Caribbean Islands Possible Poisoning By a Carcinogenic Pesticide

Following the historical widespread use of Chlordecone (originally marketed as Kepone) throughout Martinique, the carcinogenic pesticide is now found in the bloodstream of over ninety percent of residents on the French Caribbean island. Chlordecone has rendered fishing or crop cultivation inviable, due to its poisoning of the food and water, as well as commonplace soil and waterway contamination. Martinique’s prostate cancer levels are also the world’s highest.

Carribbean Martinique Prostate Cancer Poisioning
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When factory workers involved in its production began to experience blurred vision, sexual dysfunction and uncontrollable shaking, the WHO (World Health Organization) banned Chlordecone due to its potentially carcinogenic qualities. This ban followed five years of production, with depletion of stockpiles taking another three years; throughout the eighties, French authorities also reversed this ban, for specific use in banana plantations in the French West Indies.

The impact and far-reaching legacy of this systematic poisoning is still being assessed, although numerous causes for concern have been identified. After French Caribbean politicians campaigned for a decade, President Emmanuel Macron referred to France’s “collective blindness” to “an environmental scandal” as he accepted state responsibility; this further lead to a change in legislation and the introduction of a compensatory fund for affected workers.

This surely shared and valid perspective of Martinique MP Serge Letchimy is damning however; he said

“It would never have taken the state so many years to react if there had been pollution on the same scale in Brittany, for example, or elsewhere in European France.”The issue is how overseas territories get treated. There’s contempt, distance, condescension, lack of respect.”

When responding to claims of discrimination, Martinique’s state representative Prefect Stanislas Cazelles said,

“The Republic is on the side of the oppressed, of the weakest here, just as in the European part of France”

Despite this assurance, some believe that a proper investigation is required to apportion guilt for originally re-authorising Chlordecone use throughout most of the eighties (the original documentation has since been lost).

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It’s estimated that up to a tenth of all prostate cancer diagnoses within the French West Indies is as a direct result of historical Chlordecone poisoning; this now accounts for as many as a hundred new cases annually. While toxicology reports and ongoing research prove that Chlordecone causes cancer, an increased risk of premature birth or a negative impact on brain development in children was also found; hormones (and control systems) can also be affected.

The environmental impact has also been devastating; today, while tree-borne fruit is still safe to eat, food taken directly from the soil is usually contaminated. Despite being recognised as harmful and Chlordecone usage being banned over twenty years ago, some plantation managers still had unsuspecting workers use the toxic white powder to protect their banana crops from insects; the emotional impact of this shouldn’t be underestimated.

Former long-term plantation worker Ambroise Bertin handled Chlordecone for decades and went on to develop prostate cancer (the disease is most commonly diagnosed in Martinique and sister French island Guadeloupe); despite surgery to remove the cancer, symptoms caused by Chlordecone’s impact on the hormonal system persist, suggesting Bertin may have also developed thyroid disease among other conditions.

When interviewed, he shared his telling, first-hand insight:

“First we were enslaved. Then we were poisoned… They never told us it was dangerous… So people were working, because they wanted the money. We didn’t have any instructions about what was, and wasn’t, good. That’s why a lot of people are poisoned… They used to tell us: don’t eat or drink anything while you’re putting it [Chlordecone] down”

His reference to slavery also reflects a collective hurt that’s perhaps felt by many native Martinicans, with many living under the shadow of slavery, which (despite being abolished in eighteen forty eight), lingered in the ‘sun and rum’ tourist-driven culture that later became prevalent on the French Caribbean island. With the poisoning and contamination of their soil, water and food, it’s understandable that the people of Martinique now feel victimised once more.

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Some Martinicans blame Chlordecone poisoning for causing a form of modern-day slavery, and although it’s somewhat different from the hardships endured by their ancestors, in some cases it has been caused by banana growers who descend from the same sugar exporters who owned slaves (until eighteen forty eight). This small white group known as the békés saw sugar production as vital to the colony of Martinique, so slave-driven production was commonplace.
Martinicans continue to protest and campaign against békés descendants and those they believe to have historically profited from Chlordecone use (perhaps even founded upon). With France responding to their plight with little urgency, as well as the continuing unchallenged dominance that these companies have throughout the French Caribbean island, despair and anger could be just two more symptoms of Chlordecone poisoning that’s likely to spread until treated.

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