Agrochemicals firm Syngenta says there is no proof that an insecticide produced at a Swiss factory it took over in the late 1990s gave some employees cancer.
Swiss weekly L’Hebdo reported on Thursday that cases of bladder cancer around Monthey in canton Valais could be related to exposure to Galecron.
The insecticide, used mainly on cotton plants, was produced by Ciba-Geigy from 1966 to 1976, and from 1978 to 1988. It was taken off the market because of potential risks to users.
Chlordimeform, the active ingredient, is believed to have toxic effects on exposed individuals. According to the International Programme on Chemical Safety, available information supports a link between an increased incidence of bladder cancer and the substance.
Basel-based Syngenta was never involved in the production or sale of Galecron.
But it did take over the Monthey facility, where chlordimeform was produced.
According to L’Hebdo, the area around the factory has reported a larger than usual number of bladder cases. The only urologist in the region, Henri Bitschin, told the magazine that there had been 30 suspicious deaths in the past 20 years.
"I am sure this number is higher here than it is among similar populations," he said.
Bitschin admits, however, that his evaluation is not backed up by any statistics and he could not say whether the cases were linked to the production site.
The director of the Syngenta factory in Monthey says the company has been on the case since it took over from Ciba, and has pursued a health-screening programme for employees.
"Nine cases of bladder cancer have been considered to be work-related by a federal insurance scheme," said Mauricio Ranzi on Friday.
Ranzi added that current and former employees whose health was being monitored were aware of the reason behind the checks.
Company spokeswoman Emilie Vincent told swissinfo that Syngenta recognised that cases of bladder cancer existed, but said there was no proof that the insecticide was solely responsible for incidents of the disease.
"We express our deepest sympathy to the people affected... but we cannot be sure that these cases are directly linked to exposure to Galecron," said Vincent.
"In cases of bladder cancer there are many factors, such as smoking and not having a healthy diet."
The head of the cantonal medical board believes there is nothing in the statistics to back up claims of more bladder-cancer cases.
"The figures we have seen so far give us no reason to take any steps," said Georges Dupuis.
Dupuis said he would be keeping a closer eye on the issue over the next few years.
The unions are not satisfied with Syngenta’s response to the allegations made by L’Hebdo.
Unia, Switzerland’s biggest labour association, has promised to pay legal costs for any sick employees or the families of deceased workers if they want to launch a class-action suit against Syngenta.
The union’s local representative also wants to meet with the factory’s management to find out if there are other potential health problems.
Syngenta said it had "no comment" to make on the potential threat of legal action.
"We can't say anything for the time being. We are waiting for Unia to make the next move," said Vincent.
This is not the first time Galecron has made headlines.
Syngenta’s predecessor, Ciba-Geigy, agreed to cover costs for health monitoring and treatment in the United States as part of an $80 million settlement agreement of class-action litigation involving the insecticide in Alabama in 1995.
The settlement included compensation for individuals found to be suffering from bladder disease. At the time, Ciba-Geigy stated that this settlement did not assign liability or wrongdoing to the company.
swissinfo with agencies
The merger of Switzerland's Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz gave birth to a number of new companies.
The biggest is Novartis, which is specialised in pharmaceuticals.
At the end of 1999, Novartis's agrochemicals business was merged with a division of the British-Swedish concern, Astra Zeneca, to become Syngenta.
Ciba Speciality Chemicals merged the fine-chemicals divisions of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz.
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