The Caribbean islands poisoned by a carcinogenic pesticide

By Tim Whewell
BBC News, Martinique

Publishedduration1 hour agoimage captionAmbroise Bertin had an operation for prostate cancer but still suffers from thyroid disease

"First we were enslaved. Then we were poisoned." That's how many on Martinique see the history of their French Caribbean island that, to tourists, means sun, rum, and palm-fringed beaches. Slavery was abolished in 1848. But today the islanders are victims again – of a toxic pesticide called chlordecone that's poisoned the soil and water and been linked to unusually high rates of prostate cancer.

"They never told us it was dangerous," Ambroise Bertin says. "So people were working, because they wanted the money. We didn't have any instructions about what was, and wasn't, good. That's why a lot of people are poisoned." He's talking about chlordecone, a chemical in the form of a white powder that plantation workers were told to put under banana trees, to protect them from insects.

Ambroise did that job for many years. Later, he got prostate cancer, a disease that is commoner on Martinique and its sister French island of Guadeloupe than anywhere else in the world. And scientists blame chlordecone, a persistent organic pollutant related to DDT. It was authorised for use in the French West Indies long after its harmful effects became widely known.

"They used to tell us: don't eat or drink anything while you're putting it down," Ambroise, now 70, remembers. But that's the only clue he and other workers in Martinique's banana plantations in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s had about the possible danger. Few if any were told to wear gloves or masks. Now, many have suffered cancer and other illnesses.

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