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The Hidden Dangers of Chlordane: A Health and Safety Perspective

Once widely used in the French Caribbean to combat banana weevil infestations between 1972 and 1993, chlordane, a persistent organochlorine pesticide, has become a significant public health issue. Although its production and use are now banned, the legacy of its stability and toxicity continues to affect populations.

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Chlordane, with a molecular formula of C10Cl10O, is known for its strong affinity and retention capability in organic soils and hydrophobic compounds, combined with low volatility and water solubility. This chemical tenacity means that chlordane mainly enters the body orally and tends to accumulate in the liver rather than adipose tissues, posing a unique challenge for environmental and biological detoxification.

Chronic Toxicity and Community Impact

Beyond the liver, chlordane can cross the placental barrier, exacerbating liver damage caused by other hepatotoxic agents. Classified as a potential human carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor, its acute toxicity can trigger specific neurological disorders such as intentional tremors, motor incoordination, mood and speech disturbances, memory problems, and erratic eye movements, as well as testicular changes and functional hepatomegaly known as Kepone syndrome.

In nearly 90% of exposed individuals, chlordane levels in the blood hover around 1µg/L. However, occupational exposure in the banana farming sector does not significantly differ from non-agricultural sectors concerning sperm characteristics. Nonetheless, the presence of the substance in breast milk is concerning and is linked to premature births and reduced pregnancy duration, with developmental challenges observed in exposed children. Furthermore, there is a strong suspicion that prostate cancer cases may increase with chlordane exposure.

Recent comparisons of Toxicological Reference Values with chlordane levels in the blood and dietary exposure from the Kannari study (2013-2014) reveal that a portion of the population in the French Antilles may risk exceeding these safety thresholds. Among adults in Guadeloupe and Martinique, 14% and 25%, respectively, exceed the internal chronic Toxicological Reference Value, underscoring the urgent need to reduce exposure levels.

Exposure and Occupational Disease

To mitigate chlordane exposure through food, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) advises:

  • Limiting the consumption of locally sourced seafood to four times a week.
  • Avoiding freshwater fish from prohibited fishing areas.
  • Restricting the consumption of roots and tubers from known contaminated areas to twice a week. However, fruits from family gardens in these areas can be consumed without restrictions.

In its expertise on occupational diseases, the agency has identified a probable causal relationship between chlordane exposure and an increased risk of prostate cancer, primarily based on the Karuprostate study and toxicological data. As a result, two occupational disease codes, number 102 for the general scheme and number 61 for the agricultural scheme, have been established within the social security system, recognizing prostate cancer linked to pesticide exposure, including chlordane, as an occupational disease.

In conclusion:

These alarming findings and subsequent guidelines underscore the importance of vigilance and regulatory measures to protect workers and the general public from the long-term effects of historical pesticide use.

Philippe Casanova

Specialist in occupational medicine and forensic medicine.