Medical experts examining pesticides and labor conditions as probable suspects
A new form of chronic kidney disease has been taking a deadly toll across Central America's "sugar belt," where sugar cane is harvested, from Mexico across to Costa Rica. Workers in the fields have fallen ill and died, as chronic kidney disease rates have begun to climb in poor farming communities.
Dubbed "chronic kidney disease of unknown causes," the condition has killed at least 20,000 people, and probably many more. The exact cause of the illness is uncertain -- but there are myriad suspects.
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Sugar cane fields are drenched in toxic agrochemicals. Cane cutters risk heat stress toiling long hours in sauna-like conditions. In addition, the fields they work are perfect for propagating deadly rat-borne pathogens.
The chronic condition is hitting communities the hardest in the volcano-studded plains of Nicaragua and neighboring El Salvador. Illnesses and deaths from chronic kidney disease are now four times the global rate. In El Salvador, it is currently the leading cause of hospital deaths for men.
Many laborers have died in the rural community of La Isla, or The Island, so much so that it has become known as "The Island of Widows." In Chichigalpa, the company town for Nicaragua's largest sugar producer, Ingenio San Antonio, almost a third of working-age men now have irreversible kidney damage.
Most puzzling about the sickness is that it breaks with known patterns of chronic kidney disease in industrialized nations. The condition is usually linked to high blood pressure and diabetes associated with aging and obesity. In the United States, the condition is slightly more common among women than men, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The epidemic rampaging across Central America is three times more prevalent among men, most of them farmworkers under 60 years of age who exhibit none of the other known causes.
The highly toxic agrochemicals sprayed and dusted on fields throughout Central America is the chief suspect behind the cause of the new epidemic.
In El Salvador, farmworkers said they applied extremely toxic weed killers including Paraquat and deadly organophosphate pesticides to their land using backpack sprayers -- without any more protection than a long-sleeved shirt.
"We didn't use masks, gloves or eye protection ... it was in direct contact with the skin," one farmer admitted.
Yet another theory is that kidney damage is wrought by repeated dehydration in the sun-blasted sugarcane fields, where machete-wielding laborers paid by the ton work week round at harvest time in temperatures above 90 degrees. The cane cutters could also be aggravating damage by slaking their thirst with high-fructose sodas that can harm kidneys, researchers said.
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