Battle Brewing in Sauternes Over Pesticide Use in Vineyards

An investigation finds abnormally high cancer rates among kids in one small town, but is the fear exaggerated?
Battle Brewing in Sauternes Over Pesticide Use in Vineyards
A Sauternes vineyard—a report on cancer rates has upset locals. (ThinkStock/Pack-Shot)
Oct 2, 2015

A report by French health agencies has found an unexpectedly high number of cancer cases in children in a village in Bordeaux's Sauternes region, raising questions about pesticide use by grapegrowers. But the report did not recommend action and was released quietly, leading concerned locals to ask whether public officials and the wine industry are trying to ignore a potentially serious health problem. Wine industry members point to the limited scope of the report and insist they are not the problem.

An investigation by the French Agence Régionale Santé (ARS), the regional health agency, and Institut de Veille Sante (InVS), the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance, found that in Preignac, a town in the Sauternes appellation, children below the age of 15 were five times more likely to suffer from certain cancers linked to pesticide exposure than the national average.

Isolated incidents or a troubling trend?

Preignac is a village of 2,151 inhabitants, including 368 children. Over the past 14 years, there have been four cases of children developing cancer, compared to the 0.8 cases expected by national averages. "They all attend the public school, live in Preignac and were born in Preignac," said the ARS and InVS report. When the researchers widened the study zone to include nearby communities like Barsac, Loupiac, Fargues and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, there were nine cases between 2000 and 2012, a lower rate but still nearly twice the national average.

The investigation only looked at cancers with proven links to pesticides. And national pediatric records offered them limited data. The authors cited research that has found a strong association between exposure to pesticides and leukemia, brain cancer and congenital malformations in children, and that adults exposed to pesticides during work run higher risks of developing Parkinson's disease, prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and several forms of myeloma, a cancer of blood plasma cells.

But the report admits that the investigation was limited in scope. There was no data on the number of times local growers sprayed the vines, or the products used, or the levels of airborne pesticides. Nor did they test any children.

"To what extent were they exposed to pesticides?" said Jean-Francois Narbonne, a professor at the University of Bordeaux and expert on toxicology. “We have the tools to measure exposure to pesticides. It’s very easy to do with urine samples, dozens of urine samples, but the people have to accept urine tests for their children.”

And the authors did not name the pesticides used in Preignac, though locals report they are typical brands used across France. Government data from 2003 showed that 70 percent of France's vineyards were treated with glyphosate, an herbicide. The fungicides Folpel and sulfur were used in more than half of French vineyards.

Last spring, France's national cancer research center labeled glyphosate a probable carcinogen. In the United States, health agencies have designated Folpel a probable carcinogen. The ASR and InSV ordered a study in 2013 on the use of Folpel in the Gironde, the greater Bordeaux area.

"Studies conducted in other vineyard communities in the Gironde show the presence of pesticides in the air (notably fungicides) during periods of spraying, near the plots of vines," wrote the authors. "In addition, the school is contiguous to a plot of vines where spraying was done during school hours. Thus there exists the possibility that school children are exposed to sprayed pesticides, even if we can't quantify it at this time."

When contacted by Wine Spectator, the owner of the 3.7-acre vineyard near the school, Château Gilette, denied having sprayed during school hours. "We spray between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.," said Julie Gonet.

Although the town's tiny population means the study looked at a small sample size, the report concluded, "The contribution of pesticides to the risk of cancer cannot be excluded. Reduction of pesticide exposure and the set up of health surveillance are recommended."

What has angered some locals is that while the investigators stated that demonstrating the link between exposure to pesticides and cancer required "a large-scale study," they conclude that "a continued investigation is not justified."

A growing tempest

Pesticide use by farmers, particularly vignerons, has become a controversial topic in France and especially in Bordeaux. The daughter of a winemaker from Entre-deux-Mers filed a motion for legal action this summer, calling his death from lung cancer "involuntary homicide." He had sprayed pesticides on his vines for 40 years, including sodium arsenite, now banned as a carcinogen. Younger vignerons are demanding more transparency regarding risk factors.

Jean-Pierre Manceau, the former mayor of Preignac, was the official who first raised concerns over cancer rates in his town to the health agencies. Manceau was a technical director and health and safety engineer at Bordeaux University for two decades before serving as mayor. In 2012, a teacher at the local elementary school told him about cases of sick children.

Manceau was already fed up with growers who refused to heed calls to stop spraying vines near the school during school hours. He contacted health authorities at the ARS. "I asked them to investigate, and they came with the InVS. The first meeting was in March 2013, then a preliminary report in October 2013." It took another 22 months before the final report was published, at a time in August when most of the nation was on vacation.

The final report has now begun to circulate, but the reaction from local wine trade and the CIVB, the industry's trade group, has been muted. One Preignac mother whose son was diagnosed with leukemia in 1999 said she only learned of the report through the media and is considering filing charges of endangerment.

Manceau believes his outspokenness on the issue cost him re-election. "The CIVB—they say nothing. They want to bury it just like the pesticide manufacturers," said Manceau. "The winegrowers, they think that if it's for sale, it's safe to use. But at the same time, they are being told that workers need to use protective clothing when using the pesticides."

CIVB president Bernard Farges vehemently rejected accusations that the wine trade is trying to ignore a threat. "If the conclusions in the report had shown a direct link of causality, do you believe the profession would accept it without holding the government in charge of authorized products accountable?" said Farges. "Remember that we use products authorized by the state."

But regulations on the use of approved pesticides are few and difficult to enforce, according to Nadine Lauverjat at Generations Futures, an anti-pesticide watch group. Growers shouldn't spray if the wind is greater than 12 miles per hour. French lawmakers have recently approved measures that mandate using directional nozzles to reduce the spread of airborne molecules. Spraying is banned within 150 feet of a school. But studies have shown that the wind carries airborne pesticide molecules farther.

Franck Dubourdieu, an enologist and proponent of organic grapegrowing, grew up in Barsac, next to Sauternes, and is a cousin of Denis Dubourdieu, one of the region's most respected enologists. Franck's father was a vigneron who died of Parkinson's, something he now wonders about. "I once sold pesticides as an enologist," he told Wine Spectator. "My father used them for 30 years. At the time, we didn't connect Parkinson's with pesticides."

But Dubourdieu says many in the industry continue to reject evidence linking pesticides to diseases. "They say it's possible, but not for sure. It will take winning lawsuits to change policies."

Environment Health France Bordeaux News

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