(Beyond Pesticides, February 14, 2012) A French court has found U.S. chemical giant Monsanto Co. guilty of pesticide poisoning in the case of a French farmer who became ill after exposure to one of the company’s herbicides, according to Reuters. The case is significant in that it sets precedent for other cases alleging pesticide poisoning or negligence in reporting of potential effects on human health resulting from pesticides. The court has said it will seek an expert opinion regarding the farmer’s losses in order to determine the appropriate amount of damages he should be rewarded.
The case stems from an incident in which the farmer, Paul Francois, inadvertently inhaled Monsanto’s Lasso pesticide when cleaning his sprayer tank on his farm in southern France in 2004. He then began experiencing memory loss, headaches, and stammering, among other neurological problems. This led to his decision to file suit against Monsanto, asserting that the company did not provide adequate warnings on the product label that would indicate these symptoms could result from exposure. The court agreed with Mr. Francois, stating that, “Monsanto is responsible for Paul Francois’s suffering after he inhaled the Lasso product … and must entirely compensate him,” according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Lasso is a general herbicide for grasses and some broadleaf weeds whose active ingredient is alachlor. Before Roundup, Lasso was one of Monsanto’s biggest products and became one of the most widely used of any pesticide in the U.S. in the 1980s. Alachlor is a highly toxic chemical that is widely considered an endocrine disruptor and has been linked to kidney and liver damage as well as birth and developmental defects. It is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as likely to be carcinogenic in high doses. Nonetheless, it remains registered for use through the U.S. In 1987, the state of Massachusetts attempted to ban the chemical, but was fought by Monsanto, which successfully convinced the state’s pesticide board to make alachlor a restricted use chemical instead of banned. The chemical was banned throughout the European Union in 2007, including in France, where the Francois incident occurred. It is registered for use in the U.S.
Numerous other cases have been filed seeking damages from chemical companies due to pesticide poisonings, but they have often suffered because of the difficulty of linking chemical exposure to a particular person’s chronic illness. However, the Francois case was able to demonstrate that it was in fact the pesticide that caused harm because it was linked to a specific incident involving acute exposure, rather than long terms effects after repeated, chronic exposure. The problem with trying to prove cases regarding chronic exposure was summarized by another farmer, who told Reuters, “It’s like lying on a bed of thorns and trying to say which one cut you.”
A lawyer for Monsanto said the company was disappointed with the decision and that it will explore appealing to a higher court.
Monsanto and its products are currently involved in several other lawsuits, largely stemming from its line of herbicide tolerant “Roundup Ready” crops. A lawsuit filed by the Public Patent Foundation on behalf of family farmers, seed businesses, organic agricultural organizations, and environmental groups (including Beyond Pesticides) seeks to prevent the chemical company from asserting its patents and suing farmers who are unwittingly found to have incidental amounts of patented herbicide-tolerant seeds in their fields. Oral arguments in this case were heard last month.
Beyond Pesticides is also a plaintiff in another lawsuit involving genetically engineered crops led by attorneys for the Center for Food Safety (CFS), Earthjustice, and farm and environmental groups. The lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) argues that the agency’s 2011 unrestricted approval of Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa is unlawful. For more information on genetically engineered crops, see Beyond Pesticides’ webpage.
Chemical companies’ argument that people in the U.S. do not have a right to sue for damages associated with registered pesticides lost in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 in Bates et al v. Dow AgroSciences LLC. The Supreme Court ruled that citizens damaged by pesticides have the right to sue producers of these toxic products, finding that federal pesticide law does not offer adequate protection from “manufacturers of poisonous substances.” Dow Chemical Company, supported by the Bush administration at the time, argued that, because its products are registered by EPA, chemical manufacturers should be shielded from litigation.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.