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Sugar Cane Workers Claim Chemical Sprays Made Them Sick

More than 40 agricultural workers claim in Florida court that they developed debilitating illnesses from excessive exposure to toxic herbicides in Dominican sugar cane fields, where they worked long hours, in some instances for less than $10 a day.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) - More than 40 farm workers claim in Florida court that they developed debilitating illnesses from excessive exposure to toxic herbicides in Dominican sugar cane fields, where they worked long hours, in some instances for less than $10 a day.

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 17 in Palm Beach County Court, the anonymous plaintiffs say sugar production giant Central Romana Corp. and other Dominican growers exposed them to the dangerous herbicide compounds without providing adequate protective equipment and training.

Nausea, convulsions, respiratory disease,  "strange and aggressive behavior," allergic reactions and blurred vision are among the ailments suffered by the plaintiffs as a result of their prolonged herbicide exposure, the lawsuit claims.

The plaintiffs range in age from 20 to 78.

Several plaintiffs say that they became sick from contact with the paraquat-based herbicide Gramafin. Paraquat has been banned in more than 40 countries due to its high acute toxicity and studies linking it to Parkinson's disease.

Stateside, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that paraquat and the related compound diquat were the cause of roughly 85 percent of herbicide-related deaths in the U.S over a fourteen-year period.

Other herbicides mentioned in the lawsuit include the organic arsenate MSMA (which has been banned from agricultural use in the U.S. amid concerns over environmental arsenic contamination), and Diuron (whose active ingredient has been classified as a likely human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency).

Unsafe application practices and a lack of protective equipment contributed to increased inhalation and dermal absorption of the compounds by the plaintiffs, the complaint claims.

Many of the plaintiffs were allegedly exposed not only while mixing and applying the herbicides, but in their homes as well. Workers like the plaintiffs often live in company-held housing near the cane fields, in villages known as bateyes, which are subject to contamination due to chemical drift.

The bateyes are consumed by poverty and can "resemble prison-like barracks with unsanitary living conditions," the lawsuit alleges.

All but two of the plaintiffs say they worked primarily as crop fumigators, a job that pays,  on average, about 400 Dominican pesos a day (less than $8.70), they say. They claim that due to the lack of protective equipment, they used everyday attire in the fields and inadvertently dragged herbicides back to their homes and families.

The pleading lists counts for negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, and violations of the Dominican Republic's constitution and labor code.

Fanjul Corp., a stakeholder in Central Romana, is named as a defendant alongside Biesterfeld International, a multinational industrial distributor that allegedly exported some of the herbicides cited in the complaint, namely MSMA, Ametrina and Terbutrina.

The lawsuit claims Biesterfeld "failed to fully and properly ... study its pesticides to learn of the hazards associated with their use."

A subset of the plaintiffs were allegedly exposed to the herbicides while working for Dominican conglomerate Grupo Vicini, though that company is not named as a defendant.

David Pollock in Coral Gables, Fla., is representing the plaintiffs. He states that they filed the case anonymously for fear of reprisal. Many of them worked for Central Romana for more than 15 years, according to the complaint.

Biesterfeld and Fanjul Corp. have not responded to a request for comment, nor has Central Romana.

Central Romana states on its website that it has more than 360 bateyes and provides housing to more than 5,000 workers. The company's marketing materials depict sleek, clean employee homes with manicured lawns. The images stand in stark contrast to the portrait of squalor painted in the lawsuit.

Central Romana's web site says that the company provides housing to employees "through a modern program in which the beneficiary receives at no cost" basic housing in addition to "interest free funding ... for the construction of floors, doors and windows."

Regarding employee healthcare, the company states that it has ample medical facilities in place for its workers, including "a modern three-level hospital located in La Romana, two medical subcenters located in the agricultural zone, ambulance services, [and] mobile medical units that roam the sugarcane communities."

Central Romana, Fanjul Corp., and their related companies Domino Foods and Florida Crystals, are part of a multibillion-dollar sugar production empire held by brothers Alfonso Fanjul Jr., Jose "Pepe" Fanjul and the Fanjul family, according to the court documents.

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