Page last updated at 23:23 GMT, Monday, 25 August 2008 00:23 UK

The Rhone: France's poisoned artery

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Port St Louis

Beneath the waters of the Rhone, which flows through some of France's key tourists spots - from Lyon, to Avignon and on to the Camargue nature reserve - lurks an environmental disaster so grave that it has been described as "the French Chernobyl".

A family fish stall
Since the scare, the Manoukian family sell few freshwater fish at their stall
Jean Luc Fontaine's backyard is an Aladdin's cave of nets, eel traps, bait boxes and buoys.

His three fishing boats, caked in dust, are propped up on trailers, with stale-smelling fishing nets spilling over the edge.

Mr Fontaine peers inside one of the boats and swishes his hand in a puddle of stagnant water that has collected on the bottom.

"All this equipment has just been lying here rotting for over a year," he told me.

"I've been a river fisherman for 25 years and all this stuff here is my life."

He threads his fingers through one of the nets. "I made some of this stuff with my own hands. One day I was working, the next I was just told to stop."

Along the length of the Rhone, from Lyon down to the Camargue estuary, river fisherman have been ordered by the French government to moor up their boats.

Last year, a dredge of the Rhone showed contaminated sediment in its bed and a local fisherman, concerned that birds seemed to be dying around the Grand Large area, just outside Lyon, sent some of his catch to a laboratory to be tested.

The fish contained 12 times the legal safety limit of the toxic chemicals polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

Pollution link

Environmental pressure groups, convinced the pollution would be carried through the food chain, pressed the government to start screening humans and this summer scores of Rhone inhabitants were tested by Asef, an independent group of doctors who are increasingly concerned about the effects of pollution on human health.

Fisherman Jean Luc Fontaine
I've been a river fisherman for 25 years and all this stuff here is my life. All this equipment has just been lying here rotting for over a year
Jean Luc Fontaine

The results were alarming. Those who have regularly swum in or eaten fish from the river, often have 20 times more PCBs in their blood than those who have not.

Sixty-five-year-old Dr Henri Ceresola spent much of his boyhood playing in the river at Arles and its perch, bream and eel have made up the principal part of his diet.

A recent blood test showed he has 100 picogrammes of PCBs in his blood. Most of us have around 0-10 picogrammes.

A few years back Dr Ceresola was diagnosed with cancer and, as a medical doctor, he is well aware that PCBs can cause not only infertility and birth defects in mammals, but also colon and breast cancers.

"Is there a link between the pollution and my cancer?" he asks.

"I don't know. But the government has known about the Rhone's pollution for a very long time."


The Rhone cuts through France's biggest concentration of chemical industries.

Since the 1920s, PCBs have been used in industry across the world in transformers, electrical generators and insulating fluid.

Fishermen examine their catch
Freshwater fishermen have none of the political clout of seawater fishermen

They were banned in 1986 after it was understood they posed a serious danger to human health, but they still leak from old electrical devices and hazardous waste sites.

Environmental groups have been warning the government for years about the high levels of toxic chemicals that have leaked into the river water but, as recently as 1992, France was still allowing shipments of PCB-contaminated waste from Australia to be treated in a once government-owned industrial waste processing plant near Lyon.

Campaigners say successive French governments have chosen to ignore what they call the "ticking time-bomb" of river pollution.

At the mouth of the Rhone, in Port St Louis in the Camargue, the local people who have agreed to undergo testing show extremely high levels of PCBs in their blood.

In the market place, where Andre Manoukian mans his fish stall, there are few freshwater fish in sight.

"I'm always careful to label my fish, so customers know where it's come from," he says. "I never buy from round here."

Like most local people I talk to, he also points out that this PCB pollution scare is not new and wonders why the government has not acted faster to protect people from possible dangers.

"Water from the Rhone is used to irrigate crops and even the Camargue rice," he reminds me. "We should be testing everything".

Political clout

At the small St Louis port, the sea fishermen are busy landing today's catch and putting it in ice-boxes ready for market.

Less than a kilometre away at the estuary, the freshwater fishermen like Jean Luc Fontaine are surviving on government handouts.

Mr Fontaine laughs bitterly when I ask him if the river fishermen plan to stage a protest. He reminds me there are simply not enough of them to blockade ports like their marine counterparts do and, unlike the sea fishermen, they have no political clout.

"It's shameful, shameful," he says. "I'm nearly 50 years old and this river has been my life. Now I'm scared of the future."

Tellingly, Mr Fontaine has declined an offer to have his blood screened.

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