Chile's fresh fruit export industry was sharply criticized on 24 September by the president of the Party for Democracy (PPD), who claimed that the industry's excessive reliance on agrotoxins has resulted in an alarmingly high incidence of birth defects in Rancagua, one of the country's most important fresh fruit growing areas.

According to Dep. Guido Girardi, a study conducted between 1996 and 1998 by Jimena Barraza, former head of the Genetics Unit of Rancagua Hospital, showed that of 10,000 babies born in the area during those years, 442 have significant birth defects as a result of exposure to agricultural chemicals. This is 4.42% higher than the national incidence rate.

Girardi called for new regulations in the manufacturing and use of chemicals in Chile's agricultural community, pointed to a 1997 Institute of Public Health study, which discovered above-normal levels of 4 dangerous pesticides in one domestic tomato. He added that the law introduced in February 1999 to regulate the presence of chemical pesticides in food products quickly became obsolete because it failed to provide a mechanism for incorporating changes in international standards.

Girardi alleged that agricultural businesses, which grossed US$1.4bn in export revenue last season, use many toxic substances that are discontinued or non-registered, all without providing adequate safety measures. He said: "Chile still uses 40 pesticides that are prohibited in other countries, which produces extremely serious consequences ranging from environmental contamination to birth defects." Of these, 388000 kilos of the dangerous pesticide Paraquax is imported into Chile every year, of which 342,000 kilos are used in the Region VI/Rancagua area.

Supporting Girardi, the Rancagua Hospital Director Dr. Marcelo Ruiz, noted that 39.5% of the agrotoxins used in Chile are concentrated in Region VI. Region VII to the south represents only 16% of agrotoxin use, while the northern Region V uses 3.5%. Region IV uses 5.5%, and the Metropolitan Region 21.9%. Ruiz also revealed that he is currently treating four children with severe birth defects, three with neurological problems and the fourth with Down Syndrome, "and this does not take into account the high incidence of abortions related to unviable pregnancies."

Exporters Rebut Accusations

Ronald Bown, Fresh Fruit Exporters Association president, protested: "These charges are completely lacking in any kind of factual basis. It is absolutely false that products outlawed in other countries are being used in Chile."

Bown added that the greatest incidence birth defects in Chile is in Region II, not V1, and that Girardi's allegations were biased and made for political purposes: "The seriousness of these unfounded charges warrants, in our opinion, a consistent coordinated effort by government authorities to set the record straight."