(Jul 20, 2007)

Banana workers harmed by pesticide overuse, lawyer claims

By Noaki Schwartz
From AP

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Central American banana workers were left sterile after being exposed to a dangerous pesticide that was improperly applied and used in amounts exceeding guidelines, an attorney said Thursday during his opening statement in a civil trial.

''Some of them were sleeping in hammocks and at night they would breathe those vapors,'' attorney Duane Miller said.

The lawsuit accuses Dole Fresh Fruit Co. and Standard Fruit Co., now a part of Dole, of negligence and fraudulent concealment while using the pesticide DBCP in the 1970s. Dow Chemical Co. and Amvac Chemical Corp., manufacturers of the pesticide, ''actively suppressed information about DBCP's reproductive toxicity,'' according to the lawsuit.

Miller claimed Dole sprayed the pesticide rather than injecting it into the soil or mixing it with ground water as its manufacturer recommended on the product's label.

''The remainder is in the air, on the dirt and on these plants, and that's the environment where my clients worked,'' Miller told jurors. Eleven of the 12 plaintiffs have no sperm in their bodies as a result of exposure to DBCP, he said.

DBCP was used to kill microscopic worms on the roots of the banana plants. Dole told workers to apply 10 gallons a year, when label instructions called for just 1½ gallons, according to Miller.

DBCP was approved for use in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency until 1979. In Nicaragua, it was legal from 1973 until 1993.

Dole attorney Rick McKnight said in his opening statement that Dole stopped buying the pesticide three days after the U.S. government suspended DBCP. He also emphasized how little of the chemical was sprayed when the company did use it once or twice a year.

''The amount was less than a tablespoon per banana plant,'' McKnight said, holding up a tablespoon for the jury.

The pesticide was diluted with water, sprayed at night for 15 minutes, and the plants were then washed with 56,000 gallons of water for more than an hour afterward, he said. The company wanted the chemical on the roots, not the leaves, he said.

McKnight pointed out that there are other reasons why some people are sterile. He said that a number of the workers had conditions that could have affected their fertility, including gonorrhea, heavy drinking and, in one case, an extra chromosome.

Dow experts found that the workers would have had to have been exposed to 500 times the amount of DBCP to have suffered from sterility, said attorney Gus Filice.

''The Dow Chemical Co. acted in a responsible manner,'' Filice said.

Late last week, the judge granted Dow's petition to apply Michigan law to the amount and types of damages. Michael L. Brem, one of the attorney's for the Midland, Mich.-based company, said this would prevent punitive damages and cap any compensatory damages at $394,200 per plaintiff.

Dole made a similar argument opposing punitive damages but was turned down, he said.

Amvac reached a $300,000 settlement in the case shortly before the trial, spokeswoman Kelly Kozuma said.

The case is one of five filed in Los Angeles County by at least 5,000 agricultural workers from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama.

In April, all five were placed under the jurisdiction of Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney.

Attorneys for the workers have said this is the first time such a case has come before a court in the United States.

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