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The global agricultural chemical company Monsanto was recently ordered to pay $46.5 million to three plaintiffs who allegedly developed non-Hodgkins lymphoma from exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), raising questions about the extent of liability the corporation may face from similar cases in the future.
A St. Louis jury returned the bellwether verdict in May, involving a case brought over the release of PCBs introduced by Monsanto into the environment, which got into the food chain and allegedly increased the plaintiffs risk of cancer.
While Monsanto has indicated that it plans to appeal the verdict in the non-Hodgkins lymphoma lawsuit, the company faces a number of similar claims.
At issue is the company’s use of PCBs years ago in its previous incarnation, before the company was restructured in 2002. Before that, Monsanto produced and sold more than 99% of all PCBs ever sold in the U.S., according to some estimates, making it possible for plaintiffs to pin the liability from any health effects from those chemicals onto the company.
Used for a variety of purposes, such as paints, lubricants, electrical products, coolant, hydraulic fluids and in paper production, PCBs have been banned for decades due to high toxicity and increased rates of cancer linked to exposure. However, the plaintiffs allege that Monsanto, the sole manufacturer of PCBs from 1935 to 1977, knew or should have known about the risks of PCBs as early as 1955, yet failed to warn the public.
In what became known as the Walker case, plaintiffs indicated that exposure through the food chain led to their cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Noting that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer had warned of a link between PCBs and cancer.
Plaintiffs argued that the company contaminated the entire food chain with PCBs, which could, theoretically, give anyone who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma the ability to bring a case, if they can convince a jury of specific causation, which they were able to do before the St. Louis jury.
Monsanto also currently faces PCB water contamination lawsuits from the cities of San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, San Diego, Spokane and Seattle, with at least six different complaints filed in four different U.S. District Courts naming the manufacturer as a defendant, together with Solutia, Inc. and Pharmacia, Inc. in some of the claims.
The communities now face tens or hundreds of millions in environmental cleanup costs associated with PCB water contamination.
Roundup Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma Lawsuits In the U.S.
Potentially doubling the company’s trouble is the fact that in March 2015 the IARC also warned that the herbicide glyphosate is a likely cancer causing agent, suggesting that exposure to the company’s widely used herbicide and weedkiller Roundup may increase the risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma as well. The warning set off worldwide concerns about the potential side effects of Roundup, and the overuse of the product on farms and crops throughout the U.S.
It raises the possibility of the company facing increased litigation pressure, as the company could face both PCB cases and Roundup non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma lawsuits by those who say exposure led to their cancer. However, most Roundup cases have focused on agricultural workers, farmers and greenhouse employees who had direct and heavy exposure to Roundup, and not claims of exposure through the food chain.
A recent U.S. Geological Survey on glyphosate usage nationwide found that an estimated 2.6 billion pounds of the herbicide has been sprayed on America’s agricultural land over the two decades since the mid-1990s, when Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” crops that are designed to survive being sprayed with glyphosate, killing the weeds but not the crops.
In all that time, the FDA has never tested for residue or buildup in the food sold to Americans nationwide. In a report published in 2014, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the FDA for this deficiency in its pesticide program.
Monsanto now faces a growing number of Roundup cancer lawsuits in the United States, typically involving individuals diagnosed with a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma following heavy exposure to the herbicide as a farm or agricultural worker.
The complaints allege that plaintiffs may have avoided a cancer diagnosis if they had been warned about the Roundup risks for farmers, landscapers and others in the agricultural industry, as safety precautions could have been taken or other products could have been used to control the growth of weeds.