Cancer and pesticides: victims fight for justice

Pesticide being poured
After long battles, three farmers in France have won legal claims that their cases of cancer and Parkinson's disease were caused by working with pesticides. Now they want to help others fight similar cases

Paul François says he is lucky to be alive. In April 2004, he went to clean out what he thought was the empty tank in his agricultural spraying machine. When he opened the cap, noxious fumes of some remaining pesticides escaped. He was not wearing a mask and therefore breathed in a lungful. Immediately admitted to hospital, he fell into a coma.

Since then his illness continues to affect his kidneys and nervous system and he has again fallen into comas on several occasions. Today, he is working on his case against Monsanto, the company that produced Lasso, the culprit pesticide that was taken off the market in 2007.

The victims

Paul told his story at the first meeting of a network of 'pesticide victims' in a small hotel near his farm in Poitiers. The 40 participants had gathered to work out how they could help each other, and what could be done to protect the health of others.

One of the difficulties in putting together a strong legal case - against either a pesticide company or the French authorities - is finding clear evidence from scientific studies and asking doctors to make the link between exposure to pesticides and a medical condition. François told the meeting that medical professionals had often turned him away:
'They tell me: "Go home, you are depressed because you are ill",' he said.

Agricultural worker, Gilbert Vende in Bourges was luckier - at least from the perspective of finding a more helpful medical professional. In 2001, after being drenched with the pesticide Gaucho used to protect seeds in autumn, he suffered serious breathing problems. A year later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. His doctor gave him a letter linking his condition to exposure to 'pesticides, insecticides, fungicides et Gaucho'. But even with this document, it took extraordinary diligence to win his case in October 2005 when he became the first person in France to have Parkinson's recognised as an occupational disease. He is now embarked on helping others.

Gathering evidence

Two other agriculturalists in France have won recognition for the link between pesticides and their leukaemia. Even before Vende won his case, Dominque Marchal, a cereal farmer in the Vosges became the first person in France to win recognition that his leukaemia was work-related. When he first became ill, his wife suspected that his daily pesticide spraying on their 100,000 hectare farm might be the cause. But when they talked to the medical authorities about this idea, they were treated with such 'scorn' that it made Madame Marchal determined to fight.

She employed a lawyer to help her gather the scientific evidence and herself set about gathering invoices and receipts to list which pesticides her husband had been using in previous years. Then, from their own pesticide stocks and with the help of neighbouring farms, she was able to gather samples of each of the potential cancer-causing substances. Her lawyer helped her find a laboratory willing to analyse the contents, and when the results came back they showed that 40 per cent contained benzene, a substance not marked on any of the contents labels but that is known to increase the risk of leukaemia.
Since the Marchals' success, other farmers and agricultural workers with cancers such as myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are trying to gain recognition and compensation for their conditions. A second person in France had his Parkinson's disease recognised as an occupational disease in October 2009.

Reducing exposure

But as well as winning legal cases, the network participants are equally concerned with reducing the risks of exposure to pesticides. Several people living near farms spoke at the meeting about finding themselves in a cloud of pesticide fumes when they were in their garden or as they walked near their homes. Two mothers were worried about their children's exposure. Special criticism was made of the use of herbicide sprays in nursery school lawns and playgrounds.

Recent European regulation on pesticides has included bans on the sale and use of certain pesticides linked with cancer and other serious health damage. For example, Lasso was banned in France following European regulatory changes. 

The European package also called for bans on pesticide spraying in fields bordering residential areas and playgrounds. But it is up to the countries themselves to design and apply national action plans.

Following the French

François Veillerette, president of France's successful anti-pesticide group (MDRGF) told the meeting that his association would help network participants - whether they were affected by exposure to pesticides in professional use or as a bystander - to take their demands to the French government.

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) plans to make known the French experience in other European countries as part of its 'Sick of Pesticides' campaign. Genon Jensen, HEAL Executive Director said one of the organisation's aims is to help speed up the process of removing the most carcinogenic chemicals from the market, and for a ban on spraying in residential areas, and especially where children play. 

But Paul François sees some key responsibilities as lying with the farmers themselves. In agricultural work, he said, we always know someone who is ill, but it doesn't mean to say they want to talk about a link between their illness and the pesticides they use. More farmers needed to speak up. Equally important was the use of safer pesticides and to find practical ways of using fewer pesticides without losing profitability.

Diana Smith, from the Health and Environment Alliance, took part in the first meeting of a network for 'victimes de pesticides' close to a farm near Poitiers, 16-17 January 2010.

Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), which brings together 60 organizations working to improve health through environmental protection, has launched a 'Sick of Pesticides' campaign in France and the UK. It will be extended to other countries this year.

Useful links

MDRGF - Mouvement pour le droit et le respect des générations futures
Pesticide victims website

This article was updated on 19th March 2010 to correct the spelling of the pesticide 'Gaucho' from the incorrect 'gouache'.

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