Chlordecone in the French Caribbean: certain food procurement methods promote overexposure

ANSES has today published the results of its assessment of the health risks related to dietary exposure to chlordecone for the general population of the French Caribbean and for several sub-populations at risk of overexposure. The Agency’s expert appraisal led it to conclude that food acquired via unofficial supply channels (home production, gifts, food purchased from roadside stalls) may result in greater exposure to chlordecone than that observed with food acquired from regulated supply channels (medium and large retailers, markets, grocery stores). In addition, the Agency reconsidered the Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs, residue limits authorised in different foods) currently in force for chlordecone in foodstuffs of animal origin. These seem adequate for protecting the population in Guadeloupe and Martinique as part of a diet following the consumption recommendations. To limit the risk to overexposed populations, the Agency therefore recommends continuing to encourage abiding by the consumption recommendation.

Chlordecone was used for many years in the banana plantations of Martinique and Guadeloupe to combat weevils, a serious insect pest for banana crops. This pesticide, which is very persistent and highly bioaccumulative, has been prohibited since 1993. However, its persistence means that chlordecone is still present in the soil and can be found in certain vegetable and animal foodstuffs, as well as at certain intake points for water intended for human consumption.

Various studies on dietary exposure to chlordecone have been carried out in recent years, leading to the setting of Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). These studies have also highlighted a risk for certain sub-populations and identified new potentially contaminated foodstuffs. Specifically:

  • children between the ages of 3 and 6 and people consuming their own fish catches were notably more exposed than the rest of the population;
  • there was very little information about contamination of foodstuffs acquired via unofficial supply channels (home production, gifts, food bought from roadside stalls), although these foodstuffs are likely to contain high levels of contamination.

Dans ce contexte, l’Agence s’est autosaisie afin d’actualiser les données d’exposition par voie alimentaire pour évaluer les risques auxquels sont exposées les  populations antillaises et renouveler ses recommandations de consommation (étude Kannari). L’Anses a également été saisie afin de déterminer si les LMR actuellement en vigueur pour la chlordécone sont suffisamment protectrices pour la population guadeloupéenne et martiniquaise dans le cadre d’un régime alimentaire global, notamment pour les denrées carnées terrestres, ainsi que pour les produits de la mer et d’eau douce.

The Agency's recommendations

Exposure of the population to chlordecone

The Kannari study, set up by ANSES, Public Health France, and the regional health observatories with the support of the Regional Health Agencies of Martinique and Guadeloupe, characterised the exposure to chlordecone of the general population and the different sub-populations of the French Caribbean previously identified as being potentially overexposed.

The study also identified the procurement channels, areas of production and populations most at risk in terms of health.

An analysis of the link between food supply channels and exposure shows that informal supply channels (home production, gifts, food purchased from roadside stalls) result in greater exposure than that observed with food acquired from controlled supply channels (medium and large retailers, markets, grocery stores). The following situations in particular may lead to overexposure relative to the rest of the population:

  • consumption of home-grown produce, including eggs and poultry products, in a contaminated area, because of their high levels of contamination;
  • consumption more than four times per week of seafood fished or gathered by the consumers or acquired via informal channels;
  • consumption of freshwater products fished or gathered by the consumers or received as gifts;
  • consumption more than twice per week of roots and tubers produced in a contaminated area, which was found to be associated with the consumption of home-produced eggs and poultry.

It thus appears that the consumption of foodstuffs produced in contaminated zones can overexpose populations that do not follow the current consumption recommendations, namely not to consume fishery products more than four times per week and not to consume freshwater fishing produce.

Furthermore, the Agency recommends extending these current consumption recommendations to cover other produce acquired via informal unregulated channels, such as eggs.

The Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs)

The Agency’s expert appraisal shows that the exposure of individuals whose foodstuffs are acquired mainly via controlled channels, which ensure compliance with the MRLs, does not exceed the toxicity reference value (i.e. the maximum safety level in terms of exposure) for chlordecone. The MRLs in force for chlordecone in foodstuffs of animal origin therefore appear sufficiently protective.

In addition, the expert appraisal demonstrates that reducing the MRLs in force for chlordecone in foodstuffs of animal origin would not lower exposure to chlordecone. This is because this exposure is mostly related to the consumption of foodstuffs from informal channels in which there is no attempt to comply with the MRLs. For overexposed populations, the Agency therefore considers it more relevant to act by way of consumption recommendations rather than by lowering the MRLs.