Agroquímico DBCP: A ghost in the southern banana plantations

Agroquímico DBCP: A ghost in the southern banana plantations

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By Vicent Boix Bornay

The case of Dibromo Chloropropane (DBCP) is an example –a sad, at the same time clear, example– of the little value that public health acquires when economic interests appear on the scene. Few cases gather as much evidence, documentation and testimonies as the one that follows.

The beggining

DBCP was a chemical product applied to numerous crops in various world nations such as the United States (USA), Israel or Spain, although its use in large banana plantations in several southern countries (Costa Rica, the Philippines, Honduras, Nicaragua, Burkina Faso, Guatemala, Ivory Coast and Panama, among others).

It was first synthesized in the middle of the last century, thanks to the work carried out by Dr. Karl T. Schmidt, a member of the Pineapple Research Institute in Hawaii at the time. However, it would be another scientist from this institution, Dr. Earl J. Anderson, who happened to discover in 1953 the sterilizing power of the product on certain pests of pineapples.

Two years later it began to be used as a nematicide in the United States, fighting a species of parasitic worms that generally feed on plant roots. They are called nematodes and within the world of industrial agriculture the manufacture of a compound that could stop them became urgent, since they caused innumerable losses in production. The DBCP did not eliminate the pest, but sterilized its members and thus prevented its reproduction and spread.

At that time, this type of product did not need special registrations in the US and, therefore, during the first years, DBCP was marketed without evaluating, studying and determining its possible toxicity. As Susanna Bohme, historian and associate editor of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health explains, “Nematicides such as DBCP were not included in the pesticide control legislation when it was passed in 1947. It was then legal to sell it without any registration. In 1959 things changed and a new law forced such registration ". (2)

Toxic Effects and DBCP Approval

As early as 1955, Shell Oil Company had started its manufacture and was selling it under the name Nemagon. Months later, Dow Chemical did it, calling it Fumazone. In the early years both companies produced and sold DBCP without the obligation to have it registered and only providing slight information on its use. But with the legislative changes that were coming, they had to jointly deal with the registration and study of the impacts on human health.

This is how its negative effects began to be seen in the first tests on laboratory animals. Dr. Charles Hine - a scientist at the University of California School of Medicine hired by Shell to conduct studies on this product - in a letter dated March 1957 addressed to Dow scientist Dr. Ted Torkelson, it already warned of «... incidental readings of testicular damage and atrophy ...». (3)

An internal Shell brief written a year later highlighted the toxic effects of the DBCP, ratified the contact between the two multinationals and revealed that both were aware of the first conclusions. This letter read: “I am enclosing a copy of the confidential report of Dr. Hine et al., University of California, on the toxicity of the Nemagon vapor. I have learned from conversations with Dr. Hine that information of this type is also known to the Dow Chemical Company. Dow has been particularly distressed by the effects on the testicles. ”(4)

During the following years the two scientists would correspond about their advances. In fact, in March 1961, a team of specialists led by both would publish in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology what would be the first scientific study with abundant information on the effects of DBCP. Said work was partially funded by Shell Development Company as specified in the same publication. The study revealed various adverse effects at high concentrations and confirmed DBCP as a toxin capable of inducing male infertility at low concentrations. Various measures were also proposed to curb its effects, and finally, a concentration in the air of less than one part per million (ppm) was suggested.

Despite the obvious risk from scientific research, the product continued to expand. In the US, a third company, Occidental Chemical Company, began to distribute it by acquiring it first from Shell and then from Dow. For their part, they began the legal procedures to register the DBCP. At that time it was the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that was in charge of registering and weighing the safety of a certain product. Initially, said agency contacted Shell to request medical information from the operators who worked on the development of the DBCP in various factories throughout the United States. They also indicated some comments that should be included in future product labels.

