A new lawsuit, filed on 14 April in a Los Angeles federal court, claims that chemical manufacturers and fruit companies knowingly used and distributed the pesticide 1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane (DBCP) after it was banned by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1979.

The case is being brought by over 600 Honduran banana workers, who claim that DBCP has resulted in widespread cases of sterility, testicular atrophy, miscarriages and other serious health complaints.

Several chemical companies manufactured DBCP (known also by its commercial name Nemagon), including Dow and Shell, for use on food crops. Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte are among fruit growers to have applied the pesticide on banana farms in Latin America during the 1970s.

The plaintiffs allege that these banana growers continued to use DBCP after its US registration was revoked. This demonstrated a "conscious disregard" for the safety of the plantation workers, the lawsuit says.

Among other charges, the companies are being sued for negligence, concealing the hazards of the product and conspiracy.

Charges denied

The multinational chemical and fruit companies have repeatedly denied that they continued to distribute or use DBCP after the 1979 ban, as the lawsuit claims.

"The allegation that Dow sold the product after it was banned by the EPA is false," Dow Chemical spokesman Adam Muellerweiss told news agency Reuters.

Shell, Chiquita and Dole have all declined to comment until they have had time to assess the specific details of the current lawsuit.

In previous public statements, however, Dole argued that it halted all purchases of DBCP after the US ban, "including use in foreign countries". It did so because of "the apparent link between male sterility and exposure to DBCP".

Yet the California-based food company has repeatedly argued that no "reliable scientific evidence" exists linking the pesticide to other forms of illness, such as cancer and birth defects, as workers have claimed.

Del Monte spokesman Bruce Jordan also told Reuters it had not yet been served with the lawsuit, but he said that the fruit producer has never had any operations in Honduras.

History of complaints

The lawsuit is just the latest in a series of legal challenges filed by worker groups in recent years.

In the Philippines, for example, Dole and others were named in a $4 billion DBCP action involving 35,000 individuals. A court of appeal threw out the case in 2002 on procedural grounds.

Similar legal actions have been raised in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

The most vociferous campaigns have occurred in Nicaragua where, in October 2000, the government passed a statute facilitating the filing of DBCP complaints in domestic law courts. Within two years the number of pending DBCP-related lawsuits had grown to 295, representing a total of 6,544 plaintiffs and damages worth $9.6 million.

The constitutionality of the statute (Law 364) has been consistently challenged. In a recent interview with the BBC, Dole's executive vice-president Michael Carter called Nicaragua's judicial system "corrupt" and argued that the revised statute "effectively prevented people from defending themselves".

Carter also said: "There is no evidence that indicates that the open field dispersion of the product has any impact on workers."

Together with fellow multinationals Dow Chemical and Shell, Dole is appealing an order, made by a Nicaraguan court in December 2002, to pay $490 million to 600 workers affected by DBCP.

UN involvement

Meanwhile, former banana workers won the right to present their case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee earlier this month. The agreement came after more than one thousand DBCP victims staged a month-long protest outside the offices of Human Rights Ombudsman Omar Cabezas in Managua.

In 1997, the chemical companies Amvac, Dow, Occidental and Shell agreed to pay $41.5 million in an out-of court settlement following a joint action lawsuit brought by workers in Central America and the Philippines.

Other countries where the pesticide was used on fruit fields include the United States, Israel, Saint Vincent, Burkina Faso and Spain.