A 25-year battle by Latin American banana labourers to win compensation from companies including British-Dutch oil giant Shell for exposure to a pesticide which they claim left them sterile and crippled by ill health is set to finally come to a close after dozens of workers filed damages claims.
A series of lawsuits filed in Louisiana claims that two of the world’s largest banana producers, Dole and Chiquita, allowed the powerful fumigant known as DBCP developed by Shell’s American subsidiary and chemical company Dow to be used across plantations for more than two decades despite knowing, the claimants allege, that it potentially caused devastating side-effects in humans.
Lawyers representing the 160 former plantation staff from Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica believe their clients are entitled to individual awards worth millions of pounds following the widespread use of DBCP in plantations from the 1960s until the late 1970s. The claim alleges that use of DBCP possibly continued in some places into the 1990s.
The workers, many of whom are now in their 50s and 60s, claim repeated exposure to the chemical left them sterile or with a reduced chance of having children and therefore stigmatised in their communities. They also claim a range of additional medical problems linked to DBCP including cornea damage, skin disorders and an increased risk of cancer.
After years of legal wrangling, which included the collapse in 2009 of a successful damages action brought by Nicaraguan workers after a judge decided lawyers had conspired to lodge fraudulent claims, the new cases represent a bid to secure a full trial in US courts for the labourers, who claim their lives were ruined by repeated use of the pesticide in the enclosed canopy of a banana plantation. Some workers claim they absorbed so much of the chemical during spraying that they claim their urine smelt of DBCP.
Scott Hendler, the Texas-based lawyer who is bringing the cases, said: “It is my belief that, after hearing the evidence in these cases, a jury will return verdicts for damages in the millions. I believe they are going to be very angry at the conduct of the defendants.
Mr Hendler went on to allege: “This was not a case where the companies were unaware of the risks of harm of the product and seek to make reparations after that harm becomes known. These defendants knew very early on what this chemical would do and yet continued to use it for many years afterwards.”
Injected into soil or sprayed in the air to kills microscopic nematode worms which attack the roots of banana plants, DBCP was developed in the late 1950s by Shell and the Dow Chemical Company after initially being invented by the fruit growing industry to aid the large-scale growing of bananas on vast plantations.
The claim filed on behalf the workers quotes a “confidential report” for Shell by its consultant toxicology expert, written in 1958 following laboratory tests on animals, which found that “among the rats that died, the gross lesions were especially prominent in lungs, kidneys and testes”. The "report" concluded: “Testes were usually extremely atrophied.”
Documents obtained on behalf of the workers claim that subsequent tests carried out by Dow’s in-house scientific team concluded that DBCP was “readily absorbed through the skin and high in toxicity in inhalation” and that “testicular atrophy may result from prolonged, repeated exposure”.
It is claimed that a Shell manager then later dismissed as “impractical” a suggestion from its expert that anyone using DBCP should wear impermeable clothing. By the early 1960s both Dow and Shell were marketing the chemical to Dole, which was one of the original inventors of the pesticide, and Chiquita, who both put it to use on plantations across Latin America.
But in 1977 it was found that 35 workers at a Californian chemical plant making DBCP had been rendered sterile, sparking a multi-million dollar damages payout for American workers. By 1979, the American authorities had introduced and a ban on the production and use of the pesticide in the United States.
The lawsuits, which accuses Dole, Chiquita, Shell, Dow and other defendants of negligence and conspiracy, allege that DBCP continued to be used on plantations around the world after the American ban and that workers were not offered protective clothing or respirators to protect them from the chemical. The claim adds: “Many workers absorbed so much DBCP each day that their urine would give off the smell of the chemical at night.”
Mr Hendler said: “It is our case that the companies not only used [DBCP] without precautions but at least one major grower subsequently told farm managers not to implement safety precautions and all the defendants failed to ensure that workers were protected from the risks. It is my belief that the conduct of the defendants is abhorrent and that it is going to influence how a jury views the injury done to my clients.”
The industrialisation of banana production during the 20th century has made it the world’s most exported fruit with more than 17 million tonnes transported across the globe each year, generating revenues in 2006 of nearly $7bn (£4.3bn). But the Louisiana proceedings claim the banana boom came at a terrible cost to many of the manual labourers behind it in Latin America.
Mr Hendler said: “These are societies where family and the ability to have a family are extremely important, particularly in rural communities. You have a Catholic culture where families of six, eight, nine children are the norm. Someone who can’t father children is stigmatised and the effect on relationships and self-esteem can be devastating.
“There is story after story of women leaving these men. Many women, particularly from the era in question, really measure themselves by their family life and by being able to have a family. There is a great deal of emotional distress associated with the effects of DBCP.”
Since the settlement of a large number of claims for DBCP exposure by 16,000 workers in 1993 for an average of $2,500 per claimant, no banana labourers have successfully brought a damages claim in the States. In March this year, a Los Angeles judge formally threw out an award of $1.6m (£980,000) to four Nicaraguan workers against Dole after finding “clear and convincing” evidence of fraud by lawyers for the workers. The lawyers denied any wrongdoing.
Mr Hendler, who represents a total of 3,200 banana workers, said his lawsuit was based on exhaustive research carried out by a respected not-for-profit organisation in Latin America to ensure the authenticity of the claimants he represents.
In a statement, Dole, which is the world’s largest fruit and vegetable producer, said that it had stopped DBCP purchases in 1979 and it would be strongly contesting the lawsuits. The company said: “There is no reliable evidence demonstrating that field application of DBCP led to sterility among farm workers... Nor is there any reliable evidence scientific evidence that DBCP causes any other injuries in humans.”
A spokesman for Dow said: “We will vigorously defend these claims and we are confident in our defence.” Shell and Chiquita did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr Hendler said he was hopeful that he could bring his claim to trial by the end of next year. In the meantime, the 159 plantation workers he represents will continue to bide their time. He said: “Some of these men have adopted children but for some that is not enough, particularly in a culture where there is so much stock put on passing on your own blood. They have now been trying to achieve some kind of accountability for more than 20 years and that is what our clients have decided to do by bringing these cases.”