A Danwatch investigation
Danwatch has documented that pesticides are being used on Ecuador’s banana plantations that are illegal in Denmark and the EU in part because they are known to cause illness. In Ecuador’s three banana-growing provinces, there is markedly higher incidence of cancer, higher mortality among pilots that spray pesticides on bananas from the air, and more children born with birth defects than anywhere else in the country. We spoke with banana workers who report becoming seriously ill after contact with these dangerous pesticides. Danish supermarkets cannot guarantee that the bananas being sold in their stores were not grown using these toxic chemicals.
Rebeca Calabria

Journalist

Lise Josefsen Hermann
Journalist

Editor: Louise Voller

Rebeca Calabria

Journalist

Lise Josefsen Hermann
Journalist

Editing: Amalie Linde / Photo: Esteban Barrera (Danwatch) & Jesper Nymark (Danwatch) / Translation: Aileen Bramhall Itani

Editor: Louise Voller

In cooperation with Dagbladet (Norway)
Danwatch has documented that pesticides are being used on Ecuador’s banana plantations that are illegal in Denmark and the EU in part because they are known to cause illness. In Ecuador’s three banana-growing provinces, there is markedly higher incidence of cancer, higher mortality among pilots that spray pesticides on bananas from the air, and more children born with birth defects than anywhere else in the country. We spoke with banana workers who report becoming seriously ill after contact with these dangerous pesticides. Danish supermarkets cannot guarantee that the bananas being sold in their stores were not grown using these toxic chemicals.

In brief 

Danwatch interviewed 34 banana workers, pilots, and family members of those sickened or killed by pesticides, and presented our documentation to experts in pesticide use and doctors familiar with pesticide poisoning in Ecuador.

Pesticides in Ecuadorean banana production

Danwatch acquired a list of the 26 most commonly-used pesticides in Ecuador’s banana-growing regions.  

The list is a compilation of data from the Ministry of Agriculture in Ecuador and a list of pesticides from the Pesticide Action Network.  

See the list

These data were then processed by environmental engineer Alexander Naranjo.  

Experts confirm that these pesticides are in widespread use in Ecuadorean banana production. We asked Danish pesticide experts to evaluate the chemicals’ toxicity.

Read more

The poison comes from the sky.

This is what some of the workers on Ecuador’s banana plantations told Danwatch.

From small crop-dusting aircraft, pesticides and fungicides are sprayed over miles of banana plantations and anything that may lie between them: villages, schools full of children playing, and the banana workers themselves.  Everything is coated with a fine layer of sticky dust when, approximately once a week and without warning, the planes spray the bananas.

And the poison that comes from the sky is highly toxic.  According to a new report from Acción Ecológica, of the 26 chemicals that were most commonly sprayed on Ecuador’s banana plantations in 2017, seven are illegal for use in the EU.  The Danish Ministry of Environment and Food, meanwhile, says that eighteen of the pesticides on the list are illegal in Denmark.  Experts tell Danwatch that, in many cases, this is because they are dangerous to the people who must work with them.

Several scientific studies link a number of these spray pesticides with cancer, birth defects, and higher mortality rates – and in the banana-growing provinces of Ecuador, these conditions are markedly more prevalent than in the rest of the country.

Ecuador’s three banana provinces – Guayas, Los Ríos, and El Oro – share a toxic first-place distinction.  They are not only the hub of banana production in a country that exports more bananas than any other in the world, they are also at the top of Ecuador’s rankings for children born with birth defects, according to national statistics from 2012.

Toxic pesticides

Several studies document a health risk by living close to and working with pesticides in Ecuador’s banana production

Increased risk of cancer

%

So big is the cancer risk in the banana producing provinces against a 2.4 percent risk in general in Ecuador.

Source: Defensoría del Pueblo, 2007 and environmental organization Acción Ecológica, 2007

Children born with defects

%

of children born in the banana-producing provinces are born with malformations. At a national level the figure is 0.22%

Children born with mental handicaps

%

of the children in the El Oro province are born with a mental disability due to genetic damage. The national level is 0.19%.

Two pesticide experts, environmental engineer Alexander Naranjo and health geographer Patricia Polo Almeida, say that the 26 pesticides on the list are in widespread use in Ecuadorian banana production.  

Unless the bananas are organic, some combination of these pesticides are sprayed on all Ecuadorean bananas sold in Danish supermarket chains. Coop, Meny, Spar, Aldi and Lidl all tell Danwatch that they import conventional bananas from Ecuador.

Coop, Aldi and Lidl respond furthermore that all the conventional bananas they sell are certified by the Rainforest Alliance, an environmental sustainability organisation.  As we shall see later, however, this is no guarantee that the most dangerous pesticides are not used in their production.

Crop-dusting over people is not acceptable

We asked Helle Raun Andersen, an associate professor in environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, to examine the list of the twenty-six most common pesticides in Ecuador, as well as Danwatch’s photos from the banana plantations.

