Why is a mysterious kidney disease killing sugar-cane workers in Central America?

"It goes by many names, but around here they call it 'the malady of the sugar cane," writes Will Storr in the Guardian. A quiet epidemic has been preying on Central American sugar field laborers for decades, and it is killing more and more each year. "Between 2005 and 2009, incidents in El Salvador rose by 26%. By 2011 the chronic kidney disease (CKD) had become the country's second-biggest killer of men." But what exactly is it?


  1. You have to suspect pesticide poisoning, kidney damage is a frequent result. And the idea that it is chronic dehydration seems pretty absurd.

    1. Apparently team epidemiology also started with that conclusion; but ran into complications:

      ” In the Nicaraguan sugar fields they found rates of CKD in cane cutters and seed cutters – the most strenuous jobs – to be higher than in pesticide applicators, who have greater exposure to agrochemicals. In short, it’s more heat that seems to correlate with more disease, and not more chemicals. “We also tested construction workers, stevedores and miners, excluding people who had ever worked at a cane company,” he says. “They had elevated levels, too. And what do they all seem to have in common? They’re high manual-labour jobs.” A further study, published in the American Journal of Kidney Disease, found increased levels of kidney damage in El Salvador’s hot, low-lying areas but not in its cooler high-altitude sugar plantations, despite similarities in agrochemical use. “

  2. Working conditions in that industry are bad and may worsen in the future:

    From a 2009 article:

    “In 2007, [Monsanto] began a partnership with CanaVialis and Allelyx to develop varieties of sugar cane genetically modified for resistance to glyphosate (Roundup Ready). Then, at the end of 2008, it decided to buy out both companies for US$280 million, suddenly catapulting Monsanto into the position of the world’s largest sugar cane breeding company.”

    “Monsanto is clear that its intention is to use CanaVialis’ network of corporate clients and its germplasm collection as the basis for a widespread introduction of GM sugar cane.” (no idea if they’ve already deployed GM sugar cane; this info is from 2009)

    “The environmental and health impacts of a GM sugar cane boom will also be severe. While Roundup Ready sugarcane might simplify herbicide applications, the experience of Roundup Ready soya in Latin America shows how it fosters an abusive use of pesticides. [24] Because the crops are genetically modified to tolerate high levels of glyphosate, fields are drenched with the stuff, often sprayed by planes, with complete disregard for the impact on surrounding communities.”

    “Farm workers are often the worst affected by such pesticide practices. Jorge Chullén of the International Union of Food Workers says that the problem of pesticides for workers in sugar cane plantations has intensified in recent years, particularly because there is an increasing tendency for the mills to outsource the application of pesticides, among other field operations, to contractors, thus evading their responsibilities to their workers. He describes the working conditions with these outsourcing operations as “horrible” and says that the practice is further deteriorating safety standards for workers.”

    Source: http://www.grain.org/article/entries/740-corporate-candyland

  3. Same shit, different crop, alas.  In the 90’s it was banana crops and pesticides; same initial dodging RE “dehydration” and other dodging.  It came to the point where the pesticide manufacturers started to showboat with the banana plantations, offering safety gear and doing monthly “skin punch” tests to test for contamination levels until the press cooled off.


  4. Purplecat’s BBC article says one company is enforcing an hour long lunch break and giving oral rehydration drinks. If this reduces the incidence than we have a suspect. I’m betting that the cause will be an accidental synergy between multiple factors probably including dehydration since non-agricultural workers like miners have it too and pestdicide sprayers have lesser amount of the disease. Also,the lower incidence in high altitude i.e. cooler plantations supports this

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