At least 5,000 agricultural workers from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama have filed five civil lawsuits in this country claiming they were left sterile after being exposed in the 1970s to the pesticide known as dibromochloropropane or DBCP.
The pesticide was designed to kill worms infesting the roots of banana trees on Latin American plantations. Jury selection for the first of the lawsuits began last month in California.
This is the first time any case for a banana worker has come before a U.S. court. The cases raise the issue of whether multinational companies should be held accountable in the country where they are based or the countries where they employ workers, legal experts said.
In the lawsuits, Dole Fresh Fruit Co. and Standard Fruit Co., now a part of Dole, are accused of negligence and fraudulent concealment in their use of the pesticide. Dow Chemical Co. and Amvac Chemical Corp., manufacturers of the pesticide, "actively suppressed information about DBCP's reproductive toxicity," according to allegations in the lawsuit.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Website says the chemical was used as a fumigant on more than 40 different crops in the U.S. until it was largely phased out by 1979. Long-term exposure to the pesticide causes male reproductive problems, including decreased sperm count, according to the site, which lists DBCP as a "probable human carcinogen." In April, all five lawsuits were placed under the jurisdiction of one judge in Los Angeles.
The legal actions involve claims on behalf of workers from Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Other growers and manufacturers are named as defendants. It is alleged that Dow and Amvac knew about DBCP's toxicity as early as the 1950s, and that scientists employed by Dow had noted atrophied testes in laboratory animals exposed to the pesticide. Defendants, however, continued to market, sell, and use pesticide products containing DBCP outside of the United States, including Nicaragua.
The lawsuit claims the pesticide was sprayed under tree canopies and fell in droplets onto workers and seeped into the water supply. Plantation workers were allowed to ingest and bathe in contaminated water when they lived in company-supplied housing on Nicaraguan banana plantations, according to the lawsuit.
It's alleged that Dole neither warned the workers of the dangers of exposure nor tried to protect them by issuing gloves, safety glasses, or masks.