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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.

W/S Aerial view of Martinique *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S Aerial view of island *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S Aerial view of island *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S Aerial view of island *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S Aerial view of plantation *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

W/S Aerial view of plantation *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

M/S Aerial view of plantation *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

M/S Aerial view of plantation *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

M/S Plantation *NO SOUND AT SOURCE*

M/S Sign reading (French): "Martinique, land of the banana"

M/S Plantation

SOT, David Desnel, spokesperson for the Federation of Fishery and Waters Associations of Martinique (French): "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 the reality that the food chain is polluted. From the soil to the people. And today we know that over 90 percent of Martinicans have chlordecone and that we can even find traces of it on the umbilical cord of a newborn."

C/U Bird in undergrowth

SOT, David Desnel, spokesperson for the Federation of Fishery and Waters Associations of Martinique (French): "In the 1970s, this molecule was banned in the USA. During this period, we started using it in Martinique until 1994 [officially, 1993]. So the question is why, especially given that there were alternatives."

M/S Palms

C/U Bananas

SOT, David Desnel, spokesperson for the Federation of Fishery and Waters Associations of Martinique (French): "Farmers used chlordecone for twenty years. In doing so, they spread this pollution to the whole island. This use has not only polluted their plots of land but the whole island and its inhabitants."

C/U Palms

SOT, David Desnel, spokesperson for the Federation of Fishery and Waters Associations of Martinique (French): "We believe that four-fifths of the rivers in Martinique are affected, and the whole of aquatic life is contaminated."

M/S Plantation

W/S Aerial view of plantation

W/S Ship passes by

W/S View of Fort De France

W/S Street view

M/S Location signs

W/S People walk past local administration building

M/S French flag flies from atop administration building

W/S People walk along street

M/S People walk along street

M/S Anicia Berton, resident who recovered from breast cancer, walking towards home

W/S Anicia Berton walking towards home

M/S Berton enters home

M/S Berton in home

C/U Anicia Berton's mother

SOT, Anicia Berton, resident who recovered from breast cancer (French): "I am 44 years old and six years ago I had breast cancer in my left breast. When I was diagnosed, I am someone who tries to eat healthily. I love fruits, green vegetables. I would never have thought that I would have cancer."

C/U Photographs, including of Berton's dead grandmother

SOT, Anicia Berton, resident who recovered from breast cancer (French): "She [her grandmother who died of generalised cancer] worked there [the plantations] for years. Like my mother was saying, she sprayed pesticides, had no protection. Even if they try to deny it, we know that pesticides are toxic for people. She used these products for years without any form of protection. And when she came home, she brought pesticides with her into the house."

C/U Photographs

SOT, Anicia Berton, resident who recovered from breast cancer (French): "Chlordecone was banned in the US, where Mr. Laggarigue [the company Vincent de Lagarrigue had sold chlordecone in the French West Indies] went to buy the patent. It was already banned there. So when he bought the product, he knew that the product was harmful because it had been banned. So if the product was toxic in the United States, it was also toxic in Martinique and Guadeloupe."

C/U Photographs

SOT, Anicia Berton, resident who recovered from breast cancer (French): "It is not normal that some are trying to deny the link [between health issues and pesticides], that they say they are unsure. This hypocrisy needs to stop. And [what's] even worse, is that for years we have swallowed and inhaled these pesticides. Not one year or two. It was for years. And the regional health agency [ARS] knew, officials knew and no one alerted the population. This is very bad. This means that for 40 percent of the local economy, they didn't hesitate to assassinate an entire population, an entire nation."

C/U Berton and her mother

SOT, Anicia Berton, resident who recovered from breast cancer (French): "When we know that Martinique is first in terms of prostate cancer in the world, second in Europe for all cancers, this is really bad. Second for all cancers in Europe. We are the third most polluted region in France. In Martinique, 92 percent of us are contaminated. I don't want to be told that there is no link."

M//S Seated at table

SOT, Anicia Berton, resident who recovered from breast cancer (French): "I want to know why a container of sweet potatoes that arrived in mainland France, why health services forbade these potatoes from entering the territory. Why didn't they let French people eat these sweet potatoes? Because they were contaminated. But they let us eat the same potatoes during the same period in Martinique."

C/U Photograph of Berton's dead grandmother

SOT, Anicia Berton, resident who recovered from breast cancer (French): "When one is aware that a product is toxic and still uses it, that is an assassination, that is murder. The French state is complicit in this assassination because they authorised the use of toxic products."

C/U Photographs

SOT, Anicia Berton, resident who recovered from breast cancer (French): "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."

C/U Photograph

M/S Mirror

W/S Clinic, Schoelcher

C/U Clinic sign

M/S Dr. Christiane Dispagne, gynaecologist and obstetrician at work

C/U Dispagne at work

SOT, Dr. Christiane Dispagne, gynaecologist and obstetrician (French): "Look, when you have too much chlordecone [in your system], normally you shouldn't have chlordecone at all because it is well-known that it is an endocrine disruptor, meaning that it has effects at low doses. And from the smallest doses, it becomes harmful."

C/U At work

M/S Dispagne at computer

SOT, Dr. Christiane Dispagne, gynaecologist and obstetrician (French): "Once the effects are there and deleterious, like with cretinism, then it is unfortunately irreversible. Hypo-fecundity can be irreversible. Chronic lesions can be irreversible, hence the importance of stopping the poisoning before the damage becomes irreversible."

C/U At work

M/S Dispagne at computer

M/S Pediatrician, Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage arrives for work, Schoelcher

M/S Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage, pediatrician, sits down at desk

C/U Jos-Pelage at work on keyboard

SOT, Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage, Pediatrician (French): "It's not possible to get an estimate of the number of patients who are victims of chlordecone. 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. A census by the social security fund was requested, which is apparently being worked on. According to the Kannari study, the current victims of chlordecone, since the end of its use in 1993, represents 92 % of Martinicans who are contaminated."

M/S Jos-Pelage at desk

SOT, Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage, Pediatrician (French): "Farmers working on the ground will tell you that leftover stocks of chlordecone were being used until 2002-2003, while the ban dates back to 1993."

C/U Jos-Pelage at work

SOT, Dr. Christiane Jos-Pelage, Pediatrician (French): "Considering the many studies that have been made on chrlodecone, we can say that it negatively impacts peoples' fertility, meaning a decrease in the number of Martinicans able to procreate. It also has an impact on the metabolism and causes obesity. One just needs to look at the Martinican people to see that they have changed over the past twenty years. There is the problem of obesity that passes from one generation to the next, over three or four generations. As Dr. Dispagne was saying, 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.

C/U Jos-Pelage at work on keyboard

M/S Jos-Pelage at work

W/S Bird flies towards headland

W/S View out to sea from Martinique

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