A Guadeloupe market: There are fears about produce grown on contaminated soil – Getty Images

BBC News reports this week that a pesticide linked to cancer – chlordercone – was sprayed on banana crops on the French Caribbean Islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique for two decades.

In what is being described as “a chronic pollution problem”, the report says: “Now nearly all the adult local residents have traces of it in their blood.

“French President Emmanuel Macron has called it an'”environmental scandal’ and said the state “must take responsibility.

“He visited Martinique last year and was briefed on the crisis on the islands, known in France as the Antilles.

“The French parliament is holding a public inquiry which will report its findings in December,” the report added.

The Guadeloupe MP in charge of the inquiry’s report said: “We found anger and anxiety in the Antilles – the population feel abandoned by the republic.

“They are resilient people, they’ve been hit by hurricanes before, but their trust needs to be restored,” she added.

According to the report: “Large tracts of soil are contaminated, as are rivers and coastal waters. The authorities are trying to keep the chemical out of the food chain, but it is difficult, as much produce comes from smallholders, often sold at the roadside.

“Drinking water is considered safe, as carbon filters are used to remove contaminants.

“In the US a factory producing chlordecone – sold commercially as kepone – was shut down in 1975 after workers fell seriously ill there. But Antilles banana growers continued to use the pesticide.”

A Guadeloupe banana plantation – the fruit itself is not contaminated – Image AFP

Chlordecone is “a chlorinated chemical similar to DDT, and an endocrine disruptor – meaning it can interfere with hormones and cause disease”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes it as “potentially carcinogenic”, as it causes liver tumours in lab mice.

“Banana plantations in the Antilles used it to eradicate root borers – weevils that attack banana plants,” the report said.

“Chlordecone was already recognised as hazardous in 1972. It was banned in the US as kepone after several hundred workers were contaminated at a factory in Hopewell, Virginia, in 1975. Their symptoms included nervous tremors, slurred speech, short-term memory loss and low sperm counts.

“As French agriculture minister in 1972 Jacques Chirac, who later became president, authorised chlordecone as a pesticide.

“It was not banned in the Antilles until 1993 – a delay attributed to lobbying pressure from banana growers.”

Experts say the chemical is very slow to break down in the environment and that contamination can persist for centuries.

“It was restricted globally under the Stockholm Convention in 2016, along with 25 other “Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs),” the report said.

A professor at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research said: “The economic impact is enormous.

Prof Luc Multigner “has investigated the chlordecone crisis and says Antilles residents are very anxious and feel the French state is not doing enough”.

Grande Anse des Salines, Martinique: Tourism is the island’s biggest foreign exchange earner – Getty Images

“The authorities have banned fishing near the coast, but small-scale fishermen get by from day to day, so they are out of work,” he told the BBC.

“One-third of coastal waters are contaminated, all the rivers are – fishing is banned there. Agricultural land is 30-50 percent contaminated, so some cultivation has to stop.”

“However, he notes that the chemical does not contaminate bananas.

“Last year the official unemployment rate in Guadeloupe was 23 percent and in Martinique 18 percent, compared with 9 percent in mainland France. The Antilles rely heavily on French state subsidies.”

Half of the island’s 24,000 hectares (59,305 acres) of agricultural land had some chlordecone contamination.

“A study in 2013-2014 found that among adults in Martinique, 95 percent had chlordecone in their blood, while the figure for Guadeloupe was 93 percent. That corresponds to about 750,000 people.

“The World Cancer Research Fund reports that prostate cancer is the second most common for of cancer in men worldwide.

“In 2018, the highest rates in the world were in Guadeloupe (189 per 100,000) and Martinique (158 per 100,000). The rate for mainland France was 99,” the report added.

“Prostate cancer is more common among Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American men than among white Europeans or Asians. But testicular cancer rates are higher among white European men.”

Research has also found a link between chlordecone exposure and “adverse effects on cognitive and motor skills development in infants”.

“Another scientific study in the Antilles suggested that the chemical was a factor in premature births.

“Since 2008 France has conducted public awareness campaigns in the Antilles, warning of the chlordecone risk.

“The islands’ authorities are monitoring local fruit and vegetables, as well as meat and fish.

“The French ministers of health, overseas territories, research and agriculture have been questioned at the parliamentary inquiry.”

But one MP said only “16 percent of the polluted land had been mapped and”the measures adopted to deal with this drama bear no relation to its gravity”.

  • Top Feature Photo Bananas are a big export industry for Martinique & nearly all are shipped to France – Getty Images