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A mysterious epidemic is devastating the Pacific coast of Central America, killing more than 24,000 people in El Salvador and Nicaragua since 2000 and striking thousands of others with chronic kidney disease at rates unseen virtually anywhere else. Scientists say they have received reports of the phenomenon as far north as southern Mexico and as far south as Panama.
The real issue, they think, is the nature of and circumstances around the work itself, which generally involve long hours in sweltering temps without adequate water or rest. Sugar cane cutters, many of whom start as young as 10, push their bodies through repeated bouts of dehydration and stress, both of which can at least temporarily diminish kidney function. Over time, the recurrent attacks could cause long-term damage.
...Elsy Brizuela, a doctor who works with an El Salvadoran project to treat workers and research the epidemic, insists that the culprit “is exposure to herbicides and poisons.” Her claim is partially supported by the fact that the highest rates of disease occur around the Ingenio San Antonio, a plant owned by the Pellas Group, which processes nearly half of Nicaragua’s sugar. But it’s also at least partially disproved by a study from Catharina Wesseling, MD, PhD, an epidemiologist and regional director of the Program on Work, Health, and Environment in Central America.
Wesseling tested groups who had similar work habits and pesticide exposure but who were employed under different circumstances — i.e., at sea level versus above it. She found that coastal dwellers were more likely to have chemical markers of kidney failure, suggesting that the common denominator was the conditions of the work, not the chemicals, an idea that is backed by evidence of high disease rates in other hot farming areas around the world.
“I think that everything points away from pesticides,” Wesseling told the AP. It is too multinational; it is too spread out. I would place my bet on repeated dehydration, acute attacks everyday. That is my bet, my guess, but nothing is proved.”