Bringing in close to $700 million in 2010, pineapple is one of Costa Rica’s most lucrative exports. In the last decade, the country increased the amount of hectares it cultivates for pineapple by more than 300 percent. The industry provides jobs for some 135,000 Costa Ricans.
However, despite the large economic stimulus the fruit provides, it has a negative connotation for many Ticos. Costa Rica’s pineapple industry has been associated with the deterioration and erosion of soils, the destruction of ecosystems and the contamination of water supplies.
Perhaps the most contentious, recent allegations against the pineapple industry came in 2008, when pineapple producers Hacienda Ojo de Agua and Fruitex were accused of contaminating the water of four rural communities with chemical herbicides. Groundwater in the rural Caribbean slope communities of Cairo, Francia, Milano and Luisiana, Siquirres, were found to have traces of the herbicide bromacil. In 2007, before allegations were made against the companies, the Ministry of Health began supplying local residents of the area with drinking water. Many experts believe the contamination dates back to the 1990s.
Bromacil is an herbicide used for brush control on many different kinds of citrus plants throughout the world. It is considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be a possible human carcinogen because there is limited evidence that it can cause cancer in animals receiving high doses of the chemical over the course of their lifetimes.
On Thursday, members of environmental groups, the Costa Rican government and representatives for pineapple workers met to discuss a potential course of action for what they perceive to be 10 years of water contamination in the district. The meeting was held in the auditorium of the Economics Department at the University of Costa Rica, or UCR.
“Regulations against pesticides and other agrochemicals exist, however they are out of date and difficult to enforce,” said Moisés Salgado, a UCR representative and one of the conference’s organizers. He said the rapid expanse and widespread nature of the industry makes it difficult to regulate and one of the reasons why little action has been taken to reign in the use of agrochemicals.
Experts say the thick outer skin of pineapples absorb residue from fertilizer and pesticides, making the fruit on the inside relatively safe to eat. However, due to large-scale spraying of pesticides, insecticides, fertilizer and other biochemicals by Costa Rican pineapple growers, some of the residue from agrochemicals leaches into the soil.
Pineapple cultivation in Costa Rica uses a wide variety of agrochemicals. Pesticides are prevalent in groundwater supplies because they have chemical properties that make them leachable, said a local agronomist, who asked that his name be withheld because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of his employer.
“Through infiltration runoff, [chemicals] make it into the watershed. It happens with fertilizers, soaps and a lot of things in households as well,” the expert said.
Later, the dirt particles are carried to rivers and groundwater supply by water used for irrigation. Scientists are still trying to determine whether or not exposure to bromacil and other pesticides over a long period of time will lead to health risks.
“How much is enough and whether someone is going to have a negative reaction is very difficult to determine,” the expert said. “There are some studies that have established a link between bromacil and cancer. Going off those you would expect that if the community consumes this chemical every day, then the risk of developing cancer is going to be higher in that community.”
Because medical symptoms from many agrochemicals result after consistent exposure over a very long period of time, it is difficult for scientists to establish a link between the substances and medical illness.
“You aren’t going to have people vomiting or passing out,” the agronomist said. “We are talking about really small amounts of this substance being consumed over a long period of time.”
In some countries where bromacil is currently illegal a link has been established between the substance and some forms of kidney disease, cancer and nervous system problems.