A Danwatch investigation
Redaktør: Louise Voller
Editing: Amalie Linde / Photo: Esteban Barrera (Danwatch) & Jesper Nymark (Danwatch)
Editor: Louise Voller
Names of persons and plantations have been hidden or changed in some cases to protect the workers’ safety. Their real names are known to Danwatch.
There is quite a collection of kegs, tubs and buckets of pesticides in the little shed beside one of the many runways for crop-dusting aircraft in Ecuador’s banana-growing provinces. The many containers bear witness to what is actually in the sticky drizzle that rains down over the banana regions. The day’s spraying is almost over, and the last crop dusters are sent up.
The name Dithane 600 appears on many of the tubs. It is the most common chemical spray in Ecuadorean banana production, and is permitted in both the EU and Denmark.
Another of the pesticides, one we see in a shed on a banana plantation, is Gramoxone. Its active ingredient is Paraquat, which is prohibited in both Denmark and the EU.
Jorge Acosta is a former crop-dusting pilot. He has sprayed plenty of pesticides over the Ecuadorean banana plantations – and on whatever else was directly under his plane.
There are 26 active ingredients sprayed from the air in Ecuador’s banana production, but they are obscured by a host of commercial names. 18 of these active ingredients are not approved for use in Denmark, and 7 are not approved in the EU.
See the list
“In the beginning, I didn’t know about these risks. There was a toxicologist who told us we could drink a gallon of Mancozeb, and nothing would happen to us.”
Now Acosta knows that is nonsense.
“The worst pesticide still in use”
Before we come to Acosta’s own story, we will look a little more closely at one of the seven chemicals that are forbidden in the EU, but that are commonly sprayed over Ecuador’s banana plantations: Paraquat.
Alexander Naranjo is an environmental engineer. In 2017, he published a study called The Other War: The Pesticide Situation in Ecuador for the environmental organisation Acción Ecológica, which showed that there were 26 active pesticide ingredients used in Ecuador’s banana production. Eighteen of these are not approved for use in Denmark.
“Paraquat is really toxic. It is the worst pesticide still in use in Ecuador,” says Naranjo.
A 2016 study by the US Environmental Protection Agency showed a link between Paraquat and the risk of chronic bronchitis, metabolic disorders, and even incidence of Parkinson’s disease. In Denmark, Paraquat has been prohibited since 1994. A number of European countries had prohibited Paraquat before 2003, but since 2007, it has been illegal throughout the EU.
Paraquat is highly toxic and causes immediate damage if it comes in contact with the mouth, stomach or intestine, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Paraquat causes toxic chemical reactions in the body, primarily in the lungs, liver and kidneys, and can also cause cellular mutation. Depending on how much is ingested, it can take between a few hours and a few weeks before the consequences of exposure to the toxin are apparent. These can include heart, kidney and liver failure; scarring of the lungs; coma; pulmonary oedema; and death. There is no counteragent that can treat patients poisoned by Paraquat, according to the CDC.
The American disease prevention authority recommends that if Paraquat gets on clothing, it should be removed as quickly as possible – and if it is on a shirt, it should not be removed over the head, but rather cut off and put in a bag. If the substance comes in direct contact with skin, it should be washed off as thoroughly and quickly as possible.
Both Paraquat and Dithane 600, with its active ingredient Mancozeb, are familiar to Helle Raun Andersen, an expert in environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark.
“Mancozeb is a fungicide, and it is suspected of affecting thyroid function. If pregnant women are exposed, it can affect the foetus, because its developing brain is dependent upon hormones from the mother’s thyroid gland. This has been demonstrated in studies of pregnant women and in animal studies,” says Raun Andersen.
Paraquat, on the other hand, is an herbicide, she explains. “Paraquat and diquat are related. They are both herbicides that burn and irritate. Paraquat is the most dangerous, and the reason it is not permitted in the EU and Denmark is because it damages the lungs, and its effect can be very long-lasting.”
The lasting injury
But it is not only the immediate physical and perceptible injuries that are the most serious, according to epidemiologist Jaime Breilh, rector of the Universidad Andina in Quito and author of several studies of the effects of pesticide sprays on the health of banana workers in Ecuador.
Jaime Breilh explains that a carcinogenic compound may not manifest itself immediately, but may first become apparent one or even ten years later, depending on how dangerous it is.
The danger of a particular pesticide is one thing; another is the method used to apply them to the banana plants. Approximately once a week, a small plane flies in wide circles over the banana plantation – close to the banana plants, but not close enough, because the spray often falls over nearby villages.
On average, the number of applications of pesticide by crop dusters has risen from 22 to 45 per year per plantation in Ecuador. That adds up to nearly one application per week, according to the report by Alexander Naranjo.
