Fruit of the Poison Tree

In a Dallas court, Costa Rican banana workers claim a banned pesticide left them sterile

Salas says he went to work in the banana fields at 13 and that he was exposed to DBCP when he was 15, in 1979--after the substance had been banned. For five days, he worked on a crew detailed to recover all the unused pesticide from the various farms and pour it into barrels at a central warehouse.

"The gas cans were hot, so when we opened them there would be a 'poof,' and the vapor would come up at your face," he recalls.

The very reason he was working with the chemical was because it had been banned as toxic, and yet he says he was told nothing and issued no safety equipment. At times he was literally soaked in the stuff.

Banana republic: The Dole sunburst logo is ubiquitous in 
Costa Rica, from an ad at Juan Santamaria International 
Airport vowing to "produce in harmony with the 
environment" to the trailers waiting at a processing plant 
for their cargo of bananas. The pesticide DBCP was 
pumped into the soil with handheld injectors, at bottom.
Charles E. Ames
Banana republic: The Dole sunburst logo is ubiquitous in Costa Rica, from an ad at Juan Santamaria International Airport vowing to "produce in harmony with the environment" to the trailers waiting at a processing plant for their cargo of bananas. The pesticide DBCP was pumped into the soil with handheld injectors, at bottom.
Fred Misko, top, lead lawyer for the banana workers, 
and Terry Murphy, below, chief counsel for Dole, both 
claim to be confident of victory in the trial that starts 
next week in Dallas' 116th District Court.
Mark Graham
Fred Misko, top, lead lawyer for the banana workers, and Terry Murphy, below, chief counsel for Dole, both claim to be confident of victory in the trial that starts next week in Dallas' 116th District Court.

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After a year of trying to start a family after his 1987 marriage, a test revealed only trace amounts of sperm in Salas' semen. He had given up hope completely until Allison was born in 1996. As Salas talks to Misko with Chaves translating, Allison sits next to him, snuggling under his arm, and his grin reappears every time he glances down at her.

The walls of the home end two feet below the metal roof, leaving a screened gap that allows the tropical air to circulate. The shelf formed by the top of the wall is lined with stuffed animals, Allison's gifts from her doting parents. But like Sosa, Salas endures the sidelong glances of neighbors who wonder if one of "los afectados" can really have fathered a child.

Despite this seemingly outrageous tale of corporate wrongdoing, Salas' story may prove problematic in court. Because he was underage, his work records do not show him working for Dole until 1982, when he turned 18. Additionally, his exposure, though undoubtedly high in concentration, lasted only five days, while most scientific data documenting human health effects is based on exposures of three months or more. And, of course, there is Allison, the ultimate refutation of a claim of sterility.

Sosa bristles whenever weaknesses in the cases are brought up. "The best cases to bring [against Dole] have already died," he states flatly. "The whole family died. Exactly what caused it, nobody can say, but they all died of cancer--the mother, the father and the child. They disappeared."

Misko pays a visit to another of the bellwether clients, Adelicio Vargas Arias, who lives in Rio Frio. Vargas, 46, is polite and dapper, his wide mustache and carefully combed hair giving him the vague aura of a Latino matinee idol. Vargas went to night school after long days among the bananas and now works as a clerk for the government's irrigation agency. By working two jobs he saved enough to buy the small concrete house where he lives with his wife, Sandra, and two daughters.

Sitting on the front porch amid banana and coconut palms and brilliant potted orchids, Misko listens intently as Vargas relates his experiences with DBCP. The tale is repeatedly interrupted as the skies open up, the deafening roar of water pounding on the metal roof precluding any conversation. During the lulls, Vargas describes how he applied the pesticide as part of his work for Dole in the late 1970s.

Vargas has the exposure history, and his low sperm count has been repeatedly confirmed, but his case has its complications, too. In his younger days, like many single bananeros, he frequented a nightclub where many of the workers came to unwind--and its prostitutes. The two STD episodes that resulted could offer the defense an alternate explanation for his low sperm count.


Even without the prospect of exposure to powerful toxins, life as a Central American banana worker is no sinecure. Banana plants are not a true "tree" but rather a woody shrub, with the trunk made up of the stumps of old fronds. Still, they can stand 20 feet high or more, requiring careful teamwork when harvesting the fruit-laden stems of 100 to 150 bananas weighing more than 100 pounds.

Typically, one employee will perform a variety of jobs on a farm: cutting dying fronds from the plants, clearing the paths between rows, harvesting, even working in the processing plant trimming down the stems into small bunches for shipping. Duties also include bagging the stems of developing fruit in blue, pesticide-impregnated plastic bags and, of course, applying pesticides and herbicides.

DBCP, sold under the commercial names Nemagon or Fumazone, was applied by injecting it into the soil with a pump shaped like a jackhammer. The chemical was created to kill nematodes, soil parasites that attack the banana plant's roots and can eventually kill the entire plant.

Workers who injected DBCP speak of the pungent smell, an acrid odor that would hang in the hot, humid air trapped under the overhanging banana leaves. In mixing and transporting the chemical, direct skin contact wasn't unusual, and in some cases the odor would permeate the air in nearby villages.

Problems with the chemical were first noted early in its development in the late 1950s. A study published in 1961 documented cancer and testicular damage in lab animals exposed to DBCP, but scientists hired by the chemical companies attested to its safety for humans, and it was approved for use in the United States in 1964.

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