BAYER FOUND RESPONSIBLE FOR POISONING OF CHILDREN IN PERU
Twenty-four children in Peru died and 18 others suffer long-term health and developmental consequences as a result of eating food contaminated with the pesticide methyl parathion, marketed by the German agrochemical company Bayer. A Peruvian Congressional Subcommittee has found significant evidence of criminal responsibility by both Bayer and the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture.
By Erika Rosenthal
After a nine-month investigation, a Peruvian Congressional Subcommittee has found significant evidence of criminal responsibility by both the agrochemical company Bayer and the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture in the poisoning of 42 children in the remote Andean village of Tauccamarca in October 1999.
The children were stricken after eating a school breakfast contaminated with the organophosphate pesticide methyl parathion. Twenty-four children died before they could reach medical treatment; 18 others survived with significant long-term health and developmental consequences.
The pesticide was heavily marketed under the name of Folidol to small farmers throughout the Andean region of Peru, the great majority of whom speak Quechua only and are illiterate. Bayer packaged the pesticide, a white powder that resembles powdered milk and has no strong chemical odour, in small plastic bags, labelled in Spanish and displaying a picture of vegetables. The labels provided no usable safety information, such as pictograms, for the majority of users in remote villages, and little indication of the danger of the product.
The Peruvian Congressional Report also found that Bayer should compensate the families and surviving children for the losses they have suffered. Headquartered in Germany, Bayer and its Peruvian subsidiary, Bayer Peru, have been principal exporters, importers and distributors of both methyl and ethyl parathion.
The families filed a suit against Bayer in October 2001 asserting that the company should have taken steps to prevent the foreseeable misuse of this extremely toxic product, given the severe health risks presented by methyl parathion, and the prevalence of indigenous languages in the Peruvian countryside.
Two days after the suit was filed, the judge of the Superior Court of Lima found the case inadmissible on procedural grounds, and concluded summarily - and illegally - that the plaintiffs had not adequately made out the underlying substantive case. Under Peruvian law, in the initial stage of litigation the judge is authorised only to review the completeness of the filing papers, and may not decide substantive matters of law. The families successfully appealed the illegal resolution, and are currently waiting for a hearing date to be set for later this year.
The suit seeks justice for the children that perished, guarantees of medical monitoring for the surviving children, and regulatory reforms to prevent future tragedies. It also names the Ministry of Agriculture for failure to enforce pesticide regulations; uncontrolled sales of 'restricted use' pesticides including parathion are common throughout Peru.
The efforts of the Tauccamarca families and allied Peruvian non-governmental organisations have been backed by a wave of public support and have won important changes, including a ban on the sale of most formulations of methyl parathion.
As the World Summit on Sustainable Development takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, the families have written to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan requesting that he exclude Bayer from the UN Global Compact because of Bayer's actions in Peru. The Global Compact is a UN partnership with corporations that pledge to abide by human rights and environmental principles.
The letter was signed by Victoriano Huarayo Torres, representing the Village of Tauccamarca. Two of Mr Huarayo's children were among the 24 fatally poisoned.
He relates in the letter, 'In the intervening years [since the 1999 poisoning] the grieving parents in my village cannot understand how the United Nations could support a company like Bayer that has continued to sell its most toxic pesticides (classified by the WHO as extremely or highly hazardous) for many years after publicly promising to withdraw them in 1995. Nor can we understand why the United Nations would support a company that allowed methyl parathion to be sold in a region where they knew that the people would not be able to read the label instructions.' - Third World Network Features
About the writer Erika Rosenthal is the Legal Adviser for Pesticide Action Network Latin America.
The above article first appeared in Global Pesticide Campaigner (Vol. 12, No. 2, August 2002).
Sources: Peruvian Congressional Investigative Committee, Correspondence to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan from Victoriano Huarayo Torres, 27 August 2002; website of the UN Global Compact, http://126.96.36.199/un/gc/unweb.nsfl; Greenwash + 10 - The UN's Global Compact, Corporate Accountability, and The Johannesburg 'Earth Summit' by Corpwatch, http://www.corpwatch.org/campaigns/PCD.jsp?articleid=1348, CorpWatch, PO Box 29344, San Francisco, CA 94129 USA, phone: 415-561-6568, fax: 415-561-6493, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact: Erika Rosenthal, Pesticide Action Network Latin America (Red de Accion en Plaguicidas y sus Alternativas en America Latina, RAPAL), phone: 1 (510) 550-6752, email: email@example.com or Luis Gomero, Red de Accion en Alternativas al uso Agroquimicos (RAAA), Lima, Peru, fax: (511) 3375170/4257955, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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