French farmers fighting the taboo of pesticides

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Farmers in France are winning court cases on illnesses caused by the use of pesticides. Long a taboo subject within the farming community, they are speaking increasingly openly about this potentially lethal pollution, says Claire Le Nestour.

Claire Le Nestour is a journalist at Mediapart. The following article is reproduced in content partnership with EURACTIV (original article on Medipart).

"On 24 April 2004, Paul François, a cereal farmer from the Charente region of western France, was preparing to spread herbicide over his field of rape seed. He had not long finished spraying a corn field with Lasso, a weed-killer produced by US biotech giant Monsanto and which has been used by thousands of farmers around the world since the 1960s.

Under a hot sun, he opened the tank of his crop sprayer to clean it. François was hit in the face by a surge of vapour from the product. Hours later, he was rushed to hospital suffering from loss of consciousness and respiratory failure.

Over the months that followed, he fell into comas and, when conscious, suffered severe migraine. He spent five months in hospital and nine months of sick leave. His permanent neurological problems have now left him seriously handicapped and able only to work part-time.

Last month, François, 47, won a lengthy legal battle against Monsanto in a landmark ruling by a court in Lyon that could open a floodgate of complaints over the effects of pesticide poisoning.

The 13 February verdict found Monsanto guilty of the chemical poisoning of François, the first time in France that a pesticide producer was sentenced for chemical contamination. It followed a tenacious campaign by the farmer and the association for victims of pesticide contamination that he founded and now presides, called Phyto-Victimes.

Two weeks later, François led a group of French farmers, some of them now retired by illness, who dropped in at the major annual French agricultural fair, 'le salon de l'agriculture', a vast and popular show held in Paris representing many hundreds of agricultural producers from around the country, as well as industry specialists.

Victims of pesticide poisoning, dressed in T-shirts proclaiming 'Illnesses caused by pesticides exist, I am the proof', headed for the stand of the Union of Industries for the Protection of Plants, a lobbying group for producers of pesticides and other chemical phytosanitary products.

'We want to show to the agricultural world the devastation that pesticides have caused, and continue to cause, among the agricultural population,' proclaimed François. For his association, like others campaigning against the indiscriminate use of powerful pesticides, the obstacles they face include not only the industry's lobbying power and the scepticism about the dangers from the medical profession, but also a weighty taboo among farmers themselves about debating the widespread use of chemicals on the land.

France is Europe's largest agricultural producer, and is also the continent's biggest user, by volume, of pesticides. Worldwide, only India and the United States use more. Numerous studies over recent years have testified to clear links between exposure to pesticides and the increased risk of serious health problems.

One of them, by Bordeaux University's laboratory for health, work and environment, published in June 2007, found that regular contact with pesticides increased a farmer's risk of developing a brain tumour twofold.

Another, published in 2010 by researchers Bertrand Nadel and Sandrine Roulland of the Marseille-Luminy Immunological Centre, found that farmers' regular exposure to pesticides led to the creation in their bodies of between 100 and 100,000 more abnormal cells than those who weren't, significantly increasing their risk of developing blood cancer.

A day in the fields that ended with Parkinson's disease

A 2008 study led by researchers from France's National Institute of Health and Medical Research, INSERM, concluded that 'based on case-by-case expert review of occupation-specific questionnaires' its findings supported 'the hypothesis that occupational pesticide exposures may be involved in Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma and hairy-cell leukaemia and do not rule out a role in non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.'

In 2009, INSERM researchers published another study, entitled 'Professional exposure to pesticides and Parkinson's disease', in which they found that occupational exposure to pesticides almost doubled the risk of a person developing Parkinson's disease.

Yet between 2002 and 2010, just 38 farmers in France were officially recognised as having developed illnesses as a direct result of their working contact with pesticides and other phytosanitary products.

During the same period, the French agricultural workers' social security fund, the Mutualité sociale agricole, (MSA), reported another 1,363 'professional illnesses of an allergic nature'.

'I put on protection to handle the products but not while spraying,' recalled Gilbert Vendée, a former agricultural worker from the Berry region in central France. 'In a tractor cabin, you can't work with a mask all day long.'

In 1998, he spent a day spraying Gaucho, an insecticide whose use became restricted in France in 2004, on fields of barley. He returned home complaining of headaches. 'I vomited all evening. The doctor made out a certificate and told me, "If ever you have complications, you'll need to show this attestation".'

Indeed, the complications were established in 2002, when Vendée was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He said that when he contacted the agricultural workers' social security fund, the MSA, 'they didn't want to know about it because Parkinson's disease was not among the list of professional diseases.'

Vendée then took his case to the local regional committee for the recognition of professional diseases, the CRRMP, which turned his application down. His last option was to take legal action through the Social Security Affairs Tribunal which, in October 2005, officially recognised his exposure to Gaucho as having caused Parkinson's disease.

'The institutions knew that the first that would recognise Parkinson's disease [as a work-related illness] was going to open up the door to other suits from farmers,' Vendée said. 'I was the first victim of Parkinson's to be recognised as having a work-related illness caused by pesticides.'

