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13:25

Martinique: 'The French state is complicit' - Martinicans react to pesticide poisoning claims

Martinique, Multiple locations; Fort-de-France
October 08, 2018 at 05:06 GMT +00:00 · Published

Martinique resident Anicia Berton believes time spent working on Martinique's sprawling banana plantations may have contributed to her grandmother's death from generalised cancer, due to exposure to hazardous pesticides.

"She used these products for years without any form of protection. And when she came home, she brought pesticides with her into the house," she said.

Berton, who survived breast cancer after being diagnosed six years ago, spoke about what many islanders and scientists see as a direct link between the use of the now-outlawed pesticide chlordecone and incidents of ill health among the Martinican population.

"When we know that Martinique is first in terms of prostate cancer in the world [Edit: now second behind Guadeloupe], second in Europe for all cancers, this is really bad," she said. "We are the third most polluted region in France. In Martinique, 92 percent of us are contaminated [with chlordecone]. I don't want to be told that there is no link."

Chlordecone was used to protect plantations on the island from banana weevil between 1972 and 1993 despite being described as potentially carcinogenic by WHO in 1979. The US discontinued its use in 1976 following a health scare, and mainland France banned the substance in 1990; but Paris initially made an exception for its overseas territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

This exception was reportedly made for economic reasons, due to pressure on the Ministry of Agriculture from the banana farmers' lobby. Ruptly reached out to French authorities to enquire as to why the complete ban on the toxic chemical came only in 1993 since it had already been classified as a possible carcinogenic substance in 1979 by the WHO, but received no response.

"When one is aware that a product is toxic and still uses it, this is an assassination, this is murder. The French state is complicit in this assassination because they authorised the use of toxic products," said Berton.

Martinique and Guadeloupe have the highest rates of prostate cancer in the world, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International. The rate of the disease per 100,000 men on Martinique was 158.4 in 2018, compared to 99 in metropolitan France. Meanwhile, a study by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) concluded that exposure to chlordecone is associated to a significantly increased risk of developing prostate cancer.

"It's not possible to get an estimate of the number of patients who are victims of chlordecone," said Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage, a pediatrician on Martinique. "The priority is to determine the number of farmers who were working in the banana plantations between 1973 and 1993. I don't know, there are hundreds. Many of them have died of prostate cancer, many had premature babies," she added.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Martinique in late September where admitted that "Chlordecone pollution is an environmental scandal that has plagued Martinique and Guadeloupe for forty years."

"The [French] state must claim its share of responsibility for this pollution and advance on the path of reparations," he said.

However, he cautioned that "it would not be responsible to say that there will be individual reparations for everyone."

Macron stopped short of recognising a direct link between chlordecone and cancer, saying that current scientific evidence "does not allow us to certify the risk of the molecule for human health, but we can presume its link to premature births and the delay in cerebral growth and other pathologies."

Yet, health experts say chlordecone may cause irreversible damage to the human body. "Once the effects are there and deleterious, like with cretinism, then it is irreversible. Hypo-fecundity can be irreversible. Chronic lesions can be irreversible, hence the importance of stopping the poisoning before the damage becomes irreversible," said Dr. Christiane Dispagne, a gynaecologist and obstetrician.

According to one government study, 92 percent of Martinicans have been exposed to chlordecone. Many on the island have also developed fertility problems, likely as a result of exposure to the pesticide, according to Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage.

"Considering the many studies that have been made on chlordecone, we can say that it negatively impacts peoples' fertility, meaning a decrease in the number of Martinicans able to procreate," she stated.

Problems also persist through the generations, since chlordecone can alter DNA. "Small doses are very harmful because they have an effect on our DNA, in an epigenetic way. And this is transmitted to our children. This propensity to being affected by cancer, obesity and fertility problems spreads over three, four generations, leading to a possible extinction of Martinicans," said Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage.

The substance has also contaminated the water supplies and soil of Martinique, and of Guadeloupe, according to a University of Bordeaux report. Around 8,300 ha in Guadeloupe and 10,700 ha in Martinique are contaminated by chlordecone, accounting for approximately 25 percent of all agricultural land on both islands, according to the report. It is estimated that the substance remains in the soil for around 700 years if used for a period of 20 years.

Federation of Fishery and Waters Association of Martinique spokesperson David Desnel said the reality is that the island's food chain has been contaminated. There is also no compulsory trace-labelling for items grown and purchased on the island, meaning Martinicans are also likely exposed to the substance via the food they consume.

Conversely, mainland France has banned the import of Martinican foodstuffs that test for even the smallest trace of chlordecone.

"People started to wonder because some food is good enough for Martinicans but not for people from mainland France. From then on, we began to face reality, that the food chain is polluted. From the soil to the people," said David Desnel.

Chlordecone has also infested the freshwater supply via run-off and has even contaminated offshore seafood stocks, according to the University of Bordeaux report. "We believe that four-fifths of the rivers in Martinique are affected and the whole of the aquatic life is contaminated," said David Desnel.

A new study, scheduled for publication in mid-October by the French national public health agency Sante Publique France, will attempt to address the most urgent questions of the population in the French Antilles. It will also consider questions about continued risks, and explain how authorities plan to react to the report.

Many on the island are calling for a robust response in the face of mounting evidence of the disastrous consequences of chlordecone exposure.