The EU recognizes that aerial spraying can have serious negative consequences for human health, and seeks to avoid these consequences among EU citizens. Therefore, aerial spraying of crops with pesticides is discouraged unless exceptional conditions are present that would make the spraying an advantage instead of a risk for humans and the environment.
Nevertheless, European consumers risk buying bananas that are sprayed from the air with pesticides so dangerous that they risk making workers and their children ill.
As a rule, it is illegal to spray pesticides from the air in Denmark out of concern for health and the environment, according to the Ministry for Environment and Food. In certain circumstances, dispensation can be given, but no such permission has been granted at this time.
“There are no biocides approved for delivery via aircraft at the moment. There are therefore no pesticides being sprayed from planes in Denmark today,” according to the environment ministry.
Sprayed pesticides on children
When Jorge Acosta’s wife died, it was a wake-up call for the crop duster pilot. He quit his job as a pesticide pilot and created the trade union Astac, which attempts to organise Ecuadorian banana workers, who live in fear not only of losing their jobs, but sometimes even for their safety.
The banana regions of Ecuador are at the top of national statistics on birth defects, according to a report from Defensoría del Pueblo, the country’s human rights ombudsman. Numerous experts believe this is tied to the pesticides that are sprayed from crop dusters over the banana plantations.
The former spray pilot began to have a crisis of conscience on the job.
“Once in El Oro province, I had to spray over a two-story house. There were two little girls outside playing. When the plane came close, I saw they were taking the laundry in. I refused to spray over that house, the girls, and the laundry. Later, the banana producer complained that I hadn’t sprayed his plantation.”
Acosta also began to worry about the health of the pilots spraying pesticides.
“Many of my former colleagues had trouble with rapid pulse, blurred vision and dizziness. When we spoke about our experiences, we all had the same symptoms. There was one pilot who fainted on his way out of the plane after he had sprayed a combination of Mancozeb and Calixin,” he says.
Calixin is also on the list of chemicals not approved for use in Denmark or the EU.
“I also experienced quick pulse, blurred vision and fatigue, but I thought it was a heart problem. I went to the doctor, but he said everything was fine, and that it was likely due to poisoning – pesticide poisoning in all probability, because the symptoms were the same as all of us crop-duster pilots were feeling. I began to worry because one day, just after I had flown and sprayed Mancozeb, I nearly fainted,” Acosta says.
Environmental engineer Alexander Naranjo has heard stories like Acosta’s before.
“Mancozeb is one of the most common causes of poisoning. When it is sprayed, people should avoid the plantation for at least 24 hours afterward. It doesn’t help to just go away for a moment,” he explains.
The banana workers Danwatch spoke with never leave the banana plantation for a full day after pesticide is applied. Some leave in the afternoon when the spraying takes place, and begin work again early the next morning. Almost all reported being regularly forced to continue working on the plantation while the crop duster was spraying pesticides over the banana plants and the workers themselves.
Naranjo confirms that it is not only the banana workers that are at risk, but also members of the communities that live nearby.
“The chemical sprays move with the wind. Mancozeb, for example, has been found a kilometre away from banana plantations. Pesticides are dynamic – they move with the rivers, rain and wind,” he says.
A dangerous cocktail
Naranjo harbours deep concerns about the use of pesticides.
“People don’t understand what it means to be largest banana export country in the world. They are proud of our bananas, but these pesticides are used haphazardly. It is really a terrible situation,” he says.
“The chemicals that are prohibited in the EU are used on all conventional banana plantations in Ecuador,” explains Naranjo. Which is not to say that Ecuador is unique among banana-producing countries.
“The circumstances are the same in other countries, such as Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru,” he says.
Part of the problem with the pesticides in banana production is that they are never sprayed just one at a time from the crop dusters.
“It is a whole cocktail of pesticides. Several are mixed together, and one of them is always Mancozeb. The problem is that very little is known about the effects of combining pesticides in that way,” Naranjo says.
Chronic health effects
Patricia Polo Almeida is a health geographer who has conducted a number of studies on the health and working conditions of banana workers in several provinces in Ecuador.
Her studies show that the workers are aware that the pesticides affect their health. They remain in their jobs in order to provide for their families, but they do not want their children to follow them into the business.
“They feel there are no other choices available to them besides working with bananas, because they have families and have to work,” says Almeida.
She says that local residents and banana workers have reason to be concerned.
“They are spraying down a cocktail of chemicals. It affects not only the workers’ health, but also the rest of the population that lives in the banana areas. Spraying with pesticides from aircraft affects everyone. It moves with the wind. There are many handicapped children whose parents work with bananas,” Almeida says.
“The problem is when the planes do the spraying. It has a nasty smell, and it pollutes everything. You get dizzy, and it stings in your nose. The banana plantations are close by. But people need to work. If they don’t work, what will they eat? The people working out on the plantation when the crop dusters come – what can they do? They have to keep working, or they’ll be fired.”