Faced with these petitions, the company officials complained about the position taken by the USDA, alleging verbatim that "The Pesticide Control Division of the United States Department of Agriculture was concerned about the dangers associated with the uses of soil fumigant Nemagon and have proposed labeling for the various formulas now on sale. There is consensus among us that the authorities are too cautious and that the warning on the labels they advocate would have an adverse effect on the sale of this product. '(5)

The pressure from Shell took effect and the USDA softened its initial stance in exchange for conducting new medical tests on operators manipulating the DBCP. The controls were carried out at the Shell plant in Denver (Colorado), with the exception, according to the documentation obtained, that the doctor in charge of them was not informed that they were looking for probable damage to the testicles.

In parallel, Dr. Hine was appointed by both companies to support the approval of the DBCP. For this, he prepared a report similar to the one published in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. In it, he advised concentrations of less than one ppm and warned about the use of personal protective equipment to avoid inhalation and skin contact with the substance. But in March 1962, a Shell official returned the report with a series of notes, including removing certain compromised information.

With this document retouched and with medical examinations of Denver operators that unsurprisingly showed positive results, the manufacturers reported that Nemagon and Fumazone could be used without "undue risk." The government lowered its initial position by registering the product and allowing mild warning labels. It was already 1964.

The bathed fields

In the US, DBCP has been used mostly by self-employed farmers since the 1950s. In the Canary Islands (Spain) it was also applied by local farmers and in 1963 the Nemagon and Fumazone were widely advertised in Canarian newspapers. An Order from the Spanish government dated 1962 authorized a Barcelona company to import the active ingredient for the manufacture of DBCP. Furthermore, the information found opens the possibility that both brands could be marketed in the Canary Islands in 1960, that is, four years before their approval in the US.

In the impoverished countries of Asia, Africa, and primarily Central America, DBCP was not used, at least notoriously, by independent local farmers. In these nations, the nematicide began to spread between the late 1960s and early 1970s, mostly in banana plantations belonging to or selling their production to companies included in the multinational agro-exporters Chiquita Brands, Del Monte and, above all, Dole Food Company.

Tens of thousands of laborers worked on these large estates performing various functions. Various testimonies from former banana workers from different countries have agreed by stating that they were not informed about the risks of DBCP, nor did they receive training, or adequate protective equipment, and some have stated that the labels were not understood because they came in English.

In the banana plantations there were three possible routes of exposure to humans. First, by dermal contact when the agrochemical was applied. Second, orally, since the DBCP, after its applications, could be filtered until it reached the water wells and aquifers and in those years the banana workers lived inside the farms and drank, cooked and washed with the waters of said wells. . The third way could be the respiratory one through inhalation in the fields. On this point, the transnationals have defended themselves, arguing that the DBCP was applied between one and three times a year. However, the success of the product once dispersed depended on its transformation into a vapor that acted on the nematodes and that could last for days and weeks, periods in which it could also be inhaled by the people who carried out their work on the farms.


With use in impoverished countries, DBCP reached its highest sales volume in the 1970s. In the same period, scientific research continued to advance. New studies certified the risks of male infertility and one from the National Cancer Institute determined that the pesticide was carcinogenic in laboratory animals. It is believed that this study was launched in 1978, but it may have been known to Dow two years earlier.

Despite all the new evidence in laboratories and despite the opaque approval and registration process, DBCP continued to be sold with no apparent steps being taken to limit its potential harm to humans. Only a sad coincidence definitively set off the alarms.

In 1976, Wesley Jones, a worker at the Occidental plant in Lathrop, California, went to a hospital with testicular problems. They tested him, detected abnormalities in his sperm and advised him to leave his job. Jones agreed and claimed compensation for the damages, but Occidental examined the case and transferred it to a physician: Dr. Charles Hine.

In an interview, the worker acknowledged to the specialist that testicular problems prevented him from having children and that he was suspicious of the compounds that were made in the company, so the operator provided a list of products with which he had contact. However, Hine dismissed the link between Jones' infertility and his position at Occidental. He added that he was not unable to continue working at the plant and omitted any comment about the DBCP, despite his clear knowledge. Finally, the doctor stated that he had not found anything in the scientific literature and in his files that would allow him to conclude that Jones' problems were caused by some chemical product.

