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Filipinos seek compensation over banana pesticides 

JIM GOMEZ / AP 2nov97

U.S. firms sued by workers who claim they were made sterile

A nurse works with sperm samples submitted by banana plantation workers at a clinic in Davao, Philippines, as others wait their turn. Workers who prove sterility will get part of a settlement from a lawsuit over the use of the pesticide dibromochloropropane. AP Photo

  • Dow to pay $22 million
  • Shell $17 million
  • Occidental $2.5 million

PANABO, Philippines - Nestor Lagrimas turns to beer and singing, sometimes inviting in neighbors, to ward off the silence of his childless home.

Lagrimas, 38, is one of thousands of banana plantation workers in Davao province who say they became sterile or were afflicted with other ailments because of exposure to a U.S.-made pesticide.

A group that filed a damage suit in the United States reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the manufacturers last May, although the companies argue they weren't at fault. The makers say the pesticide was not used properly.

The workers are still pursuing claims against American fruit companies that have banana plantations in the Philippines. About 30,000 Filipinos work on the plantations at an average daily pay of 160 pesos, or about $4.85.

Lagrimas said sterility spread like a curse through the impoverished plantation town of Panabo among men who used the pesticide dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, more than a decade ago.

"We've been haunted by this problem for a long time," he said.

DBCP was a liquid fumigant injected into the ground to kill microscopic worms that destroy the roots of banana trees.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency discovered DBCP could cause cancer and sterility and severely restricted its use in 1977. It was banned in the United States in 1979 and in 1980 in the Philippines.

It was still being used in the Philippines well into the 1980s, lawyers say.

Dow Chemical Co., Shell Oil Co. and Occidental Chemical Corp. sold the pesticide to Dole Food Co., Del Monte Fresh Produce and Chiquita Brands International Inc., which used it in the Philippines and about a dozen other countries.

In 1993, more than 16,000 banana plantation workers, including thousands of Filipinos, filed a class-action suit in Texas against the manufacturers and fruit companies.

The suit came so late because it took years for the workers to realize DBCP's effects and more time before many mustered the courage to admit their sterility, said Charles Segel, a Texas lawyer representing the victims.

The three manufacturers have agreed to pay a total of $41.5 million to claimants who can prove sterility Dow agreed to pay $22 million, Shell $17 million and Occidental $2.5 million.

"The settlement was made without any finding of fault or liability," Shell said it a statement.

The settlement provides compensation only for sterility, shutting out workers who developed other illnesses after exposure to DBCP, said Renato Callanta, a Filipino lawyer for the claimants.

Workers certified as sterile will receive payments of at least $4,000, Callanta said. Claimants who are not sterile but can prove they were exposed to the pesticide will receive $100 each.

Lawyers for the claimants will get half the total settlement, Callanta said.

The fruit companies are continuing the legal fight.

An affiliate of Dole, Standard Fruit Philippine Co., was still using the pesticide in 1986, six years after it was banned in the Philippines, Segel alleged.

Lagrimas, who worked as a pesticide applicator for Standard Fruit, said he and other workers used DBCP from 1979 to 1982.

A spokesman for Dole refused to comment while the suit is under litigation.

Chiquita and Del Monte said they stopped using DBCP after it was banned by U.S. authorities.

"The real culprits here are the manufacturers," said Del Monte spokesman Bradley Hornbacher, saying his company was not fully aware of the pesticide's danger.

Dow, the largest DBCP manufacturer, acknowledged the pesticide could cause sterility but put the blame on those who bought and used it, saying the chemical was improperly handled.

Doris Cheung, a spokeswoman for Dow, said DBCP product labels warned users against skin contact and inhalation of its fumes.

"Unfortunately, many of the users and purchasers of DBCP failed to follow the warning labels. Dow should not be liable for their improper conduct," she said.

In September, many former banana workers gathered at an abandoned house converted into a clinic for sperm tests to determine whether they are sterile and eligible for a share of the settlement.

More Banana Facts

May 11, 1998

A series in the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on a comprehensive year-long investigation into the Central America activities of Chiquita Brands International Inc. Chiquita Brands is the world's largest banana company, employing more than 36,000 workers and selling its fruit in 40 countries.

The Enquirer investigation into Chiquita's use of pesticides on banana plantations found that Chiquita showed disregard not only of the company's stated environmental guidelines, but also for the safety of tens of thousands of field workers. Investigators found:

Aerial spraying when workers are in the fields. According to the report, "Chiquita subsidiaries have sprayed toxic cocktails, varying mixtures of potent chemicals on their plantations without removing workers first. These aerial sprayings can take place more than 40 times a year on plantations that are threatened by a widespread banana disease [Sigatoka]. Often these pesticides fall on workers, nearby villages, rivers or forests."

Use of pesticides by Chiquita's subsidiaries in Latin America that are not registered for use in the U.S., Canada or Europe, contrary to company statements. These include bitertanol, azoxystrobin, imazalil and ethoprop.

Use of pesticides in aerial spraying that are toxic to fish and birds, contrary to Chiquita's stated environmental policies. These include mancozeb, thiophanate-methyl and tridemorph.

In San Jose, Costa Rica, another Chiquita subsidiary, Polymer Plastipak, manufactures plastic bags impregnated with chlorpyrifos. The bags are used to cover bananas ripening on plants to protect them from insects. Community leaders and neighbors in the surrounding barrio have complained to the national health ministry that fumes from the factory have caused residents to suffer chronic respiratory problems, blistered skin and other serious illnesses. For many years, plant officials have denied these claims, conceding only that the plant emits a "bad odor." After Enquirer investigators questioned company officials about the problem, tests were conducted that found high quantities of chlorpyrifos being released from the plant's smokestack. Investigators also found that chlorpyrifos was being released inside the plant and into the atmosphere where the bags are cut and separated. Chiquita continues to maintain, however, that the plant poses no threat to nearby residents or workers.

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