- BBC News World
Tens of thousands of former workers say they are sterile due to a pesticide used by US companies on banana plantations in Latin America in the 1970s.
The United States restricted and later banned the use of that product on the mainland due to health risks, but workers in Central and South America continued to be exposed to the pesticide. Grace Livingstone investigated the decades-long struggle of workers for justice in Panama.
Isabel Coba Mojica was 16 years old when she got a job on a banana plantation in the Chiriquí province of Panama.
When he started working there in 1967, the plantation was run by a subsidiary of the American giant United Fruit Company, the company that has since changed its name to Chiquita Brands International.
Coba hoped to start a family with his girlfriend, but she did not get pregnant. Finally the couple separated and he met another woman, but his new partner was also unable to conceive.
Three years after starting his work on the plantation, where he remained for 25 years, Coba sought medical attention. A doctor analyzed his sperm and told him that she couldn’t have children.
“I couldn’t believe it. I went crazy, I didn’t think it was worth living anymore. I felt sadness and a sense of loss,” he recalls.
Coba was not the only banana worker to experience medical problems.
Rafael Martínez González worked on two banana plantations managed by United Fruit in Panama.
Three years after starting work, Martinez’s wife had a miscarriage when she was six months pregnant. The couple never managed to conceive another baby.
No gloves, no boots
In Panama there are more than 1,100 former banana workers who denounce that a pesticide used by United Fruit on the plantations left them sterile.
The pesticide, called Di-bromochloropropane or DBCP, was used against microscopic worms that damage banana plants. But the DBCP can also affect fertility in men.
Martinez believes not enough precautions were taken when workers were ordered to spray the pesticide that had various brand names, including Fumazone.
“I sprayed a lot of chemicals. Normally when I sprayed Fumazone, they gave me a mask, But not me gave gloves, boots, or any other protective clothing“, he points out.
US attorneys helped Martínez and Coba, and hundreds of other Panamanians, bring lawsuits against Chiquita and the pesticide’s manufacturers. But the two men say they never knew what happened to their legal action and never received compensation.
The problem is not limited to Panama.
In Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaraguatens of thousands of former banana workers have sued the companies that made DBCP and the fruit companies that used it.
The fruit trees in question are Dole Fruit, Del Monte and Chiquita, and the manufacturers ofhe product are Shell, Dow Chemical, Occidental Chemical and AMVAC.
Animal tests show testicular atrophy
The lawsuits allege that as early as the 1950s there was evidence that DBCP caused sterility in animals.
Scientists working for two of the manufacturers, Dow and Shell, conducted exposure studies in rabbits, rats, and mice, which showed a reduced sperm count and testicular atrophy in some cases.
Dr. Charles Hine, one of the scientists who carried out the tests, said in a 1961 draft report to US regulatory agencies that repeated exposure to DBCP could affect human reproduction.
But according to company correspondence seen by the BBC, the Shell official in charge of registering the chemicals with the authorities replied: “Let’s put aside speculation about possible harmful impacts on men. This is not a treaty on safe use.” “.
When the pesticide was authorized in 1964, the product label made no reference to possible impacts on male fertility.
Hine, who became a consultant to Dow and Shell, also advised wearing waterproof protective clothing, but the pesticide label did not mention the need for protective equipment.
The sterility of workers in factories
The company Standard Fruit (now called Dole Fruit) began using DBCP on banana plantations in Latin America in the 1960s, while Chiquita and Del Monte began in the early 1970s.
I see my nephews running and I have a sense of loss. It’s sad, it’s painful.
According to a lawsuit filed in US courts, Dole and Chiquita continued to use DBCP in Central America after 1977, even though US regulators had restricted its use in the continental US due to health risks.
In that year, 35 workers at a DBCP manufacturing plant in California were found to be sterile.
Because of that finding, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1977 suspended the use of DBCP on 19 US crops and placed a “conditional suspension” on all other crops. This meant that the pesticide could only be used in the United States in a very restricted way: only certified applicators could handle it, and they were required to wear respirators and protective clothing.
