Nemagon is still alive and kicking

Study finds residues of this poison

in Chinandega wells


Many years after the agrotoxic substance DBCP -or simply Nemagon- stopped being used, the cause of the misery suffered by thousands of Nicaraguans is still very much alive in Chinandega. A newly released scientific study by the UNAN has found traces of the poison in 15 wells of Chinandega, which are a source of drinking water. The beast lives. And it lives not only in the minds and bloodstreams of those who knew it and lived with it in the banana plantations. Now it lies hidden, and diminished, in the water wells that the rural inhabitants of Chinandega use for daily consumption.



A scientific study conducted over a period spanning from the first half of 2006 through May 2007, by the Center for Research on Nicaraguan Aquatic Resources (CIRA) of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), in banana production regions of the 1970s and 80s, revealed the existence of residues of DBCP and ten other pesticides used in cotton and banana crops.


The title of this study is “Presence and concentration of pesticide residues and biological contaminants in the water of wells used for human consumption in localities of former banana plantations in the Western region of Nicaragua”, and the head researchers were the specialists Salvador Montenegro Guillén and Mario Jiménez García.

As indicated in the summary of the full report, the scientists measured the physical, chemical and microbiological quality of the water and performed toxicology assessments to determine if there were organochlorine pesticide residues in the water of 15 hand-dug wells that have been supplying water to rural populations of the department of Chinandega for the past 38 years or less.


100% Nemagón


“Los resultados analíticos muestran presencia de residuos de plaguicidas empleados en el cultivo del algodón y banano. El residuo del Dibromo-Cloro-Propano (DBCP), Nemagón o Fumazone por sus nombres comerciales, se encontró en todos los pozos muestreados, en bajas concentraciones”, dice el informe, donde se lee la presencia de al menos once sustancias tóxicas más, entre las cuales se mencionan el hexaclorobenceno, beta benzenehexaclorido, heptacloro, heptacloro epoxido, dieldrin, endrin, DDE, DDD, DDT y toxafeno.


Chinandega was for several decades an agricultural production paradise, and it was bombarded with tons of chemicals used to kill and control pests in banana and cotton crops. Years after the agricultural production boom of these plantations had ended, thousands of peasants, former laborers in these crops, began reporting serious illnesses.


Nearly eight thousand of these peasants, former laborers of the banana haciendas, have claimed to be victims of the harmful effects of DBCP, which was marketed in Chinandega under the commercial names Nemagon and Fumazone. At least 2000 of them have died and another thousand are ill, according to data from the Association of Workers and Former Workers Affected by Nemagon (Asotraexdan).

For this study, and with the help of former workers of the banana plantations, the researchers identified ten hand-dug wells, which are still being used as sources of drinking water, located in the area of the old banana plantations in the department of Chinandega, in particular in the west and northwest areas of the El Viejo municipality.


On top of the poison, feces


Five wells that have been in use for the last five to 38 years, located in east Chinandega, in the region of La Mora -some two kilometers southeast of the city, where there were no banana crops-, were selected to compare water quality.

According to the research report, semipermeable membrane devices (SPMD) were used as passive samplers in each of the selected wells. These samplers, which can capture small concentrations of residues, were placed in March 2006 and removed in April of that year, at which time water samples were also taken to perform the general physical and chemical analysis and the microbiological analysis.

Small quantities of DBCP were found in the waters of all the wells studied, both those located in the surrounding areas of the banana plantations and those used for comparison control purposes.

The Nemagon residues found were in amounts below the compound’s maximum contaminant level, but that was not the case for bacteria, as high levels of contamination from human and animal feces were detected in the water consumed in the researched area of Chinandega.


Deadly cocktail


“Of the eleven pesticides detected, the most frequently found was DBCP, identified in 100% of the wells studied, followed by pp-DDE, found in eight wells (66.6%), Dieldrin, in seven wells, and pp-DDT, in four wells, while Eldrin and pp-DDD were both found in two wells, and BHC, Heptachlor, Heptachlor Epoxide, and Toxaphene were each found in a different well,” the study indicates, and again notes that the levels found apparently pose no risks to human health, but at the same time warns that the possibility of risks cannot be ruled out.