"I expect the state to take responsibility, I expect the state to condemn the culprits, I expect the culprits to take responsibility and face the consequences. I expect the French state, which is also complicit, to take responsibility," said Anicia Berton.

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Description

Martinique resident Anicia Berton believes time spent working on Martinique's sprawling banana plantations may have contributed to her grandmother's death from generalised cancer, due to exposure to hazardous pesticides.

"She used these products for years without any form of protection. And when she came home, she brought pesticides with her into the house," she said.

Berton, who survived breast cancer after being diagnosed six years ago, spoke about what many islanders and scientists see as a direct link between the use of the now-outlawed pesticide chlordecone and incidents of ill health among the Martinican population.

"When we know that Martinique is first in terms of prostate cancer in the world [Edit: now second behind Guadeloupe], second in Europe for all cancers, this is really bad," she said. "We are the third most polluted region in France. In Martinique, 92 percent of us are contaminated [with chlordecone]. I don't want to be told that there is no link."

Chlordecone was used to protect plantations on the island from banana weevil between 1972 and 1993 despite being described as potentially carcinogenic by WHO in 1979. The US discontinued its use in 1976 following a health scare, and mainland France banned the substance in 1990; but Paris initially made an exception for its overseas territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

This exception was reportedly made for economic reasons, due to pressure on the Ministry of Agriculture from the banana farmers' lobby. Ruptly reached out to French authorities to enquire as to why the complete ban on the toxic chemical came only in 1993 since it had already been classified as a possible carcinogenic substance in 1979 by the WHO, but received no response.

"When one is aware that a product is toxic and still uses it, this is an assassination, this is murder. The French state is complicit in this assassination because they authorised the use of toxic products," said Berton.

Martinique and Guadeloupe have the highest rates of prostate cancer in the world, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International. The rate of the disease per 100,000 men on Martinique was 158.4 in 2018, compared to 99 in metropolitan France. Meanwhile, a study by the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) concluded that exposure to chlordecone is associated to a significantly increased risk of developing prostate cancer.

"It's not possible to get an estimate of the number of patients who are victims of chlordecone," said Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage, a pediatrician on Martinique. "The priority is to determine the number of farmers who were working in the banana plantations between 1973 and 1993. I don't know, there are hundreds. Many of them have died of prostate cancer, many had premature babies," she added.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Martinique in late September where admitted that "Chlordecone pollution is an environmental scandal that has plagued Martinique and Guadeloupe for forty years."

"The [French] state must claim its share of responsibility for this pollution and advance on the path of reparations," he said.

However, he cautioned that "it would not be responsible to say that there will be individual reparations for everyone."

Macron stopped short of recognising a direct link between chlordecone and cancer, saying that current scientific evidence "does not allow us to certify the risk of the molecule for human health, but we can presume its link to premature births and the delay in cerebral growth and other pathologies."

Yet, health experts say chlordecone may cause irreversible damage to the human body. "Once the effects are there and deleterious, like with cretinism, then it is irreversible. Hypo-fecundity can be irreversible. Chronic lesions can be irreversible, hence the importance of stopping the poisoning before the damage becomes irreversible," said Dr. Christiane Dispagne, a gynaecologist and obstetrician.

According to one government study, 92 percent of Martinicans have been exposed to chlordecone. Many on the island have also developed fertility problems, likely as a result of exposure to the pesticide, according to Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage.

"Considering the many studies that have been made on chlordecone, we can say that it negatively impacts peoples' fertility, meaning a decrease in the number of Martinicans able to procreate," she stated.

Problems also persist through the generations, since chlordecone can alter DNA. "Small doses are very harmful because they have an effect on our DNA, in an epigenetic way. And this is transmitted to our children. This propensity to being affected by cancer, obesity and fertility problems spreads over three, four generations, leading to a possible extinction of Martinicans," said Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage.

The substance has also contaminated the water supplies and soil of Martinique, and of Guadeloupe, according to a University of Bordeaux report. Around 8,300 ha in Guadeloupe and 10,700 ha in Martinique are contaminated by chlordecone, accounting for approximately 25 percent of all agricultural land on both islands, according to the report. It is estimated that the substance remains in the soil for around 700 years if used for a period of 20 years.

Federation of Fishery and Waters Association of Martinique spokesperson David Desnel said the reality is that the island's food chain has been contaminated. There is also no compulsory trace-labelling for items grown and purchased on the island, meaning Martinicans are also likely exposed to the substance via the food they consume.

Conversely, mainland France has banned the import of Martinican foodstuffs that test for even the smallest trace of chlordecone.

"People started to wonder because some food is good enough for Martinicans but not for people from mainland France. From then on, we began to face reality, that the food chain is polluted. From the soil to the people," said David Desnel.

Chlordecone has also infested the freshwater supply via run-off and has even contaminated offshore seafood stocks, according to the University of Bordeaux report. "We believe that four-fifths of the rivers in Martinique are affected and the whole of the aquatic life is contaminated," said David Desnel.

A new study, scheduled for publication in mid-October by the French national public health agency Sante Publique France, will attempt to address the most urgent questions of the population in the French Antilles. It will also consider questions about continued risks, and explain how authorities plan to react to the report.

Many on the island are calling for a robust response in the face of mounting evidence of the disastrous consequences of chlordecone exposure.

"I expect the state to take responsibility, I expect the state to condemn the culprits, I expect the culprits to take responsibility and face the consequences. I expect the French state, which is also complicit, to take responsibility," said Anicia Berton.

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