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

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The current social unrest in Guadeloupe and Martinique has brought international attention back to the critical problem of chlordecone pollution in these Caribbean islands. This highly toxic insecticide, banned since 1993 throughout France and its territories, is currently the subject of intense scientific studies 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 the end of November, this highly toxic insecticide has been cited as one of the key factors in the social unrest caused by the Covid-19 situation.

France was forced to postpone the implementation of a vaccination mandate for health workers there after the measure sparked large protests in French territory in which police officers were injured and journalists assaulted . If the inhabitants of these islands hesitate to trust the Covid-19 vaccines, it is because they were missed by Paris on the issue of chlordecone.

Former farm workers, who were exposed to this insecticide for many years in banana plantations, believe that chlordecone is directly linked to certain cancers and neurological diseases. This controversial pesticide is now the subject of several scientific studies aimed at better understanding its effects on health and the environment.

Chlordecone was first used in banana plantations in Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1972 to control 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 only banned it in 1990. However , a government exemption has allowed its continued use in the West Indies. for another three years, until 1993.

The insecticide that polluted the banana trees poisoned the soil, which then reached groundwater, rivers and as far as the coast. Much of the vegetation on the islands was also contaminated as the poison became embedded in the soil. As a result, chlordecone has been found in animal pastures and subsequently in meat products.

“At least a third of the agricultural land used for cultivation and breeding and at least a third of the marine coastline has been polluted with chlordecone,” said Luc Multigner, epidemiologist and research director at the National Institute of Health and medical research, Inserm, in conversation with AXADLETM.

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

>> Thousands of people demonstrate in Martinique against impunity for insecticides

Almost the entire population poisonedChlordecone has poisoned, to varying degrees, more than 90% of the population of the two islands, according to Public Health France and Inserm. “In terms of the general danger of chlordecone, its inherent toxicity is well known,” Multigner said, referring to hundreds of published research articles devoted to the exploration of this poison.

Research on the health consequences of chlordecone is not new. The first studies took place in the 1960s, even before its introduction to the West Indies. The researchers detected neurological disorders in tests on laboratory animals, but also testicular disorders and tumor lesions of the liver. In the mid-1970s, scientists then discovered neurological damage and an enlarged liver in workers at the Hopewell chlordecone plant in the United States.

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

In the 2000s, the Timoun study (“child”, in Creole) conducted by Inserm demonstrated a link between the levels of exposure to chlordecone during pregnancy and an increased risk of premature birth. Many data acquired during the follow-up of children born to the Timoun cohort are currently being analyzed to understand the impact on their development. Other research is still in progress, in particular on the evolution of chronic hepatitis.

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

“We observed 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 as high as the estimated incidence rate in mainland France over the period 2007-2014”, according to an Inserm study entitled “Pesticides and effects on health” and updated last June.

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

New studies on prostate cancerMuch research is currently underway on the specific link between this disease and chlordecone. A new study (Cohort KP-Caraibes-Breizh) on prostate cancer, “will pay particular attention to environmental contaminants (including chlordecone) on the evolution of the disease according to the treatments”, according to the French Institute of research in health, environment and work.

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

“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 “Pesticides and health effects” study, noting that “the causality of the relation [between chlordecone and prostate cancer] is considered probable. ”

“So far, all scientific knowledge [on the link between chlordecone and prostate cancer] had no contradiction, ”Multigner said.

If there is a scientific consensus, politically, that is another matter. On February 1, 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron, who six months earlier had denounced this as an “environmental scandal” and recognized, for the first time, that “the State has its share of responsibility”, spoke again on the question.

“It should not be said that it is carcinogenic. It is 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 fuel fears, ”Macron said at the time.

His statement provoked the indignation of international elected officials and scientists, including Multigner. The Elysee then said that it was a “misunderstanding”. “The president said the chlordecone pollution was a scandal, that’s fine. But to say at the same time, ‘It’s not carcinogenic’ is against research,” Multigner says.

All the scientific studies carried out so far have helped the authorities to set up 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 may not contain more chlordecone residues than the maximum limit authorized by the State. In addition, many areas are closed to fishing because the fish are contaminated. These decisions also had socio-economic consequences, as some farmers and fishermen were no longer able to continue their professional activities.

The deployment this year of the fourth plan to fight against chlordecone pollution was not enough to calm the growing tensions within the population. The Guadeloupe and Martinican associations which filed a complaint against the State in 2006 for “endangering the lives of others” are still awaiting trial. Due to the statute of limitations, the case is likely to be discontinued.

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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