SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Nearly 20 years after Caribbean islanders sued to hold the French government criminally responsible for the banana industry’s expanded use of a banned pesticide in Martinique and Guadeloupe, a panel of judges has dismissed their case, ruling that difficult to determine who is to blame for actions committed so long ago.
The judges in Paris described the use of chlordecone from 1973-1993 as a scandalous “environmental attack whose human, economic and social consequences affect and will affect the daily life of the inhabitants for many years” on the two French Caribbean islands. But they also argued that even in the 1990s, scientists had not established links between chlordecone and human disease.
“How dare they write such a historical and scientific falsehood,” said Christophe Lèguevaques, a lawyer involved in the case, in a statement issued Thursday.
Chlordecone, also known as kepone, was patented in the 1950s by scientists working for Allied Chemical, an American company based in New Jersey now called Allied Corporation, and millions of pounds of the pesticide were produced.almost all were exported for use outside the United States.
The U.S. government banned the pesticide in 1976, a year after the Virginia Department of Health permanently closed a Life Science Products chemical plant in Hopewell, Va., whose workers developed slurred speech and other neurological problems from the pesticide.
However, chlordecone was legally marketed in France from 1981 until the government banned it in 1990, and its use continued for three years after that in Guadeloupe and Martinique to kill the banana weevil under an exemption granted by the French government. Decades later, it continues to pollute the islands’ soil and water.
The French government estimates that more than 90% of adults were exposed to chlordecone on both islands, whose combined population is around 750,000. Among a host of ailments, chlordecone is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer, and these islanders suffer from prostate cancer with among the highest rates in the world, say French cancer researchers. Other French research links chlordecone exposure to premature births.
“It is inconceivable that those responsible die without being held accountable,” Lèguevaques said, adding that he would encourage his clients to appeal the Jan. 2 ruling by the National Court of Public Health Disputes.
Other plaintiffs in the 2006 case include the Paris-based environmental group Générations Futures, which also plans to appeal.
“This decision, while representing a great disappointment, is not a surprise,” the group said in a statement Friday, pledging to continue representing those affected until “the truth emerges and justice is finally served.”
The Central Court of Paris ruled in June in a separate lawsuit brought by activists, organizations and victims, finding the French government guilty of wrongful negligence involving the use of chlordecone, but denied compensation to those affected, a decision that outraged many. The judges ruled, in part, that the defendants did not provide specifics to justify “the harm of anxiety they allege.”
The legal saga is taking place in Paris rather than the overseas French departments of Guadeloupe or Martinique because it is a public health issue, so it is being handled by a special health unit based in the central Paris court.
Meanwhile, officials continue to test islanders for free to detect possible traces of chlordecone in their blood.
Associated Press news director Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.