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Five questions about Chlordecone, the pesticide that poisoned the Caribbean for centuries

This insecticide, massively used since the 1970s in the banana plantations of Guadeloupe and Martinique, is notably accused of being responsible for many prostate cancers. A commission of inquiry must make its findings Tuesday.

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A scandal unknown in the metropolis, finally dissected by the national representation. After six months of hearings, the parliamentary inquiry commission on the use in the West Indies Chlordecone, ultra-hazardous pesticide that has polluted the soil in the long term, makes its conclusions Tuesday, November 26.

What is chlordecone? How was it used in Guadeloupe and Martinique? With what consequences on the health of the inhabitants and on the nature? Franceinfo is making the rounds of this file, which Emmanuel Macron calls himself “environmental scandal”, as reported Martinique The 1st.

1What is chlordecone?

Chlordecone is a very toxic pesticide, classified as a possible carcinogen as early as 1979 by the World Health Organization. Prohibited since 1977 in the United States, then in France in 1990, this product was however used by derogation in Guadeloupe and Martinique until 1993.

2Why was it used in the West Indies?

Chlordecone is extremely effective in controlling an insect: the banana weevil. Native to Asia, the weevil has the annoying tendency to weaken banana trunks, sometimes to kill them. Banana is a real treasure in Guadeloupe and Martinique: these islands produce 270 000 tonnes each year, 70% of which are marketed in metropolitan France, reports the website of a group of professionals from the sector.

Chlordecone has therefore been widely used to preserve this sector of activity, which currently employs 10,000 people, ie half of the agricultural employees of Guadeloupe and Martinique, recall our colleagues from La 1er.

3What are its effects on the environment and health?

Chlordecone has been so widely used in the West Indies that traces of this pesticide have been found in soils, rivers, the seashore, but also on animals and in the organisms of the inhabitants. according to a study of Public Health France published in 2018 (PDF document), 92% of Martiniquais and 95% of Guadeloupe are now contaminated by this pesticide.

Chlordecone is a recognized endocrine disruptor, and “even at very low doses, there may be health effects”, indicates at World Sébastien Denys, Health and Environment Director of Public Health France. Being exposed to it increases the risk of prematurity, cognitive and motor developmental disorders in infants.

This pesticide is also accused of increasing the risk of prostate cancer. However, with 227 new cases per 100 000 inhabitants in Martinique and 184 in Guadeloupe, ie rates twice as high as in France, “the West Indies are world champions of prostate cancer”says André Cicolella, toxicologist and president of the Réseau Environnement Santé. A study conducted on 326 Guadeloupe patients published in March has also shown that the risk of recurrence of prostate cancer is multiplied by more than two in patients most exposed to this endocrine disruptor.

As if that was not enough, the traces of chlordecone are still there for a long time, despite the ban on the product. according to The worldsome soils may contain traces up to 700 years. What to condemn several generations of Antilleans to live with this intoxication.

4What role has the state played in this scandal?

The report of the parliamentary commission of inquiry on the subject unveiled Monday by The world (subscribers only) shows that the French authorities were aware of the dangerousness of the molecule since 1969, one year after the first application for registration of the pesticide. But year after year, and despite “multiple alerts” come from scientists and workers in contact with bananas in the field, the authorities maintain the authorization of Chlordecone, tell the parliamentarians.

It will be necessary to wait until the European Union publishes a directive on pesticides in 1991 so that France returns to its decision. But two ministers of agriculture of François Mitterrand, Louis Mermaz and Jean-Pierre Soisson, granted a derogation so that the Antilles could continue to use this pesticide until 1993. The State also dragged feet to treat the stocks remained on the island since the first chlordecone recovery campaign took place in 2002.

To explain this denial in the face of the obvious, the commission of inquiry points the finger “the intense lobbying of groups of planters and industrialists, the interventions of some elected officials and the explicit support of the local services of the Ministry of Agriculture in favor of a”miracle molecule ' considered essential for the balance of the Caribbean economy “, relates the evening newspaper.

5What will happen now?

Justine Benin, MP MoDem of Guadeloupe and rapporteur of the parliamentary inquiry commission on chlordecone, must now propose a series of measures to repair economic damage, particularly for the agricultural and fisheries sectors.

In the area of ​​patient compensation, the creation of a fund for the compensation of the victims of plant protection products, included in the draft Social Security Finance Bill for 2020 recently adopted at first reading by the National Assembly, brings a first reply. However, this remains “Limited” and “incomplete”, have repeatedly deplored the members of the commission of inquiry during the hearings.

Justine Benin must also propose ways to improve prevention and scientific research to better understand the impacts on health but also to find solutions to clean up the soil. The hearings have indeed highlighted shortcomings in this area.

Finally, faced with the shortcomings of the different “chlordecone plans” launched by the State since 2008 to try to reduce the exposure of Antilleans to this pesticide, the rapporteur provides recommendations for the fourth plan. It is planned for 2020.

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