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Kidney disease kills thousands in sugar cane fields

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In The Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News, Sasha Chavkin and Ronnie Greene write that, “Little noticed by the rest of the world, chronic kidney disease (CKD) is cutting a swath through one of the world’s poorest populations, along a stretch of Central America’s Pacific Coast that spans six countries and nearly 700 miles. Its victims are manual laborers, mostly sugarcane workers.”

Each year from 2005 to 2009, kidney failure killed more than 2,800 men in Central America, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists‘ analysis of the latest World Health Organization data. In El Salvador and Nicaragua alone over the last two decades, the number of men dying from kidney disease has risen fivefold. Now more men are dying from the ailment than from HIV/AIDS, diabetes and leukemia combined.

Unlike in more developed nations, neither diabetes nor hypertension can be blamed for the widespread kidney ailments. Instead, the duo found, scientists suspect possible environmental toxins and strenuous labor conditions, both linked to the cane fields, as well as alcohol abuse and anti-inflammatory drug use. At present, researchers seem to be focusing on heat stress as the most likely culprit, and plantation owners seem to concur

Internal studies by Nicaragua Sugar, owners of one of Central America’s largest sugar plantations, provided by the company to ICIJ, show that the company has long had evidence of an epidemic tied to heat stress and dehydration. In 2001, company doctor Felix Zelaya conducted an internal study on the causes of CKD among its workers. “Strenuous labor with exposure to high environmental temperatures without an adequate hydration program predisposes workers to heat stress syndrome [heat stroke], which is an important factor in the development of CKD,” Zelaya concluded.

Nicaragua Sugar and other companies say they have acted voluntarily to protect workers by improving hydration, reducing work hours, and strengthening oversight of labor contractors.

Chavkin and Greene dig deep into the economic and political factors underlying the global response to the epidemic, as well as the day-to-day impact it all has on workers’ lives. For more, read their full investigation.