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Costa Rican Workers Left Sterile by Pesticide Sue Dole, Shell, and Dow Chemical
(Beyond Pesticides, December 2, 2004) Thousands of banana workers in Costa Rica have filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles against two chemical companies and three major U.S. fresh produce companies, claiming that exposure to a toxic pesticide caused a range of reproductive disorders including sterility. The suit was filed against Shell Chemical Co., Dow Chemical, and the banana giants Dole Food Co., Chiquita Brands International Inc. and Fresh Del Monte Produce Co. last month.

The lawsuit accuses the companies of continuing to use dibromochloropropane (DBCP), a soil fumigant sold under the brand names Nemagon or Fumazone, on banana plantations in Central America after it was banned in the United States in 1979. DBCP is believed to cause sterility, testicular atrophy, miscarriages, birth defects, liver damage and cancer when inhaled or absorbed by the skin, according to the lawsuit. DBCP was widely used throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Western Africa, and the Philippines until the early to mid-1980s.

Acting on behalf of Costa Rican banana plantation workers, the lawyers are asking for damages for what they describe as "wanton and reckless acts… and outrageous and malicious conduct." The suit also accuses the produce companies of continuing "to oversee the application" of DBCP on their banana farms. Additionally, the lawyers accused the companies of conducting a "settlement campaign" in which workers exposed to the pesticide were induced to sign releases freeing the companies of liability.

If the plaintiffs are successful, it will be the first time that companies that have persisted in using DBCP are punished. Similar lawsuits by Nicaraguan workers were filed in January 2003 and December 2002, in addition to a series of DBCP-related lawsuits banana workers filed against these companies during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet despite the overwhelming evidence, no U.S. court has ever ordered one of these companies to pay compensation to the workers, says Erica Rosenthal of Earthjustice, a U.S.-based non-profit public interest law firm. "There is no debate about the hazards of DBCP, especially the fact that it can make males sterile," she told Tierramérica.

In 2001, Nicaraguan courts ordered Shell, Dole, and Dow to pay 489 million dollars to 500 male banana workers made sterile by DBCP. But the companies refused to pay and, led by Dole, they counter-sued the claimants for fraud and asked for 17 billion dollars in damages. When workers pursued enforcement of the 2001 Nicaraguan court judgment this year, the U.S. Federal Court refused to take the case, said Kathy Hoyt, co-coordinator of the Nicaragua Network, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization.

For the most part, U.S. judges have argued that their courts are not the appropriate arenas for trying these cases, and only four percent of the rejected cases are re-filed in other countries. Under the civil codes of most Latin American countries, plaintiffs' rights are weaker, there are fewer jury trials and they lack strong discovery rules, Ms. Hoyt said. Some of the cases rejected in the United States were heard in other countries, but there the accused corporations wield strong influence or no longer hold sizable assets.

TAKE ACTION: Boycott Dole, Chiquita, and Fresh Del Monte bananas until these corporations discontinue the use of DBCP and compensate those workers who were poisoned. Now is the time to take action against Dow Chemical Company as well--this lawsuit is only one of many examples in which Dow repeatedly abuses its corporate power at the expense of workers' health. This Friday, December 3, is the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster and a Global Day of Action against Dow's corporate crimes. Go to www.bhopal.net to learn about the growing student movement against Dow and how you can get involved.