As social unrest erupts in the French West Indies, chlordecone is key to the crisis

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The current social unrest in Guadeloupe and Martinique has returned international attention to the critical problem of chlordecone contamination in these Caribbean islands. This highly toxic insecticide, banned since 1993 in France and its territories, is currently under intensive scientific study to understand its harmful effects on the human body and ecosystems.

Chlordecone has left a permanent scar on the French West Indian population. Throughout the protests that have rocked Guadeloupe and Martinique since late November, this highly toxic insecticide has been named as one of the key factors behind the social unrest caused by the Covid-19 situation.

France was forced to postpone implementing a vaccination mandate for healthcare workers there after the move sparked widespread protests across French territories where police officers were injured and journalists attacked. If the inhabitants of these islands hesitate to trust Covid-19 vaccines, it is because Paris has failed them on the issue of chlordecone.

Former agricultural workers, who were exposed to this insecticide for many years in banana plantations, believe that chlordecone is directly related to specific cancers and neurological diseases. This controversial pesticide is now the subject of several scientific studies aimed at learning more about its effects on health and the environment.

Chlordecone was first used on banana plantations in Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1972 in a battle against an insect called the banana weevil. Banned in 1976 in the United States, the substance was classified as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1979. France itself did not ban it until 1990. However, a government exemption allowed its continued use in West Indies. for three more years, until 1993.

The insecticide that contaminated the bananas poisoned the soil, which then went into groundwater, rivers, and even the coast. Much of the vegetation on the islands has also become contaminated as the poison has taken root in the soil. As a result, chlordecone has been found in pasture for animals and later in meat products.

“At least a third of the agricultural land used for cultivation and farming and at least a third of the marine coastline has been contaminated by chlordecone,” said Luc Multigner, epidemiologist and director of research at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research of France, Inserm. , speaking to FRANCE 24.

As its molecules disintegrate very slowly in the soil, it is difficult to know how long it will remain in the ecosystem. According to the National Institute of Agrarian Research (INRAE), “it could still be there between one and six centuries.”

>> Thousands of people protest in French Martinique against ‘impunity’ for insecticides

Almost the entire population poisoned

Chlordecone has poisoned, to varying degrees, more than 90% of the population of the two islands, according to Santé publique France and Inserm. “In terms of the general danger of chlordecone, its intrinsic toxicity is well known,” said Multigner, referring to hundreds of published research articles dedicated to exploring this poison.

Research on the health consequences of chlordecone is not new. The first studies were carried out as early as the 1960s, even before it was introduced in the West Indies. The researchers detected neurological disorders in tests with laboratory animals, but also testicular disorders and liver tumor lesions. In the mid-1970s, scientists discovered neurological damage and liver enlargement in workers at the chlordecone factory in Hopewell, USA.

A few years later, research showed that Chlordecone has hormonal properties. Today, it is considered an endocrine disruptor. “Twenty years ago, when the issue of chlordecone received very little media attention, Inserm carried out a series of studies to find out if this contamination was contaminating the population. We found that the population of the West Indies had indeed been poisoned, since chlordecone was detected in the blood of most of the people studied, “said Multigner.” Once this observation was made, the question was whether these traces of chlordecone in the blood cause health problems. ”

In the 2000s, the Timoun (“child” in Creole) study led by Inserm highlighted a link between levels of exposure to chlordecone during pregnancy and an increased risk of preterm birth. Currently, many data acquired during the follow-up of the children born in the Timoun cohort are being analyzed to understand the impact on their development. Other research is still being done, particularly on the course of chronic hepatitis.

As early as 2010, the Karuprostate study, coordinated by Multigner and Pascal Blanchet, head of the urology department at the Pointe-à-Pitre University Hospital in Guadeloupe, identified a clear link between exposure to this harmful substance and the development of prostate cancer.

“We found that the more men were exposed to chlordecone, the higher their risk of developing prostate cancer,” Multigner said. “In the West Indies, the incidence rate of this disease is almost twice the incidence rate estimated in mainland France during the period 2007-2014”, according to an Inserm study entitled “Pesticides and health effects” and updated last June.

In this context, the Minister of Agriculture and Food, Julien Denormandie, announced on November 28 that a decree that officially recognizes prostate cancer as an occupational disease after the use of this pesticide will be issued “before the end of the year”.

New studies on prostate cancer

Much research is currently being done on the particular connection between this disease and chlordecone. A new study (Cohort KP-Caraïbes-Breizh) on prostate cancer, “will pay special attention to environmental pollutants (including chlordecone) on the evolution of the disease according to treatments”, according to the French Institute for Health Research, environment and work.

Faced with an understandably anxious Antillean population, the National Cancer Institute launched a multidisciplinary research program on November 9 dedicated to investigating the link between exposure to chlordecone in the Antilles and the risk of developing prostate cancer. For five years, researchers from different disciplines (epidemiology, human and social sciences, clinical science) will work on this topic to “deepen our understanding of the role of chlordecone in the risk of prostate cancer, as well as its perception and social consequences in the West Indies “.

“The strong presumption of a link between exposure to chlordecone in the general population and the risk of developing prostate cancer has been confirmed,” write the authors of the study “Pesticides and Health Effects”, noting that “causality of the relationship [between chlordecone and prostate cancer] it is considered probable “.

“Until now, all scientific knowledge [on the link between chlordecone and prostate cancer] there has been no contradiction, “said Multigner.

If there is scientific consensus, at the political level, it is another question. On February 1, 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron, who six months earlier had denounced this as an “environmental scandal” and acknowledged, for the first time, that “the state has its share of responsibility,” spoke again about the theme.

“We must not say that it is carcinogenic. It has been established that this product is not good, there have been scientifically recognized cases, but we should not go so far as to say that it is carcinogenic because we are saying something that is not true and we are feeding the fears, “Macron said at the time.

His statement sparked outrage from elected international leaders and scientists, including Multigner. The Elysee Palace later claimed that it was a “misunderstanding”. “The president said that the chlordecone contamination was a scandal, that’s fine. But saying at the same time: ‘It’s not carcinogenic’ is contrary to research, “says Multigner.

All the scientific studies carried out so far have helped the authorities to implement successive action plans, which aim to protect, raise awareness and repair the damage caused by this insecticide. Specific measures have been taken. Food produced in the West Indies cannot contain more chlordecone residues than the maximum limit authorized by the State. Also, many areas are closed to fishing because the fish are contaminated. These decisions have also had socio-economic consequences, as some farmers and fishermen have no longer been able to continue their professional activities.

The deployment this year of the fourth plan to combat chlordecone contamination has not been enough to calm the growing tensions among the population. The Guadeloupean and Martinican associations that filed a complaint against the State in 2006 for “endangering the lives of others” are still awaiting a trial. As a result of the statute of limitations, the case is likely to be dismissed.

This article has been translated from the original in French.