NEW ORLEANS (CN) – More than 170 banana farmers from Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica filed five federal lawsuits this week, saying exposure to a toxic pesticide on the farms where they worked between 1960 and 1985 made them sick and sterile put them at imminent risk of cancer.
The 173 plaintiffs claim that despite a scientist’s 1958 observation that among the lab rats that died from exposure to the chemical, “‘gross lesions were especially prominent in the lungs, kidneys, and testes,'” fruit growers outside of the United States continued to use enormous amounts of the pesticide until at least 1985 and probably into the 1990s.
The chemical was developed by Dow Chemical Co. in conjunction with Shell and contained the chemical dipromochloropropane, commonly known as DBCP. It was sold under the trade names Fumazone, Nemagon and Oxy 12.
Banana farm workers injected DBCP into the soil to protect against microscopic worms called nematodes that live in cultivated soil.
Workers affected by the chemical suffer varying degrees of sterility, the complaint states. They say the chemical is also connected with cancer, miscarriages, corneal damage, chronic skin disorders and renal system failure.
In tests conducted on rats in the late 1950s, scientists noted that DBCP caused retarded growth, organ damage, shrunken testes and sterility.
“In an April 1958 ‘confidential report,’ Dr. Hine at Shell wrote that ‘among the rats that died, the gross lesions were especially prominent in the lungs, kidneys, and testes. Testes were usually extremely atrophied,'” according to the complaint.
Test results were reported initially, but later on, so as not to hinder the chemical’s widespread use, the results were omitted from various chemical-rating agencies, the plaintiffs say.
As just one example, the complaint says a United States Department of Agriculture scientist in charge of government registration of chemicals for Shell, Louis Lykken, dismissed his colleague’s suggestions for labeling that warned of possible sterility in humans exposed to DBCP.
According to the complaint, “Lykken made Shell’s interests clear: ‘Leave out speculation about possible harmful conditions to man. This is not a treatise on safe use.'”
The complaint was filed in New Orleans, where Standard Fruit Co., now called Dole, was headquartered, and where DBCP was first marketed in the United States.
“By 1976, DBCP had been identified as a suspected carcinogen by the EPA, even though Dow, Shell, Del Monte and Dole learned of the chemical’s health risks at least 15 years earlier,” the complaint states. “In July 1977, thirty-five of one hundred fourteen workers who manufactured DBCP at Occidental’s Lathrop, California plant were found to be sterile. One month later, the EPA suspended DBCP from all but a few highly controlled uses in Hawaii. Even in Hawaii, use was permitted only under heavily restricted conditions with extensive protective equipment. Finally, in 1979, the EPA canceled the registration for DBCP for all uses in the United States. Unfortunately, the large-scale use of DBCP on agricultural operations in the United States had already led to extensive groundwater contamination in Hawaii, California, and elsewhere and large stocks on hand.
“The U.S. ban on manufacturing of DBCP, however, did not prevent the defendants from exporting existing stocks of DBCP for use on plantations overseas. When Dow informed Standard that it planned to halt sales and wait for EPA test results, Standard responded by threatening to sue Dow: ‘Your halt of shipping our outstanding orders is viewed as a breach of contract.’ Dow quickly relented after Standard agreed to indemnify Dow against claims for injuries resulting from DBCP use, compelling evidence that Dow expected such injuries to occur.”
The plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages for their illnesses, and medical monitoring.
Named as defendants are Dole Food Company, Standard Fruit Company, The Dow Chemical Company, Occidental Chemical Company, AMVAC Chemical Corporation, Shell Oil Company, Chiquita Brands International Inc., Maritrop Trading Corporation and Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc.
The plaintiffs in this case are represented by Scott LaBarre of Metairie.