The study also points out that the chronic effects of DBCP on human health may potentially lead to kidney damage and sterility in cases of long term exposure, specially at high


“In general terms, it should be noted that while most of these organochlorine pesticides registered low Maximum Contaminant Levels, the possible synergic effect of these residues -what’s known as the cocktail effect- cannot be ruled out, as the combined action of these compounds puts inhabitants at a greater cumulative risk of suffering pathologies connected with chronic exposure to these xenobiotics,” the report cautions.

The study also states that the presence of high concentrations of bacteria, indicating human and animal fecal contamination, determines that the waters studied are unfit for human consumption, and pose a serious health risk.

“The fact that DBCP was found in small amounts today evidences that it was used in Western Nicaragua and has contaminated the groundwater table, given its presence in the wells studied,” the document continues, explaining that due to its low rate of hydrolysis, BDCP can remain up to 141 years in groundwater.


A century to clean out the poison


As the use of this compound dates back some 40 years, we still have one more century to go before it is fully eliminated through its own process of decomposition,” the research sentences.

The study also points out that the chronic effects of DBCP on human health may potentially lead to kidney damage and sterility in cases of long term exposure, specially at high levels.

“The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies DBCP as a probable human carcinogen, including it in Group 2B of carcinogenic substances,” the scientific report informs, indicating that this is the first study that measures DBCP content in Nicaragua’s groundwater. And the first study that detects it.


“Maybe now they’ll believe us”


The existence of a study that determines the presence of the chemical DBCP, a compound of the pesticide known as Nemagon, caused shock and alarm among the more than two thousand peasants that are camping out in front of the National Assembly demanding social benefits.

Last Thursday, Victorino Espinales, a leader of the Nemagon victims, called other peasant leaders to an urgent meeting to explain the scope of the CIRA-UNAN research study.

Campamento de Afectados por NEMAGÓN


This confirms that Nemagon is not just in the bloodstreams of those of us who worked in the plantations; and it also proves that the poison is still alive and contaminating the new generations that drink the water from those wells,” Espinales said. He also announced that they would be holding a full-day rally to protest peacefully and demand that the Ministry of Health come to Chinandega and that the government adopt health measures in the researched area.

For his part, Manuel Hernández, another leader, who is originally from the municipality of Posoltega, Chinandega, called on the country’s health authorities to declare a state of emergency in the area where the chemical was detected, and order a comprehensive study to assess the situation of other wells in the area.

“We thought the Nemagon nightmare had ended with our illnesses, but now we see that the devil is alive and kicking. I ask the Ministry of Health to conduct a thorough investigation, because it’s appalling that after all these years our people are still being condemned to die, poisoned by Nemagon,” he demanded.


Forensic Medicine confirms


Similarly, the peasant leader Daysi Ambota, also present in the meeting convened to discuss the CIRA report, called on health authorities and academic institutions to thoroughly corroborate the CIRA’s findings, as for her, “the silent presence Nemagon in the water that the people of Chinandega drink daily is a serious matter.”

The study conducted by the expert Salvador Montenegro and by several other specialists reveals the presence of DBCP and ten other chemical substances in nine wells selected randomly in the areas where banana was grown in the 1970s and 80s.

It should be noted that the project was supported financially by the National Council of Universities, with funds from donors and the CIRA itself. Laboratory analysis specialists were also involved, and tests were performed in the microbiology, natural water and radiochemistry, environmental, and organic contaminant laboratories of the CIRA.

The laboratory of the Forensic Medicine Institute of the Supreme Court of Justice confirmed the results of the analysis that detected DBCP in the water, using mass spectroscopy. 


José Adán Silva

Nuevo Diario (Nicaragua)

August 17, 2007

 Fotos: Giorgio Trucchi

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