SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Farm workers who have long sought compensation for contamination by a pesticide banned in France, but used in the country's Caribbean islands, Martinique and Guadeloupe, finally have a day of waiting for the court.
Investigative magistrates in Paris last month held a videoconference hearing with representatives of consumer, agricultural and environmental groups who met in a courtroom in Martinique to determine how to deal with a complaint that had been languishing since 2006.
"I never gave up," attorney Harry Durimel said during a telephone interview from Guadeloupe. "This is serious business that deserves everyone's involvement."
The complaint concerns Chlordecone, a pesticide also known as Kepone that was banned in the US in 1976 after several infamous incidents, including the contamination of the James River in Virginia, and has been blamed for neurological problems, including slurred speech.
French health authorities have expressed concern that it could be related to the high rate of prostate cancer in the Eastern Caribbean, and some studies have suggested it may be related to preterm births.
It was legally marketed in France from 1981 to 1990 and was used in Guadeloupe and Martinique for three more years to control the banana weevil under an exemption granted by the French government.
Durimel and other attorneys claim the exemption was illegal. The lawsuit accuses the French government of failing to protect the health of its population and of not doing enough to identify and mitigate the effects of chlorine con pollution on both islands, with a total population of about 750,000.
& # 39; They silently poisoned us, & # 39; said Durimel.
The French Overseas Ministry has not returned a request for comment.
Durimel said France considers the pesticide so risky that in October 2002 it ordered the burning of 1.5 tonnes of sweet potatoes arriving from Martinique in the port of Dunkirk because they contained chlordecone.
The pesticide is slowly being broken down, with some experts estimating that pollution in Martinique and Guadeloupe will persist for decades or even centuries after the ban.
In Martinique, authorities temporarily banned fishing in all rivers and some coastal areas in 2009 after finding that almost all fish sampled were still contaminated. American studies in the James River found tainted fish decades after Kepone was banned.
French officials had previously banned the sale of goods containing chlordecone and ordered that all soil be analyzed before growing root vegetables. But the complaint says those measures were not enforced and did not impose severe penalties. In 2002, authorities in Martinique and Guadeloupe seized several tons of chlorine cone.
"Ultimately, it appears that the state has failed miserably in its mission to protect public health," said the complaint filed by the Guadeloupe Regional Consumers Association; SOS Environment Guadeloupe; the Agriculture, Society, Health, Environment and the Union of Agricultural Producers of Guadeloupe group.
A 2015 article in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research summarized the pesticide's long-standing effects: “From 1999 to now, measurements of chlordecone in blood samples have shown that much of France's West Indies population is still contaminated. "
It noted that 88% of the samples collected from 100 adult men in Guadeloupe in 1998 contained chlordecone, and in 2004, chlordecone was found in 87% of 122 pregnant women in Guadeloupe and in 77% of breast milk samples.
Years later, a 2005 to 2007 study in Guadeloupe found chlordecone in 67% of 623 men diagnosed with prostate cancer, according to the article.
It expressed concern about exposure during pregnancy and the development of the child "and possible long-term effects such as cancer."
France has made several efforts to combat the chldecon contamination, and the most recent plan, due to be launched in the coming weeks, has a budget of $ 112 million, three times the previous plan, French officials said. Proposed measures for the next six years include analyzing tap water, taking blood samples, and monitoring human exposure levels. Officials also plan to map soils to identify the most polluted areas.
But many activists remain dissatisfied, and the French government itself noted in an earlier evaluation that several areas need improvement,
The future of the slow business is not clear. Magistrates at the High Tribunal in Paris said some evidence has disappeared and suggested that the statute of limitations could have expired because of any alleged damage caused by the pesticide. No date had been set for a follow-up hearing.
The plaintiffs' lawyers demand that officials find the missing documents and claim that there is no statute of limitations in the case.
While the complaint against the government does not specify possible remedies, Durimel said he envisions a fund to help victims: "The goal is for those who pollute to pay."
Alfred Marie-Jeanne, chairman of Martinique's executive council, wrote to French President Emmanuel Macron last month that he was baffled by the report of missing evidence and a possible time limit on the damage suffered by people in Martinique and Guadeloupe.
"They feel they have been betrayed by the state and abandoned by those who should have defended them," he wrote.
Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.