Faced with the events, a second worker with symptoms identical to Jones' contacted the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), which managed to convince a group of seven workers to undergo medical tests. OCAW asked Occidental for toxicological information on certain substances and also to fund the seven tests. But the company refused everything and only chance (5) gave the workers hope when some filmmakers who were working on a documentary on occupational health decided to finance such medical tests.

The analyzes were ready in July 1977 and the conclusions were moving: the seven workers suffered from varying degrees of sterility. The news was quickly made public, and testicular problems were also detected at several Shell and Dow factories, which announced in August that they would discontinue production of DBCP.

Weeks later, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, for its acronym in English), expressed its intention to suspend this chemical. In this way, a procedure that would last two years began, which began with the temporary prohibition of the DBCP for certain uses. To justify this decision, the EPA itself recognized the adverse effects on the male reproductive system and the possibility that DBCP was carcinogenic. However, it determined that the risk was run by the workers of the factories that manufactured it, and not by the field workers who applied it. Thus, in October 1977, in the USA the use of DBCP was prohibited in half of the crops in which it was used, in such a way that it continued to be applied in other crops, although in a supposedly more controlled, restricted and safe way.

That the suspension was only partial and especially the segmentation between factory and farm workers, gave wings to several companies to continue using the pesticide in impoverished countries. Occidental showed signs of wanting to continue manufacturing it. A fourth company, AMVAC Chemical, continued to sell it but acquired it from two factories located in Mexico. The DBCP continued to be used on farms owned or sold to Dole, in at least Nicaragua and Honduras. In early 1978, Dow and Standard Fruit Company (Dole) signed a contract whereby the former would sell the second portion of DBCP's existing inventory, but to be used outside the US.

Found documentation places the Nemagon and Fumazone in Nicaragua until at least the end of 1978.

The seriousness of the case is not only due to the fact that the agrochemical continued to be used in those nations where it had not been banned or limited. Most worrying of all is that, despite Lathrop's warning, there is no evidence that workers in southern countries were informed and provided with protective equipment.

In 1978 the definitive concentration was established at 0.001 ppm (one thousand times less than that recommended by Dr. Hine years ago). And in October 1979, the EPA banned virtually all uses of DBCP in the US. New research in the previous two years appears to have ranked DBCP as a major public health risk. The new studies found that DBCP causes cancer in animals and possibly humans; that it is capable of adversely affecting testicular function in men and that it is mutagenic (6) in animals and humans. In addition, the EPA was dismissed with respect to 1977 by concluding that the exposure and the risk could also take place in the field of cultivation, even days after the application, and in areas surrounding the treated farm.


In 1979 the DBCP was also suspended in Costa Rica when its risks were discovered and Dole transferred the remainder to Honduras since there were no restrictions there. Testimonies of an AMVAC executive in the book Circle of Poison, reveal that the fruit company, to avoid legal problems, initiated the acquisition indirectly through local importers.7 Internal reports of Standard presented in lawsuits would prove that in 1980 it was watered in Nicaragua, and in 1986 it was used in the Philippines according to data cited by the Toxics Use Reduction Institute of the University of Massachusetts. (8)

Manufacturing in the US reportedly stopped manufacturing in 1977, but two Mexican plants continued to supply DBCP to AMVAC. In both there were victims, but in 1978 strict security measures were applied. The person in charge of recommending them was Dr. Enrique Márquez –in those years director of Occupational Hygiene and Sanitation of the Undersecretariat for Environmental Improvement in Mexico– who stated: “In fact, the entire plant was reconditioned so that the worker came to a room where he took off all his clothes and entered another where he had his protective equipment that consisted of an astronaut-type suit with a diving suit connected to a hose that provided filtered air from the outside. Their exposure time was restricted in the closed room where the DBCP was produced. At the end of their shift, they went to another room where they took off all their equipment and then went into the bathroom to shower profusely and went out to the room where they had left their clothes. Furthermore, they were all subject to periodic clinical examination… ”(9)

