Village 'in Denial' as Shadow of Childhood Cancer Looms Over Sauternes Wine Region

Published: 28th September 2015 08:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th September 2015 08:09 AM   |  A+A-

From the windows of their whitewashed school, Preignac's 300 nursery and primary pupils look over the verdant vineyards of Sauternes.

The grapes are ripe and will soon be turned into the most acclaimed sweet white wines in the world.

Yet the price for keeping the fabled grapes in good health may have been the pupils' classmates' lives.

Preignac, population 2,200, has a child cancer rate five times the national average and a new report has said scientists cannot "exclude" the possibility of a link to pesticides sprayed on the vines yards from the school.

Yet the man who first raised concerns insists the village and region is still in denial about the risks.

In December 2012, Jean-Pierre Manceau, Preignac's former mayor and a researcher at the renowned CNRS national science research centre, alerted authorities to its cancer rate. Parents and teachers had expressed concerns after four cases among children.

A 2013 report by France's national science and medical research institute, Inserm, found that "exposure to pesticides", including those used on vineyards, during early childhood could "pose a particularly high risk for a child's development", and drew links to child leukaemia.

Another report noted the presence of Folpel in the surrounding Gironde region - a fungicide deemed a "probable carcinogen" in the US.

In the lights of these reports, France's national health monitoring institute, InSV, and the regional health agency, ASR, ordered a study on cancer cases among local children in 2013.

Their report was published on Aug 5, while most of France was on holiday, and almost went unnoticed until a local alerted Le Parisien, a newspaper.

In careful terms, it said that given the relatively small number of cases - nine in 14 years - "the excess of cancer remains moderate".

But it went on: "The contribution of pesticides to the risk of cancer cannot be excluded." It advised local authorities to ensure wine growers did not spray at playtime or "at least warn the headmistress". It told them to erect protective hedges, aerate classrooms and "wash play area equipment".

Most villagers remain nonplussed, saying that if the products were toxic, they would not be on the market.

Mr Manceau said: "There is a law of silence because Sauternes is the lifeblood of the village ... If tomorrow we get rid of treatment with pesticides, the local economy of Sauternes wine will collapse."

He is calling for a wider study on adults in the region, saying local hospital sources have told him the number of cancer cases is "rocketing".

Last year, a primary class in nearby Villeneuve was intoxicated by products sprayed on vineyards while the wind was blowing. The teacher ended up in hospital. The government hastily banned, under certain conditions, spraying within 50 yards of schools.

Pascale Mothes, whose son Lucas was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1999, said she only learnt of the latest report from the news and was now considering filing for charges of "endangering others' lives".

In Preignac, Jean-Gilbert Bapsalle, the current mayor, has pledged to buy the vineyard nearest the school and create a 200-metre buffer zone.

But he added: "One cannot say there is a problem. We need to remain vigilant about possible problems for the whole region, not necessarily in Preignac. Let's let the grape harvest run its course. Sauternes is very important for the region and a bunch of grapes costs very dear."

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