Most of those strawberries that you can buy at any French supermarket at this time of the year come from Huelva in southern Spain, Europe’s biggest strawberry production hub. They look more or less edible and are priced to sell – at 2.20 euros for a 250 g packet, it is hard to say no. But what is the true cost of these berries when you look at a sobering backstory involving radioactive contamination in the vicinity and exploitation of seasonal immigrant workers?
Huelva has been host to an intensive hub of petrochemical activity – fertilizer factories, oil refinerie etc – since 1964, and was the site of a major incident of radioactive contamination in 1998 when a scrap metal processing plant run by Acerinox leaked Cesium-137 and released a radioactive cloud. Last year Greenpeace discovered Cesium-137 in the marshes near the El Tinto river, just 500 metres from the city of Huelva, during radiation safety training. At the time of the accident, Spanish authorities chose not to handle the cesium ashes as nuclear waste, but assured the world that the dangerous radioactive material had been safely disposed of and isolated from the environment.
Several recent studies have focused attention on the health fallout of that accident.
The first, led by Professor Benach of the Pompeu University of Barcelona, showed that the province of Huelva had a cancer mortality rate which was 25 percent higher than the national norm. The second, published in the summer of 2007 bu the Juan Carlos III University, confirmed a worrying health situation. Around 30 residents’ associations have mobilized to express their concern. Fertiberia, a huge fertilizers plant, has poured some 120 million tonnes of phosphogypsum, a radioactive residue produced by transforming phosphorite into phosphorus, into the nearby marshes over the past 40 years, making the marshland “one of the largests dumps of industrial waste in the world”, according to Carlos Bravo, who heads up the nuclear energy campaign for Greenpeace, Spain.
Greenpeace has asked the European Parliament to pressure Spain to acknowledge that two rubbish dumps in Huelva – Fertiberia and Foret – are radioactive areas. Tests carried out at these sites show that levels of radioactivity are more than 25 times the maximum permitted levels by law. Last October, Greenpeace commissioned a study by France’s Criirad (Commission de Recherche et d’Information indépendantes sur la Radioactivité) which revealed that the soil in the area contained the presence of uranium 238 and 235 and thorium 232 in unusually high concentrations, and also polonium 210, the same element which led to the death of Russian spy Litvinenko, and radon 222 (a known carcinogen) and gamma radiation which is “5 to 38 times higher than the normal level”, according to Bruno Chareyon, the nuclear energy physicist in charge of the study.
Despite these conclusions, the government of Andalusia has refused to carry out an epidemiological study. Local associations are counting on the results of the European Parliament study, expected this year, to confirm their worst fears.
Huelva province accounts for 90 percent of the total strawberry production in Spain and 30 percent of the European Union. While there have not been any scientific studies casting doubt on the safety of these strawberries, it is hard not to flinch when you look at how close the strawberry fields are to the contaminated industrial area. The strawberries are bedded under plastic and need large quantities of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and lots of man hours of picking time. In recent years the work force has shifted from being a mix of North African and Andalusian day workers to migrants from Romania because the former had started to organize themselves and demand rights. Many of the North Africans decided to stay on despite the lack of work, living in unsanitary conditions in plastic shantytowns near the strawberry villages in the hope of occasional work during the peak harvest times. All in all, not a pretty picture. For the time being I’m sticking with apples and pears.