This description is interesting because it allows a glimpse of the dangerousness of DBCP and the rigorous measures that were implemented, which raises an extremely important question: Would Dole inform and apply similar safety protocols in the banana plants? Dozens of testimonies from banana growers say no. In addition, internal company documents corroborate that certain guidelines were circumvented and that they never presented evidence of adequate protection standards in a trial. The documentary Bananeras, produced in 1982 by Nicaraguan filmmakers Ramiro Lacayo and Frank Pineda, is a shocking graphic document about the subhuman conditions in which the banana growers of the Standard Fruit of Nicaragua lived and worked. In the film, large sprinklers can be seen spraying water and chemicals on the banana trees, unprotected laborers walking barefoot on the formed mud, and these people and their families living in shacks within the farms. (10)

Already in the eighties and especially in the nineties, the DBCP was banned and its use became extinct, although journalistic news have located it in the Philippines and Panama in 1991 and 2000 respectively.

The news of the case that occurred in the fields until the mid-eighties, has currently been transferred to courts in several countries of the world, where thousands of former banana workers infertile by the DBCP, coming from impoverished nations, continue to search today. a drop of justice. The current legal struggle of the affected workers is more interesting, convoluted and hopeful. It would be summarized in the following idea: the framework that gave life to the DBCP and that tolerated it by allowing the enrichment of certain transnationals to the detriment of health, is the same one that now avoids responsibilities and obstructs any attempt at justice. Multinationals, logically, have avoided and torpedoed legal processes, thanks to legal systems that protect them. For reasons of space, this interesting chapter in the life of the DBCP has not been mentioned in this article.

Conclusion: Irresponsibility in triplicate

During the approval of the product, the North American authorities were very permissive, to the point of accepting the interested suggestions of multinational companies that wanted fast registration and weak labeling that would not hinder promising sales.

When the scandal broke out at the Lathrop factory, the precautionary principle was not applied and for two more years it continued to be partially used in the US. The initial segmentation between the workers in the factories that manufactured it and those in the fields that applied it meant the nook through which the transnationals that wanted to continue developing and applying it in impoverished nations slipped through.

In 1989, the US Congress determined that the EPA did not have any standardized procedure that would allow other countries to know and warn about the characteristics and risks of a certain chemical. This, together with the weak legislation and the almost non-existent control systems in the southern states, made it easier for the DBCP to continue to be used in these nations after 1977.

On the other hand, two manufacturing companies had known the toxicology of agrochemicals since the late 1950s and for that reason they have been accused of hiding information. Socorro Toruño, the Nicaraguan judge in charge of settling one of the lawsuits brought by those affected by the DBCP, declared in a sentence that “the Shell company did not tell the truth to the US Government by failing to communicate the information it required and that the Shell company clearly possessed. . This would have demonstrated the dangerousness of the Nemagon, since the warnings suggested by the US authorities were not finally imposed (…). It is clear that the Shell company went from passive withholding of information (…) to active distortion of facts, which is worse. '(11)

Some companies remained interested in selling and applying the product after the first suspension in 1977 and others even after the definitive one in 1979. The existing testimonies allow us to conclude that the recommended protection measures were not applied in the banana companies, which had already existed for years but which in the US became tougher as of 1977. To defend itself against these serious accusations, Dole always claimed that it was unaware of the effects of DBCP because it had not been informed by the manufacturing companies. However, today there is evidence that would show that this fruit maker must have known the adverse effects of DBCP even in 1963, the date on which Dr. Anderson summarized the risks of this product in a publication of the Pineapple Research Institute in Hawaii to which Dole belonged.