A game of statistics

Parkinson's disease is still not among the MSA's table of work-related illnesses, although it is now expected to be included by the summer. “The tables are not decided by the MSA, they're established by decrees,” commented MSA medical advisor, doctor Christine Hermouet.

In 1991, the MSA launched Phyt'attitude, a national network for monitoring cases of contamination of farmers and agricultural workers from the use of chemical phytosanitary products. 'I don't know what means they have put into this programme, but nobody knows about it,' claimed Nadine Lauverjat from the independent environmental movement Générations futures, which has led a campaign since 1996 highlighting the negative effects of intensive farming.

The movement is highly critical of a medical study programme, partly financed by the MSA, to establish rates of cancer among farmers and agricultural workers. Called AGRICAN, the study is following the individual cases of some 180,000 agricultural workers and farmers affiliated to the MSA, across 12 regions around France, beginning in 2005 and due to continue until 2020.

Its first findings were presented last September, when it reported that 'the health of agricultural workers and farmers is better than that of the rest of the French population.' It found that cancer rates among men in the group study were 27% lower than the average in the general population, and among women they were down by 19%.

'The experts are trying to confuse public opinion ahead of presenting their general conclusion,' said Générations futures spokesman François Veillerette , dismissing the findings as a form of disinformation over the health risks of pesticides. 'They only revealed the numbers of deaths, not the rate of morbidity.'

Dominique Marchal, a farmer from the Meurthe-et-Moselle department in the eastern Lorraine region, was 45 when he was diagnosed with leukaemia. He had to wait four years before the Social Security Affairs Tribunal recognised his condition as work-related.

'I know lots of doctors who don't admit that phytosanitary products cause illnesses,' he said. 'On several occasions I asked the MSA to re-examine my case. They always refused, because my pathology could not be caused by benzene. Benzene did not feature on the labels of products that I used.'

The silent taboo among farmers

When Marchal's wife had expert tests carried out on the different products he regularly handled, half of them were found to contain benzene, after which his illness was finally recognised as being a result of his exposure to them. He readily admits that without his wife's perseverance to push his case through he would never have taken it to the tribunal.

Marchal, who has regular chemotherapy treatment, says his tiredness is 'insufficient to justify sick leave', and he continues to work today, although he no longer handles pesticides. 'Farmers regularly call me for advice,' he said.

'One of them just had time to tell me that his illness was recognised [as work-related], and he died.' Marchal has joined Gilbert Vendée in a campaign to lift the taboo among farmers over debating the dangers of pesticides.

'If there is little discussion about the sanitary consequences of pesticides it is not only the fault of the MSA and doctors,' he stressed. 'Farmers are also responsible.'

Vendée recalled reactions he met from fellow farmers during his legal battle for recognition of the work-related nature of his disease: 'I wasn't openly criticised but I was made to understand that I was going to destroy the system. Without pesticides, farmers lose their bread-winner. As long as they are in good health, they prefer to stay in a state of indifference, because they need these products.'

Marchal recalled: 'I didn't receive support from my colleagues. Agriculture is a physical job. We don't pity ourselves, it's in our mentality. To get support, I maybe need to be more ill.'

The hotline at Phyto-Victimes, the association founded by Paul François representing victims of illnesses caused by professional exposure to pesticides, often receives calls from relatives of farmers or agricultural workers rather than the person who is ill. 'I talk with wives, children or friends of farmers,' said Guillaume Petit, one of the association's staff. 'It is quite rare that farmers take the first step.'

Since its creation in March 2011, the association is struggling to establish a national structure. Unlike the case of asbestos contamination, that of pesticides is not concentrated in well-defined geographical areas, and victims are spread around the country. Furthermore, the responsibility of individual pesticide-producing companies is difficult to establish because of the number of products that are used in combination. 

'A system that can't change overnight'

Dominique Marchal and Gilbert Vendée say they accepted to be interviewed about their cases in videos that are now circulating on the internet out of a sense of duty, but not pleasure. 'To admit that you made yourself ill while polluting is also to say that you may have contaminated those close to you,' underlined Nadine Lauverjat from Générations futures, who produced a number of the videos.

'Someone, me or another, had to do it for the victims of Parkinson's, I have a duty to give warning,' said Vendée, who recalled: 'I spent nights preparing my case file for the tribunal.'

Marchal and Vendée come from the same generation, one which they themselves say used pesticides without second thoughts. 'When I went to the tribunal, we were looked at with wide eyes,' remembered Marchal. 'Farmers are in a system, it's not possible to change direction from one day to another and start organic production.'

The slew of scientific reports underlining the dangers of pesticides has no doubt contributed to a slow evolution in attitudes. Monsanto's Lasso, which poisoned Paul François, was outlawed across European Union countries in 2007.

The 'Grenelle de l'environnement' round-table committee between the French government and professional bodies, launched in 2007 to establish reforms to reduce practices harmful to the environment, has adopted a programme called Ecophyto aimed at halving the use of pesticides between 2008 and 2018. The first results showed a 4% drop in both professional and private use between 2008 and 2010."

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