Thousands exposed to Shell's toxic waste in Brazil

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Former workers at a Brazilian chemical plant operated by Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell are relieved that a court has ordered the company to pay hundreds of millions of euros in compensation for their exposure to toxic substances.

Workers at the plant suffered health problems including high blood pressure and cancer. The factory in the Paulinia district of São Paulo, founded by Shell in 1977 and later taken over by German chemical giant BASF, was closed down in 2002.

The court ruled that Shell and BASF should help pay for the treatment of physical and mental health problems suffered by the ex-workers and their families.

In the early 1990s an international research agency found that the land and groundwater around the factory were contaminated with pesticides. The substances are known to be carcinogenic and affect the central nervous system.

Later, in 2001, the Brazilian branch of Greenpeace issued a report which stated that the site was heavily polluted and that people living in the area were exposed to the toxic waste.

Hard evidence
Shell initially admitted the pollution came from its factory, says Bruno Brocchi, a lawyer representing some of the plaintiffs. “But once the workers and their families started to take Shell to court, its position changed and they have since said that none of the plaintiffs have been able to actually provide hard evidence of the resulting damages to their health”, he told RNW.

Mr Brocchi says that early reports already showed that the soil, the waterbed and the land in the Paulinia area were contaminated “due to the handling of toxic chemicals, many of which were already forbidden in a great number of countries throughout the world”.

'Breathing in the smoke'
The family Mr Brocchi represents used to live near the Shell site for over 30 years, “drinking the water, breathing in the smoke and being exposed to the contaminated environment”, he says. The family, like many others, has been forced to move away from the land because of the difficult living conditions.

“All of them have suffered and are still suffering”, Mr Brocchi says. “More than the physical damages, probably more severe is the mental damage done. Being removed from their homes and having to face the reality of living in a hotel room for over three years has taken its toll on this family”.

Shell has so far declined to comment, except that it has announced it will appeal the verdict. BASF in Germany has said that it refuses to accept responsibility as it became the owner of the land long after the pollution had taken place.

There has been widespread support for the ex-workers in Brazil from environmental and human rights organisations and trade unions. Brazil’s chemical workers union is home to the Association of Workers Exposed to Chemical Substances (Asteq), led by former Shell worker Antonio de Marco Rasteiro.

He has suffered from various illnesses, such as blood and ocular hypertension, hearing loss and lung cancer. In 2009, he was awarded the International Health & Safety Award by the American Public Health Assocation for his work at Asteq.

Pay back
He has been supporting the families in the ongoing court case and has expressed his joy over this week’s verdict. “But I and many of the people in Asteq have paid a heavy price”, he told reporters in São Paulo. “Now it’s time for Shell and BASF to pay back – literally”.

“The 500 million euros will be divided among the many former workers represented in the lawsuit”, Mr Brocchi explains. “Shell is also to pay for medical treatment and health plans for the workers, as long as they are able to prove they have suffered from some kind of disease caused by the chemicals”.

However, he fears the healing process will be slowed down further more now that Shell has announced its appeal.

For the ex-workers and their families, this week’s verdict is a bittersweet victory after a long wait. “But many people have already died”, Mr Brocchi says. “And many people are still suffering. I don’t have the numbers, but they are scary”.