In 1991, Senator Patrick Leahy presided over US Senate hearings on third world worker problems caused by pesticides manufactured by US companies. Senator Leahy acknowledged that when the EPA banned DBCP in the US for almost all its uses, multinationals continued to apply it in other countries. He warned that the search for profit by the chemical companies that made DBCP led them to evade the opinion of their own scientists, while hiding information from secret studies, dumping their poisons on other countries and devastating the lives of thousands of people. (12)

The third compromising angle in this story is the performance of Dr. Charles Hine and possibly other lesser scientists.

First because of his attitude towards the worker Wesley Jones, but above all, for having followed the dictates of the manufacturers and because the concentration of one ppm that he suggested in the scientific work of 1961 was insufficient, as would be shown years later. In addition, there are suspicions that it was determined irresponsibly on the basis that no tests were carried out at this concentration and the minimum studied was five ppm. Regarding this passage, Dr. Luc Multigner, toxicologist at the French National Institute of Medical Research, pointed out that «in this case, what the researchers should have done is carry out a new toxicological protocol with concentrations below 5 ppm (…) In In the sixties these international rules were not established. However, to conclude that at the 1 ppm dose there was no effect was evidently arbitrary given the absence of experimental data and implies some negligence or absence of scientific judgment. ”(13)

Dr. Joseph Ladou, former director of the International Center for Occupational Medicine at the University of California – San Francisco and former editor-in-chief of the International Journal Occupational Environment Health, in an article published in 1999 in said journal, noted that some members of the The scientific community criticized the behavior of Dr. Charles Hine in his research on DBCP, and encouraged the health specialists of multinational companies not to be passive officials of the corporations. (14)

Therefore, the tolerant or even negligent attitude of the authorities, companies and scientists involved, allowed the DBCP to be manufactured and sold on a large scale without clearly warning of its intrinsic dangers. The consequences already know.

Vicent Boix Bornay Associate Researcher of the Citizen Land Chair - Fondation Charles Leopold Mayer, of the Polytechnic University of Valencia (1) - December 2011


(1) Vicent Boix is ​​the author of El parque de las hamacas, a book that tells the complete history of the agrochemical DBCP.

(2) Email from Susanna Bohme, October 4, 2011.

(3) Judgment of the case «Miguel Sánchez Osorio and Others v. Standard Fruit Company and Others ”, Second Civil and Labor District Court, Chinandega, Nicaragua, August 8, 2005.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Judgment of the case «Miguel Sánchez Osorio and Others v. Standard Fruit Company and Others', op. cit.

(6) Property of some physical or chemical agents to induce mutations. A mutation is an inheritable change in the genetic material of a cell. In nature, mutations originate randomly and, although the causes remain uncertain, many external mutagenic agents are known that can produce mutations such as environmental radiation and chemicals.

(7) D. Weir; M. Schapiro, Circle of poison, Institute for Food and Development Policy, San Franciso (USA), 1981, pp. 20 and 21.

(8) See B. Rosengerg and C. Lovenstein, Unintended Consequences: Impacts of Pesticide Bans on Industry, Workers, The Public, and The Environment, The Massachusetts Toxic Use Reduction Institute, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Methods and Policy Report No. 13, Lowell (Mass., USA), 1995. Available at:… and The Legacy. Available at:….

(9) Email from Enrique Márquez, May 26, 2009.


(11) V. Imhof, “Nemagón used with a genocidal mentality”, Nuevo Diario, Managua (Nicaragua), August 14, 2005. From the judgment in the case “Miguel Sánchez Osorio and Others v. Standard Fruit Company and Others'.

(12) K. Sable; D. Mayer, «Yes! we have no bananas: forum non conveniens and corporate evasion ”, International Business Law Review (Academy of Legal Studies in Business), vol. 4, August 2004, p. 134.

(13) Email from Luc Multigner, August 31, 2005.

(14) J. Ladou, "DBCP in Global Context: The Unchecked Power of Multinational Corporations", International Journal Occupational Environment Health, April / June 1999, vol. 5, No. 2, p. 151.

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