SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Nearly 20 years after Caribbean islanders sued the French government for widespread use by the banana industry of a banned pesticide in Martinique and Guadeloupe, a panel of judges dismissed their case, ruling that it was too hard to determine who is to blame for the deeds committed so long ago.
Judges in Paris described the use of chlordecone between 1973 and 1993 as an outrageous “attack on the environment, the human, economic and social consequences of which affect and will affect the daily lives of the inhabitants” of two French Caribbean islands for many years to come. But they also claimed that even in the 1990s, scientists had not established links between chlordecone and human disease.
“How dare they write such a historical and scientific untruth,” said Christophe Lèguevaques, a lawyer involved in the case, in a statement issued on Thursday.
Chlordecone, also known as kepone, was patented in the 1950s by scientists working for Allied Chemical, a New Jersey-based American company now called Allied Corporation, and millions of pounds of the pesticide were producedalmost all were exported for use outside the United States.
The U.S. government banned the pesticide in 1976, a year after the Virginia health department permanently closed the Life Science Products chemical plant in Hopewell, Virginia, whose workers developed slurred speech and other neurological problems blamed on the pesticide.
However, chlordecone was legally sold in France from 1981 until the government banned it in 1990, and its use continued for another three years after Guadeloupe and Martinique for killing the banana weevil under a government-granted exemption French. Decades later, it continues to pollute the soil and water of the islands.
The French government estimates that more than 90% of adults have been exposed to chlordecone on both islands, which have a combined population of around 750,000. Among various ailments, chlordecone is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer, and these islanders suffer from prostate cancer at one of the highest rates in the worldsay French cancer researchers. Other French studies link chlordecone exposure to preterm births.
“It is unthinkable that those responsible should die without being held accountable,” said Lèguevaques, adding that he urges his clients to appeal the January 2 national court ruling over 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 a great disappointment, is not a surprise,” the group said in a Friday statement, promising to continue representing those affected until “the truth comes out and justice is finally served.”
Ruling in June in a separate lawsuit filed by activists, organizations and victims, the central court in Paris found the French government guilty of wrongful negligence over the use of chlordecone but refused to compensate those affected, outraging many. The judges ruled in part that the defendants had not provided specific details to substantiate the “anxiety damage they are claiming.”
The legal saga takes place in Paris, not in the overseas French departments of Guadeloupe or Martinique, as this is a public health issue, so it is dealt with by a special health unit based in the central Parisian court.
In the meantime, officials continue to test the islanders free of charge for possible traces of chlordecone in their blood.
Associated Press news director Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.