Toxic agricultural pesticides: It’s what for dinner

Two separate news stories emerged Monday that suggested the Costa Rican environment has an unexpectedly high level of toxic chemicals.
The first was a report by a researcher at a South African university who said that the caiman in the Tortuguero area have accumulated pesticides in their body that appear to come from banana plantations upstream.

The second report is from a former expat now in Minnesota who said he nearly died last month from what he said he believes was pesticide poisoning by chicken from a pollo a la leña outlet in Tibás,

The researcher is Paul Grant from Stellenbosch University. He took blood samples from  14 adult caiman from March to June 2006. In a report made public Monday, there was a  litany of pesticides that showed up in the reptiles’ blood.

“Banana plantations are big business in Costa Rica, which exports an estimated 1.8 million tons per year; 10 percent of the global total,” said Grant in a summary released by the publisher of the research article. “The climate of the country’s northeast is ideal for bananas. However, the Rio Suerte, which flows through this major banana producing area, drains into the Tortuguero Conservation Area.”

Tortuguero is home to the spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus), one of the most common species of crocodilian in Central America, the report noted. This freshwater predator is known to be highly adaptive, feeding on fish, crustaceans and in the case of larger specimens, wild pigs, it said. The abstract of his research article in  Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry says that he and his colleagues are not sure if the chemicals affected the caiman directly or by reducing the availability of their prey.

The summary of the report by the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., also said that due to the increased global demand for fruit, pesticide use has more than doubled across Central America in the past 20 years. In Costa Rica, which ranks second in the world for intensity of pesticide use, the problem of contamination is compounded by environmental conditions and lax enforcement of regulations, it said.

“Frequent heavy rains can wash pesticides from plantation areas, leading to contamination and the reapplication of sprays to the crops,” Grant was quoted as saying. “Without adequate enforcement of regulations dangerous practices such as aerial spraying close to streams or washing application equipment in rivers also contributes to contamination downstream.”

The team analyzed caiman blood samples for traces of 70 types of pesticide. Caiman within the high intensity banana crop watershed of Rio Suerte had higher pesticide burdens relative to other more remote locations, the report said.

The nine pesticides detected in the caiman blood were identified as insecticides. Of these seven were listed as persistent organic pollutants banned under the 2011 Stockholm Convention, the summary said.

“Caiman near banana plantations had higher pesticide burdens and lower body condition,” Grant was quoted
as saying. “This suggests that either pesticides pose a health risk to caiman, or that pesticides harm the habitat and food supply of caiman, thereby reducing the health of this predator.”

The pesticides found in the blood with high-resolution mass spectrometry were dieldrin,  permethrin, mirex, 4,4-DDE ,  alpha-endosulfan, heptachlor epoxide, oxychlordane,  heptachlor and cypermethrin.

Endosulfan is the major player in the next report, which is as unscientific as Grant’s work is professional. For Gary Franzen, 70, blaming endosulfan for his health woes is based on gut feeling. Literally.

After spending three weeks getting sicker and sicker and the loss of 32 pounds, Franzen, 70, spent considerable time researching chemicals on the Internet.  He said he was so sick that he feared trying to travel to Juan Santamaría airport and a plane ride north.

He said he believes he was poisoned in Tibás when he went on a high protein diet of chicken to lose weight. He ate a total of about three and half chickens in a couple of days. The food came from a local soda, a small food outlet.

He was deathly ill for three weeks and he blamed endosulfan.  He said coffee growers use the pesticide and then the residue remains on the branches that are used to fuel the fires in the chicken places.

In fact, coffee producers do use endosulfan to fight the coffee berry borer, Hypothenemus hampei, The beetle, which bores into the coffee berries and ruins them is call la broca del café in Spanish. And symptoms of  endosulfan exposure match what Franzen said he had, including disorientation and internal bleeding.

Franzen does not have a medical opinion because he is not fond of physicians. But he said he thinks that he became ill from eating so much contaminated chicken over a short period. Coffee wood is highly valued for the pollo a la leña Costa Rica rotisserie system, although many chicken vendors now use gas. Flames could transfer some of the toxin from the wood to the chickens.

“Costa Rica is using chemical warfare on insects, and the humans are getting the worst of it,” said Franzen by telephone. He said he is much better and has gained back 22 pounds after his body seems to have eliminated the toxins. He spent 10 years in Costa Rica and was a familiar figure at Central Valley poker tables. But he said he is not returning because of the fear of chemical poisoning.

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