cause kidney and liver damage as well as cancer, especially if one is exposed to levels greater than the maximum contaminant level of .0002 mg/L for an extended period of time. The pesticide in question was manufactured by chemical companies like Dow Chemical and Shell Oil to be used as a fumigant for nematode worms in the U.S. until it was pulled off the shelves in 1979. It had been used as a spray on agricultural produce such as cucumbers, grapes, tomatoes, squash, carrots, okra, camellia and roses. The EPA (2006) established that by 1974, farmers in the U.S. were treating crops with 9.8 million pounds of DBCP, and by 1977, 831,000 pounds of it were in use in California alone. There is a considerable likelihood that DBCP often seeped into the groundwater supply during this period.


Banana Plantations are a Dangerous Place

According to a press statement by the Dole Fresh Fruit Company on November 10, 2002, there were nine DBCP cases pending in the U.S. against the fruit company, in which plantation workers have alleged injury to them due to DBCP exposure. The latest set of lawsuits, filed in 2004 against Dole Fresh Fruit Company and Standard Fruit Company, have recently reached the point where the first case is about to be heard by a U.S. court. All told, five lawsuits involving at least 5,000 agricultural workers from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama are waiting to be heard. Dole has been aware of the extent of the Nicaraguan injury claims for some time. In a 2002 press release, the company acknowledged that they "are aware of 295 DBCP lawsuits now pending against U.S. DBCP manufacturers, Dole and other banana growers, in which a total of 6,544 plaintiffs are now seeking (a total of) approximately $9.6 million in purported damages." Although a Dole press release on April 2, 2007 stated that the company was one of the first fresh produce companies in the 1970s to create programs to decrease pesticide use, DBCP was, in fact, used throughout the decade. The lawsuit accuses Dole and Standard Fruit Companies of negligence and concealment during the time the pesticide was in use. Duane Miller, the lawyer representing around 50 Nicaraguan plantation workers, informed a hearing on July 19 that the workers "weren’t told until the ’90s – and they weren’t told by Dow or Dole."


Fighting Back

Duane Miller claims that the inherent toxicity of DBCP was recognized as early as the 1950s when scientists working for Dow Chemical observed the deleterious effect on the testes of laboratory animals exposed to the chemical. Examinations indicated a noxious condition in the reproductive organs. A study (Potashnik, 1979) released by the EPA, which was based on the examinations of 23 workers at a DBCP production plant, found that 18 out of the 23 men had azoospermia (no sperm was present in the semen) or oligospermia (a low sperm count). The severity of their condition was directly proportional to the time that they spent working in the plant that was producing the DBCP. For example, a group of 12 men with azoospermia logged in between 100 and 6,726 hours while a group of 6 men with oligospermia had exposure rates of 34-95 hours. Rabbits and other laboratory animals have been used to further prove the destructive manifestations of DBCP on reproductive and adrenal functions. One group of rabbits was subjected to 10 parts per million (ppm) of DBCP for 14 weeks which were compared against a control group of rabbits. Those injected with 10 ppm showed a significant decrease in the amount of sperm present compared to the control group.


Nicaraguans Protest against Approaching Lawsuit

Monetary compensation for damages incurred seems to have taken precedence over social awareness for Nicaraguan workers. A court case would likely gain international attention and would inspire strong human rights and environmental legislation likely to positively affect all agricultural workers associated with the manufacture of the lethal chemicals. Many Nicaraguan banana workers signed a petition circulated on July 11 to fire their legal team in the upcoming lawsuit. There have been accusations, mainly by the union leader Victorino Espinales, that the lawyers have deceptively changed medical reports to make their future case more formidable; therefore, giving up any prospect that the case for the workers could be won. Since past lawsuits against companies like Dole and Dow have been settled out of court for monetary compensation ranging from $20 million in 1992 to $41.5 million in 1997, it would be safe to say that some Nicaraguan workers would rather directly negotiate with the drug companies for monetary amounts than establish important legal precedents. This seems to represent a sharp shift in feelings for the thousands of banana workers, including Espinales, who in the recent months had petitioned the Nicaraguan Congress for governmental relief from their plight. The orientation of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega also has come under close scrutiny during this investigation into the use of poisonous pesticides, having reportedly met multiple times with top Dole officials. An offer of more jobs to the country was presented, but only if Nicaragua altered their legal system to make it more difficult to sue the giant drug corporations.