In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency finally canceled DBCP’s registration for all uses in the US, excluding pineapple growers in Hawaii until 1985.
Shell and Dow stopped making DBCP in 1977, but continued legal exports of their unused stocks of the pesticide to various Central American countriesalthough not to Panama after that date.
Asked by the BBC, Dow said it “stopped making DBCP on August 11, 1977, three weeks after learning that it is capable of causing effects on male fertility in humans when found in very high doses in manufacturing plants. “.
The statement adds that “Dow’s manufacture of DBCP and every sale or shipment of DBCP occurred well before October 1979,” when the pesticide’s registration for US uses was cancelled.
Shell’s trade name for DBCP was Nemagon. A Shell spokesman said: “Shell voluntarily discontinued the manufacture of Nemagon in 1977 after the US Environmental Protection Agency first raised concerns about the effects of DBCP, and had already ceased all sales or manufacture of Nemagon. Nemagon before the EPA banned its use in the US in 1979.”
According to the demand, Occidental Chemical continued to sell DBCP to Panama until 1979 and AMVAC continued to supply DBCP to Panamanian distributors until 1985..
Occidental Chemical declined to comment. But AMVAC’s managing director told the BBC that “the sales and uses you focus on go back more than 40 years.”
The official wrote: “According to the records I have seen, the company apparently sold DBCP to distributors who, in turn, marketed the products in various countries in Latin America. The final destination of these products was often unclear.”
“As for why the company sold DBCP during the time period in question after the cancellation in the US, I don’t know. That would have been known to those who made decisions in the 1970s.”
Dow added that “the science on DBCP is clear” and that “dose is the determining factor.”
“Low-dose, outdoor, or intermittent exposures will not affect male fertility,” the company maintains.
In its arguments, the company notes that DBCP had been “shown to possibly affect reproductive function in some male workers who directly handled it at very high doses in manufacturing plants.”
But he argues that “agricultural workers may have experienced significantly lower doses, and no study of agricultural workers has shown a similar effect when manipulating DBCP.”
“The science on DBCP is clear, dose is the determining factor. Low-dose, outdoor or intermittent exposures will not affect male fertility.
Dole says on its website that “there is no credible scientific evidence that Dole’s use of DBCP on banana plantations caused any of the health harms claimed in the DBCP lawsuits, including sterility.”
The company also said it stopped buying DBCP in 1979, when the US Environmental Protection Agency deregistered it for use in that country.
Chiquita and Del Monte did not respond to BBC requests for comment.
A decades-long legal battle
After nearly three decades, there has only been one case in which a US court ever considered whether the pesticide caused sterility.
DBCP was found to have rendered six Nicaraguan banana workers infertile, but that landmark ruling was overturned on appeal, when the companies successfully argued that the case had been tainted by corruption.
To date, there has been no successful litigation in the US for banana workers.
Their cases have either been dismissed on procedural grounds or the companies have settled out of court, making payments to some claimants but not accepting liability.
There are currently only two active cases in the US.
Scott Hendler, the lawyer who represents the workers in both processes, from Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama, says that the companies “resort to procedural issues again and again“.
Hendler wants a jury to consider the evidence.
“There is no question that DBCP can cause sterility,” he says. “The question is whether each of these individual plaintiffs suffered sufficient exposure to be a substantial factor in their infertility.”
Rafael Martínez in Panama is one of the thousands of banana workers whose case was dismissed without ever a court or jury considering the evidence.
The BBC found that their lawsuit, along with those of more than 1,160 Panamanian workers, was dismissed by a California judge in 2010 on the grounds of “forum non conveniens”, a legal doctrine according to which a particular court is not appropriate. to judge a case.
The court never learned of Martinez’s infertility or that he sprayed DBCP without gloves.
Isabel Coba Mujica’s name does not appear in any of the pending lawsuits, so it is likely that her case was also dismissed.
Coba sometimes thinks about what could have been: “My brothers who didn’t work on the banana plantations have children.”
“I see my nephews running and sometimes I have a sense of loss. It’s sad, it’s painful.”
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