Raun Andersen notes that when a pesticide is not approved for use in the EU or Denmark, this may be because approval may not yet have been sought for the chemical.  But she emphasises that all pesticides are dangerous if they are not handled correctly, and that some indeed are prohibited in Denmark because they are too dangerous.  Of these, she points to three specific examples from the list: terbufos, cadusafos and chlorpyrifos.

“These are insect sprays with relatively high acute toxicity, so there is concern about injury to those working with them.  The last of them were banned in Denmark around 2011.  They are neurotoxins – from a chemical point of view, they are related to gasses used in chemical weapons – and in the worst case, you can die from exposure to them via the skin, inhalation, or getting them into your body by other means.”

Erik Jørs, an associate professor in occupational medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, agrees.

“Some of these substances are acutely toxic and have been prohibited for that reason (cadusafos, terbufos and paraquat). Others are less acutely toxic, but are suspected of interfering with reproduction, causing harm to the developing foetus, or being carcinogenic, and are prohibited for that reason (benomyl, carbendazim, flusilazole, tridemorph),” he writes.

Raun Andersen also notes deficiencies in the safety equipment used by banana workers in photos taken by Danwatch at the plantations.  

“If there is pesticide in that, then they should be wearing gloves and masks, which they are not.  Most of these compounds are absorbed by the skin, so the man holding that container could be breathing in small droplets, and will get it on his skin.  You can certainly be harmed by exposure to pesticides over time.  All pesticides are toxic, which is why there is so much regulation of them.”

Children born with birth defects

Nearly twice as many children are born with birth defects in the banana-growing region of El Oro compared to the rest of the country, according to a national survey carried out in Ecuador in 2012.

There are also significantly higher mortality and cancer rates in these regions, according to two 2007 reports, one from Defensoría del Pueblo, Ecuador’s human rights ombudsman, and the other from Acción Ecológica, an environmental organisation.

Pilots of crop-dusting aircraft experience 40% higher mortality than the rest of the population; among other banana workers, mortality is 25% higher.  The risk of cancer in the banana-growing provinces is 5.5 times higher than in Ecuador generally.

Several experts link these outcomes with the pesticides that are sprayed from the air onto banana plantations – and onto everything else that is adjacent to them.

One of these experts is epidemiologist Jaime Breilh, rector of Universidad Andina in the capital city of Quito.  He explains the relationship between mortality, cancer and pesticides.

“There is a very large number of pilots with cancer and liver damage, and when we compare their mortality with similar population groups, theirs is significantly higher,” says Breilh.

According to Breilh, there is no doubt that the chemical sprays have a negative effect on banana workers’ and local residents’ health.

“The chemical sprays affect the nervous system – not just of workers, but of their families, because of their contact with the pesticides.  In areas where spraying occurs, the pesticides fall not only on the bananas, but also on the workers.  It is sprayed over schools, children and water.  And it banana regions, those sprays are a mixture of toxic and carcinogenic compounds along with an extremely poor psychological work environment,” he says.

Spraying from the air over residences or people is never acceptable, says environmental medicine specialist Helle Raun Andersen.

“No matter what, you cannot spray from the air on top of people, that much is clear.  It is against the law in Denmark, because it is very, very difficult to avoid hitting people. But in addition to that, it pollutes the environment and the surrounding areas.”

The coming catastrophe

Another expert is doctor and tropical disease specialist Adolfo Maldonado.  He is the author of several reports on the harms done by pesticide, including one written in 2007 dealing specifically with the banana industry in the region of Ramassalitre-Guayas.

“It is very difficult to be 100% certain that a specific illness or injury can be blamed on pesticides, but genetic problems are typical consequences of these chemicals.  And the significantly higher rates of illness are very striking in these regions,” he says.

In addition, little is known about the effects of mixing these different chemical compounds together – what in the banana regions is known as the “deadly cocktail.”

“It is a quiet catastrophe, the scope of which we are only beginning to realise.  If you have poison in your nervous system, it will be apparent in three days.  But if you have carcinogenic chemicals in your system, you may not be able to tell for one year, or ten years, depending on the dangerousness of the product,” says Jaime Breilh.

He believes there is reason to be concerned.  “If you inhale these pesticides or get them on your skin, you can develop cancer, or your immune system can be compromised through your bone marrow.  If the chemical affects the bone marrow, the immune system cannot function properly.  If you have children, they can be born with birth defects.  And if children are exposed to pesticides, they can develop leukaemia.  It is a vicious cycle,” he says.

In addition, little is known about the effects of mixing these different chemical compounds together – what in the banana regions is known as the “deadly cocktail.”

“It is a quiet catastrophe, the scope of which we are only beginning to realise.  If you have poison in your nervous system, it will be apparent in three days.  But if you have carcinogenic chemicals in your system, you may not be able to tell for one year, or ten years, depending on the dangerousness of the product,” says Jaime Breilh.

He believes there is reason to be concerned.  “If you inhale these pesticides or get them on your skin, you can develop cancer, or your immune system can be compromised through your bone marrow.  If the chemical affects the bone marrow, the immune system cannot function properly.  If you have children, they can be born with birth defects.  And if children are exposed to pesticides, they can develop leukaemia.  It is a vicious cycle,” he says.

