By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — Social media feeds are abuzz with lawyers seeking farmers and chemical applicators who may have contracted Parkinson’s Disease while handling paraquat-based herbicides.
According to a recent lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of Western Louisiana, years of paraquat exposure while working in his family’s business caused Michael Hensgens to develop Parkinson’s, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. The complaint, filed on July 23, seeks damages from Syngenta Crop Protection and Chevron, USA — the biggest makers of paraquat herbicides — and other unnamed defendants for “failing to warn the Louisiana chemical distributor of the risk of irreversible neurological damage that can result from chronic, low-dose exposure to paraquat”— even when safety recommendations provided on the label were followed.
“Although Plaintiff, Michael Hensgens, knew that the Paraquat to which he was exposed was acutely toxic, he had no reason to suspect that chronic, low-dose exposure to Paraquat could cause neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff, Michael Hengens, was never told, either by a medical professional, by media, or by the Defendants, that chronic, low-dose exposure to Paraquat could cause him to suffer Parkinson’s disease.”
Hensgens’ lawsuit is the latest in a barrage of recent legal activity against Syngenta and paraquat, a restricted but widely used weed killer whose usage has increased over the past decade. After dozens of similar individual and class-action lawsuits were filed, the U.S. Judicial Panel on MultiDistrict Litigation (MDL) ordered that all paraquat litigation be centralized in the Southern District of Illinois. Coordinated discovery hearings and early trials will be held under the consolidated title In re. Paraquat Products Liability Litigation, Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, No. 3004.
In addition, other lawsuits may proceed to trial or settle outside the MDL. This concern helped compel Syngenta to file their own lawsuit in the Superior Court of the State of Delaware seeking a declaratory judgement that would force some 100 insurers to come to the company’s defense in the lawsuits, most of which relate to personal injury. The action, Syngenta Crop Protection LLC v. Travelers Casualty and Surety Company also seeks damages from insurers for alleged prior breaches of provisions and protections.
In addition to negligence, breach of implied warranty, liability claims for design defect and “failure to warn,” various paraquat lawsuits include claims brought under state deceptive trade practice and consumer fraud acts. The majority of the claims made within the MDL are from farmers, farm workers, landowners and others who worked as professional sprayers and who now suffer from Parkinson’s and/or kidney disease. Claimants generally seek damages for lost income and medical treatment, pain, mental anguish and disability.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys point to a number of recent studies in support of the toxicity of paraquat and the dangers of the chemical, which is banned in many countries, to bolster their claims. They cite National Institute of Health and Parkinson’s Institute data obtained from a federal survey of farm families in Iowa and North Carolina which concluded that individuals living on family farms in these two states were two and a half times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease if they had been exposed to Paraquat or Rotenone, which is another herbicide.
In addition, in 2016 the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that “there is a large body of epidemiology data on Paraquat dichloride use and Parkinson’s disease.”
According to Jordon Harlan, an attorney from San Diego, Calif., advertising for paraquat clients, “The estimated agricultural application of paraquat doubled in the United States from 2013 to 2017, with 10 million pounds of the chemical used every year over millions of acres of land across the country. Farmers had to find alternatives to crops that had become resistant to Monsanto’s popular Roundup after decades of use. Ironically, another reason for the increase of paraquat had to do with Roundup being linked to cancer.”
Syngenta and Chevron have strongly denied the allegations. In a prepared statement, Syngenta vowed to “vigorously” defend itself against the lawsuits, claiming that paraquat is “safe and effective” after being approved for use in the United States since the 1960s.
U.S. farmers currently use around 8 million pounds of paraquat on peanuts, citrus, wheat, soy, corn, almonds, artichokes, garlic, pears, strawberries, grapes and sweet potatoes per year, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Paraquat weed killer is commonly packaged and sold under brand names including Blanco, Bonfire Herbicide, Devour, Firestorm, Gramoxone, Helmquat, Para-SHOT, Parazone and Quik-Quat.
While California farmers spray the most paraquat compared with those in other states, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi and Iowa are also in the top 10 for paraquat usage.