The indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides on banana plantations in the French Caribbean has left much of the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe poisoned for a century to come, a report to the French parliament warned yesterday. The two islands and their 800,000 inhabitants faced a "health disaster", with soaring rates of cancer and infertility, said Professor Dominique Belpomme, a French cancer specialist.
Based on present trends, half the men of Martinique and Guadeloupe were likely to develop prostate cancer at some point in their lives, Professor Belpomme said. Birth defects in children were also becoming far more common, he warned.
Tests have shown that every child born in Guadeloupe is contaminated with chlordecone, a highly toxic pesticide also known as kepone, which was banned in many countries in 1979. It was used legally in France until 1990 and in the French Caribbean until 1993. But it was used illegally – often sprayed by aeroplanes – to kill weevils in Martinique and Guadeloupe until 2002.
Professor Belpomme said: "The situation is extremely serious. The tests we carried out on pesticides show there is a health disaster in the Caribbean. The word is not too strong. Martinique and Guadeloupe have literally been poisoned.
"The poisoning affects both land and water. Chlordecone establishes itself in the clay and stays there for up to a century. As a result, the food chain is contaminated, especially water. In Martinique, most water sources are polluted." Politicians from the islands, which are overseas departments of France, were torn between accusing the professor of "alarmism" and calling for a full inquiry. "This must not be covered up by a conspiracy of silence," said Victorin Lurel, the socialist leader of the Guadeloupe regional council. Christian Estrosi, the French minister for overseas territories, cast some doubts on the scientific basis of the report but said he was "wholly favourable" to an official commission.
Martinique and Guadeloupe produce more than 260,000 tonnes of bananas a year, worth £150m. The industry, which employs 15,000 people, also receives £90m in EU aid. The islands, which are relatively poor compared with the French mainland, are already struggling to recover from Hurricane Dean, which devastated every banana plantation in Martinique and half of those in Guadeloupe last month. Many growers may find their soils and water tables so contaminated they will never be allowed to re-plant their crops, Professor Belpomme said. Although the banana fruit itself is not affected by chlordecone, the toxin can remain in soil for 100 years and is absorbed by humans through the skin and respiratory tract. Exposure to the powder can cause tremors, headaches, slurred speech, dizziness, memory loss, weight loss and sterility and raise the risk of developing cancer.
In early August, Guadeloupe's appeal court accepted a complaint against "persons unknown" for "poisoning" the island with pesticides. This opens up the possibility of a criminal investigation into the responsibility of successive French governments in failing to ban, or monitor, the illegal use of the chemicals.
According to Professor Belpomme, the impact on health in the islands will be more serious than the "tainted blood" scandal of the 1980s, in which 4,000 French people were infected by blood contaminated with the HIV virus . "In this case, it is a whole population which has been poisoned," he told MPs. "Those people who are alive today but also future generations.
"The rate of prostate cancer is major. The French Caribbean is second in the world ranking. The rate of congenital malformation is increasing and women are having fewer children than 15 years ago. The standard theory is that this is because of the Pill, but I think it is linked to pesticides."
But Christian Choupin, head of the Martinique and Guadeloupe banana growers' association, insisted chlordecone was no longer used and claimed Professor Belpomme's report had "no proper scientific basis". "He is giving the impression that people are dropping like flies, which is not at all the case," M. Chupin said.
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