LETTA TAYLER, NEWSDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2006
For years, Francisco Antenor drove his tractor past the banana plantations of this tropical village as they were sprayed with pesticide. Droplets fell like dew on his copper-hued skin, which is now spotted like a Dalmatian’s.
José Alberto Zapata fathered his second child shortly after he began working in those same plantations, which grew bananas eaten across the United States. But after repeatedly handling chemical-coated fruit, he became sterile.
Nicolaza Caballero wore a plastic apron when she trimmed and washed banana bunches, but liquid splashed her limbs and lap. Now, festering welts cover her shins, two of her children were stillborn and doctors have removed four tumors from her uterus.
Antenor, Zapata and Caballero are among tens of thousands of residents of Latin America, Africa and the Philippines who blame their health problems on Nemagon, a U.S.-made pesticide that U.S. fruit companies began using on their foreign banana plantations in the 1960s.
The United States suspended use of Nemagon in 1977 and permanently banned it in 1979. But hundreds of lawsuits filed against Nemagon makers and users by foreign workers claim that fruit companies applied it into the 1980s overseas.
For nearly a quarter-century, U.S. food and chemical giants have stalled most of those lawsuits in the United States and abroad, claiming there is no proof Nemagon harmed workers or nearby residents. But a few cases have inched forward, including two jury trials slated for early next year in California and Texas – the first in U.S. courts involving foreign Nemagon plaintiffs.
Pitting some of the world’s poorest residents against some of its biggest conglomerates, including Dole Fruit Co., Shell Oil Co. and Dow Chemical Co., the cases could set new benchmarks for multinationals’ accountability in developing countries.
“They can run and they can hide, but eventually they will have to pay,” predicted Los Angeles lawyer Walter Lack, who is handling a major Nemagon case and fought the Erin Brockovich toxicity suit that became a hit Julia Roberts movie.
Few settlements abroad
While U.S. workers and communities have won massive Nemagon awards or settlements, their foreign counterparts have received little or nothing, said Erika Rosenthal of the San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network.
The plight of alleged victims has assumed added symbolism in Central American countries, once called “banana republics” because of the political clout of international fruit companies there. In Nicaragua, workers in recent years have staged hunger strikes, marches and sit-ins to demand damage awards.
Nemagon, which is derived from dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, attacks parasites that discolor or destroy fruit. In El Viejo and other villages in Nicaragua’s banana-growing province of Chinandega, where activists estimate 16,500 people were harmed and more than 1,000 died from exposure, DBCP is called “Death’s Dew.”
The Environmental Protection Agency suspended Nemagon in 1977 after one-third of men manufacturing it in a U.S. lab became sterile and tests linked it to cancer in animals.
But companies including Dole, Shell and Dow say there is no proof it harmed humans in open-air environments. “You have some very poor people who are blaming every misery they have on DBCP” when the real problem is a lack of development and health care in their countries, said Michael Carter, Dole’s executive vice president and general counsel. Dole owns Standard Fruit Co., a target of many lawsuits.
U.S. lawyers for foreign banana workers counter that Nemagon manufacturers knew as early as the 1950s that it might harm humans, yet downplayed its risks to regulators. Among other studies, Dow in 1961 noted liver and kidney cancer and testicular damage in lab animals exposed to DBCP.
Fruit companies not only used Nemagon abroad after the EPA ban but often intentionally ignored manufacturers’ warnings, such as clearing people from areas being sprayed, lawyers also allege.
“Workers [abroad] were spraying DBCP into the air with irrigation guns, wearing jeans and cotton clothing with no protection,” said Duane Miller, a leading DBCP lawyer who represents 12 Nicaraguan workers in a trial slated for Los Angeles Superior Court in March. “It was unconscionable.”
In Chinandega, where Standard Fruit operated until 1982, workers described the pungent pesticide becoming trapped in banana fronds, sticking to fruit.
“The pesticide washed all over us. Nobody told us there was a danger,” said Caballero, 64, the fruit trimmer. Like most banana workers here, she has no savings – monthly plantation wages in 1980 were about $22 – and no health insurance.
