I was 21 years old, what did I know? Nobody told us anything. For two years, I applied Nemagon without mask, gloves or protecting clothing. You pump it directly into the ground. Sometimes, the pressure made the liquid splash right in your face. You could feel the hideous smell across 100 meters.
(Interview with banana plantation worker (1)
In the film BANANAS!*, twelve Nicaraguan banana plantation workers are suing Dole for concealing the dangers of a pesticide that they claim made them sterile.
The case is about Nemagon, one of many brand names for Dibromochloropropane (DBCP), a pesticide originally synthesized in 1955. It was used extensively all over the world until 1977, when employees who had handled the chemical at the Occidental Chemical plant in California were found to be sterile (2).
DBCP was used to protect many different crops: vegetables, nuts, fruits, beans and cotton. The target pest was nematodes, tiny worms living in the soil, feeding on the roots. The pesticide was either pumped directly into the ground, or sprayed into the air with irrigation guns (3).
In the 1960s, Standard Fruit (now Dole), Del Monte and United Fruit (now Chiquita) began to use Nemagon massively on Central American, Caribbean and Philippine banana plantations, as well as on sugar, pineapple and cotton plantations. Various chemical companies manufactured the pesticide: the Occidental Corporation, Dow Chemical and Shell Oil. Together, Dow and Shell exported as much as 24 million pounds of Nemagon each year during the 1970s until 1977 (4).
From 1977-1979, DBCP registrations were suspended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which stopped most applications except for use on pineapples in Hawaii. In 1985, the EPA canceled all registrations (5).
Even as early as 1961, an internal Shell report recommended using impermeable protective clothing to prevent contact with the skin, because the product could have undesirable consequences for human reproduction (2, 6).
DBCP interrupts the hormones that act as the body’s “chemical messengers”. This can increase cancer risk and affect the reproduction system. Studies in both animals and humans have found that DBCP can cause low sperm counts and infertility in men (7). Exposure to high levels have also shown to cause kidney and liver damage (5).
Most of the studies conducted so far have focused on males, and it is difficult to confirm DBCP as a carcinogen causing tumors, especially breast cancer. This is because it takes many years before cancer evolves, and it is difficult to isolate DBCP as single factor (7).
However, there are strong reasons to suspect DBCP is the reason for several cases of cancer. Among males who worked up to three years on plantations during the 70s, researchers found an increase of lung cancer cases by 40 percent. Among males who applied pesticides for a period longer than three years, the cases of brain cancer increased by 80 percent (1).
It was mainly men who worked in the fields and applied the chemical. However, women got exposed to DBCP in the packing plants or when they sometimes removed weed or washed the men’s clothes. Children got exposed when they entered the plantations to bring lunch boxes to their fathers (1).
In El Viejo and other villages in Nicaragua’s banana-growing province of Chinandega, where activists estimate 16,500 people were harmed and more than 1,000 died from exposure, DBCP goes under the name "Death’s Dew” (3).
- Jakten på den fullkomliga bananen ("The hunt for the perfect banana") – The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), 2004
- Dibromochloropropane (DBCP): a review – National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)
- Nicaragua fights for ‘Death’s Dew’ compensation - Newsday.com
- Victims of Nemagon Hit the Road – Envio.org
- Dibromochloropropane – Toxipedia.org
- Banana Workers Put Shell on Trial – Envio.org
- Pesticides and Breast Cancer Risk: Dibromochloropropane (DBCP) - Cornell University (2007)
Article and photo gallery from Newsday.com
Other DBCP brand names
|Durham Nematocide||Nemanax||OS 1987|
|Fumazone||Nemaset||RCRA waste number U066|
Pesticides and Breast Cancer Risk: Dibromochloropropane (DBCP) - Cornell University (2007)
Consumer Factsheet: Dibromochloropropane - EPA