Danish supermarkets have an obligation

According to the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which apply to all businesses, Danish supermarkets have an obligation to know whether the products they sell harm people or the environment.

Who sells conventional bananas from Ecuador
– and how many?

Ton (2017)
Ton (2017)

?

Confirms that they sell conventional bananas from Ecuador but will not disclose how many, for business reasons. 

?

Confirms that they sell conventional bananas from Ecuador but will not disclose how many, for business reasons. 

"The results are frightening. We think this is an important problem to expose and discuss, and it has offered an opportunity to have internal discussions about they way we handle this area."

Anne Mette Brasen, responsible for CSR in Coop Tweet

Troels Børrild, political advisor to ActionAid Denmark with special focus on corporate social responsibility, emphasizes the supermarkets’ obligations in this regard.  

“If they buy bananas from farms where pesticides are used, they are at the very least involved in the problem.  So under international guidelines for corporate social responsibility, there is an expectation that they do something about it.”

Ecuador exports nearly a third of its bananas to the EU, of which a portion is shipped on to Denmark, where they are sold in Danish supermarkets.

Four Danish supermarket chains – Coop, Lidl, Aldi and Dagrofa (Meny and Spar) – cannot guarantee that bananas in their stores have not been sprayed with highly toxic pesticides.

Dagrofa says that less that 1% of its bananas come from Ecuador.  In 2017, that came to 19.3 tons.  It is not possible to know exactly which pesticides were used on them, since that would depend on which pests and fungi were active in the region in which they were grown.

“For that reason, we cannot rule out the possibility that in some cases, pesticides may have been used that would have been prohibited in Denmark.  But as we know, bananas are not grown in Denmark,” says Mogens Werge, who oversees corporate social responsibility at Dagrofa.

Aldi and Lidl would not disclose how many bananas they purchase from Ecuador or how they are sourced.  Coop, Lidl and Aldi say that their Ecuadorean bananas are certified by the Rainforest Alliance, a sustainability organisation.

The Rainforest Alliance itself, however, says that out of the 168 banana plantations it certifies in Ecuador, it has only been able to audit three in order to confirm that they are in compliance with the new certification standards. One farm failed the audit. The other farms are in compliance with the 2010 standards.

At Lidl, Head of Corporate Communications Morten Vestberg says, “A certification is not a guarantee against bad practices. If the Rainforest Alliance receives a complaint regarding a significant breach in the standards regarding pesticide use, for example, an investigation will be launched.”

The corporate social responsibility director at Coop, Anne Mettte Brasen, says that less than 1% of its bananas come from Ecuador.  In 2017, that number represented 379 tons.  

In reference to Danwatch’s investigation, Coop commented, “The results are frightening.  We think this is an important problem to expose and discuss, and it has offered an opportunity to have internal discussions about they way we handle this area.  We are aware of the challenges involved with spraying from the air, which why it is one of the matters we naturally and continually address in our dialogue with the supplier.”

At Aldi, says CSR Manager Pia Halldorson, its bananas are certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which ought to guarantee a gradual phasing-out of the most dangerous pesticides.

“Should that prove, against expectations, to be insufficient, we will look at what other initiatives may be necessary,” writes Halldorsson.

Industry denials

The environmental organisation Acción Ecológica in Ecuador documents in a 2017 report that twenty-six different pesticides are in use in banana production in the country.  Eighteen of these are illegal in Denmark, and seven are illegal in the EU.

The banana industry in Ecuador is not just any business. Of the country’s 16 million citizens, 2 million work directly or indirectly with bananas, according to the national banana export trade organisation, Asociación de Exportadores de Banano del Ecuador. 200,000 are employed directly in banana production, which is the second-largest sector of the economy after oil.

The trade association’s chairman, Eduardo Ledesma, denies outright the conclusions of Acción Ecológica’s report.  

“The bananas satisfy EU requirements regarding pesticide tolerance.  The tendency in Ecuador is to remove pesticides corresponding to particular countries’ needs or requirements.  Ecuador does not use products that are not permitted in the EU or the USA,” says Ledesma.

While Danwatch was in Ecuador, however, we observed illegal pesticides in a shed at a banana plantation.  We describe this to Ledesma.

“I don’t know what plantations you visited where you saw pesticides not approved by the EU, that you can make that accusation. (…) As a trade organisation, we try to persuade our partners to uphold the rules,” he says.

We have also spoken with workers who find themselves under crop dusters when they are spraying pesticides from the air…
“That’s a lie.  That’s a lie, because the workers are notified.  Stop insisting on that, because it’s a lie.  I have obviously been present when they are spraying, and no one is so stupid as to do that.  I tell you, it is a lie.  If you really want to make the truth into a lie, then let’s end this interview.  I tell you, it is a lie,” says Ledesma.

 
The investigation is divided into articles. You decide where to begin.

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