Carter said Standard Fruit did not stop using Nemagon abroad in 1977 because the suspension was only a “red flag.” He denied the company used the pesticide for years after the 1979 ban, but said it “might” have done so into 1980. “You need to use up your inventories,” he said, “because otherwise, what do you do with it?”
Medical experts say linking DBCP to health problems beyond male sterility is difficult since other social and environmental factors could play a role.
That is the case in Chinandega, a lush but sweltering region with dirt-floor homes and potholed roads that is among the poorest in Nicaragua, the hemisphere’s second-poorest nation after Haiti.
The cases are further complicated by allegations from both defendants and plaintiffs that the other side is falsifying medical records, or paying off local officials, to inflate or deflate the number of alleged victims.
Still, many researchers suspect a correlation between DBCP and diseases including cancer.
“I believe the pesticide contributed to many of the health problems we are seeing. … It’s a tragedy,” said Francisco López, a Chinandega doctor who has charted unusually high rates of sterility, kidney and uterine cancer and skin disease in those exposed to Nemagon, as well as birth defects in their children.
López declined to comment further, adding only: “There is a lot of money at play here.”
The lack of medical data means many residents in plantation towns such as El Viejo are unlikely to obtain even modest damage payments. They include Francisca Picado, 52, who worked for 15 years trimming and packing bananas and blames her husband’s fatal cancer, her three miscarriages and the disabilities of her son, Juan Carlos, on Nemagon.
Juan Carlos, 30, cannot speak; he only moans. During a recent visit, he spent most of his time hitting his ears with his hands and trying to bite his mother. Unable to walk on spindly legs whose feet bend inwards, he travels spiderlike, on all fours.
In the two major settlements involving DBCP use abroad, companies that made or used Nemagon paid about $70 million to 27,000 banana workers in more than a dozen countries in the 1990s, but only for cases of male sterility. After lawyers were paid – and, allegedly, local politicians took their own cuts – banana workers received only $100 to $1,500 each.
For years, multinationals were able to persuade U.S. courts to bounce nearly all other Nemagon lawsuits to the banana workers’ countries of origin, where most met dead ends because those nations’ legal systems were poorly equipped to deal with them.
But that began to change in 2001 when Nicaragua passed a law granting its courts new powers to try Nemagon cases. The Bush administration sought unsuccessfully to get that law overturned, and in 2002, Nicaragua’s Supreme Court issued a landmark judgment ordering Dow, Shell (which denies it used DBCP in this country) and Standard Fruit to pay $490 million to 583 banana workers with cancer and other health problems.
Defendants got a U.S. court to dismiss that case last year because of technical errors, but Nicaragua’s Supreme Court is expected to correct the ruling and return to the United States for Lack, the Brockovich attorney, to enforce.
Meanwhile, several lower court rulings here ordering U.S. firms to pay another $200 million in damages are heading to Nicaragua’s Supreme Court.
Many legal experts and banana workers are pessimistic the judgments will be enforced or upcoming jury trials in Texas and California will bring awards.
Frustrated by the legal delays, many sterile male banana workers are thinking about settling with Dole in what the company calls “goodwill” programs. While continuing to deny wrongdoing, Dole will pay qualifying workers a few thousand dollars each if they can prove their sterility began after working for Standard Fruit. In return, Dole would be absolved of future liability and could resume producing bananas in the countries in question.
While a U.S. jury trial might result in bigger awards than what Dole is offering, “by the time we get any money,” predicted former banana worker Zapata, 50, “most of us will be dead.”
WHAT IT NEMAGON? Nemagon is a trade name for dibromochloropropane, or DBCP. A dense, yellow liquid with a pungent odor, it is used for soil fumigation for some fruits, vegetables, shrubs and grasses.
PRODUCTION HISTORY: In 1974, American farmers applied 9.8 million pounds of DBCP on crops. However, by 1979 almost all domestic uses were canceled except for use on some pineapples in Hawaii.
ENVIRONMENTAL DANGERS: When released into the soil, DBCP can evaporate or leach into groundwater.
HEALTH EFFECTS: When exposed short-term, the Environmental Protection Agency has found DBCP to potentially cause kidney and liver damage and atrophy of the testes in men. Long-term, DBCP can cause kidney damage, infertility and cancer. – EPA