With or without Nicaraguans, Costa Ricans are Victims

Although Dole claims to have halted any use of DBCP on its plantations in Latin America after 1979, the pesticide’s continual usage in the region seemed to defy the U.S.’s ban: "In July 1991, 186 banana workers alleged that they were exposed to DBCP from the early 1960′s to 1984, causing them serious and permanent sterilization." (American University, 1995). One TED case study was conducted in 1995 and investigated the sterilization of 1,500 plantation workers due to exposure to DBCP’s harmful effects from its usage on Costa Rican banana crops. It is estimated that around 2,000 men were sterilized due to their exposure to DBCP throughout the 1970s. Workers were not even able to sue Dow Chemical and Shell Oil until March 1990 when the Texas Supreme Court narrowly voted in favor of the Costa Ricans’ right to do so. Other grievances have been settled outside of court in order to salvage the good name of the corporations. The 1995 case study states that in 1992, a suit by Costa Rican plantation workers was settled out of court for a sum of $20 million.


Guatemalan Pesticide Use and its Eventual Arrival in the U.S.

The same issue was addressed in a 1997 TED case study on Guatemalan snow peas, one of the country’s main agricultural exports to the U.S. The case study referenced an investigation conducted in 1995, in which it was estimated that Latin American campesinos were 13 times more likely than U.S. farmers to suffer from pesticide poisoning (Tansey, et al., Eradicating the Pesticide Problem in Latin America). Furthermore, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization, stated that the greatest number of Guatemalan pesticide violations came about as a result of U.S. imports of Guatemalan snow peas. The EWG concluded that 41 percent of the tested snow pea shipments exported to the U.S. from Guatemala during 1992-1993 were found to contain illegal pesticide residues (American University, 1997).


Pesticides Used Today Hardly Represent an Improvement

As recently as December 2006, banned residential chemicals, endosulfan and diazonin, were found during air monitoring near an elementary school in Hastings, Florida. According to the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA, 2007), endosulfan is used in the U.S. as an insecticide mainly on cotton, potatoes and apples. Residential use of endosulfan was banned in 2000 after findings concluded that it is a neurotoxin with poisoning symptoms including tremors, convulsions, vomiting and hyperactivity. Diazonin is also a neurotoxin, but is still used as an insecticide on nuts, vegetables and fruits. The EPA banned its residential use in 2004. If repeatedly exposed to diazonin, asthma, cancer and gestational diabetes are some of the possible noxious outcomes. Endosulfan was used to combat insects on coffee plantations in Colombia. According to PANNA, more than 100 poisonings and three deaths were reported in 1994. A study by the German Federal Environmental Agency (February 2007) reported, "Excessive and improper application and handling of endosulfan have been linked to congenital physical disorders, mental retardations and deaths in farm workers and villagers in developing countries in Africa, southern Asian and Latin America."


What a U.S. Trial Could Do

In light of the ongoing trial, U.S. investigations will hopefully direct their attention to the human rights abuses and manifestation of negligence committed by large fruit and chemical companies as well as demand stringent analysis of the methods and pesticides, like endosulfan, used in agricultural production. This could result in many U.S. citizens to question every organization, from Dole Fresh Fruit Company, Shell Oil and Dow Chemical to the EPA, USDA and FDA, associated with the drug. Critics insist that pesticide use domestically as well as throughout Latin American has not always ceased, but instead, very likely has been masked or transformed, without benefit of reconsideration.

JACQUELYN GODIN is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.