Agricultural workers play an important part in the rural workforce and the development of sustainable agriculture. As part of their continuous efforts to revolutionize the way farming is done, it is inevitable that they will be dealing with and using certain chemicals that are supposedly innovative and would contribute to the improvement of agriculture in general.
However, it seems that some chemicals are allegedly doing more harm than good to agricultural workers. Now the people who are supposed to improve our lives are unknowingly compromising theirs in the process. The reason? Paraquat.
Before we dive into what exactly went down with the lawsuits that followed, let us first discuss what paraquat is.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), paraquat is a highly poisonous and toxic substance commonly found in herbicides to regulate grass and weed growth. The chemical is so dangerous that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies paraquat for restricted use only, meaning that only licensed applicators are allowed to use it.
In the US, paraquat is typically sold with a blue dye to indicate that it is a toxic substance and avoid being mistaken for common beverages like coffee. It also has a strong and sharp odor and an added agent that induces vomiting in case someone drinks it.
These are safeguards that are in place to serve as a warning to American consumers, but paraquat may be sold in a different form outside of the US so such preventive measures may not be present in paraquat-based herbicides marketed abroad.
Paraquat poisoning usually happens when the substance is ingested either by accident or on purpose. Because it is typically in liquid form, paraquat can be easily mixed with food, water, and other beverages. And if the paraquat used is the one that does not have the three safeguard additives — blue dye, sharp odor, and vomiting agent — it would be even more difficult to identify if the food or beverage has been contaminated by paraquat.
Paraquat poisoning is also likely after the skin has been exposed to it. If the skin exposure lasts for a long time, is in close contact with a concentrated version of paraquat, or the skin that was exposed to paraquat has severe cuts, rashes, and sores, then poisoning becomes even more possible.
Aside from ingestion and skin exposure, paraquat poisoning can also happen if the substance is inhaled. As per the CDC, “cells in the lungs selectively accumulate paraquat likely by active transport” so inhalation of paraquat may eventually lead to severe respiratory damage depending on the “amount, route, duration of exposure, and the person’s health condition at the time of the exposure.”
The CDC also says that once paraquat enters the body, it is quickly distributed to all areas of the body and “causes direct damage when it comes into contact with the lining of the mouth, stomach or intestines.” Paraquat exposure — whether it is through ingestion, skin exposure, or inhalation — also leads to toxic chemical reactions that “occur throughout many parts of the body, primarily the lungs, liver, and kidneys.”
The CDC lists the following as the most common signs that someone has been poisoned due to paraquat exposure:
- Pain and swelling of the mouth and throat
- Abdominal pain
- Bloody diarrhea
- A rapid decrease in the body’s sodium and potassium levels
- Low blood pressure
- Heart failure
- Kidney failure
- Liver failure
- Lung scarring
- Rapid heart rate
- Muscle weakness
- Pulmonary edema
But while these are the signs and symptoms usually attributed to paraquat poisoning, they may not always mean that someone had been exposed to paraquat and could be indicative of other illnesses. Once you experience these symptoms, the best course of action is to go to the doctor and have your condition checked by a medical professional for a more accurate diagnosis.
In the paraquat lawsuits, Swiss-based multi billion agrichemical company Syngenta is one of the main defendants. Their popular paraquat-based herbicide Gramoxone has been the subject of hundreds of lawsuits due to the alleged link between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease. Chevron is also a co-defendant as they are responsible for distributing Syngenta’s Gramoxone.
However, Syngenta remains firm in defending its product, saying that it is safe. On their website, Syngenta describes Gramoxone as a herbicide “with fast-acting results in as little as 48 hours” and a product that “delivers convenient, flexible, and dependable burndown of emerged grass and broadleaf weeds.”
Syngenta also lists the following benefits of Gramoxone:
- Versatile burndown and pre-plant solution for growers’ weed management arsenal in specialty, vegetable, and row crops
- Superior rotational partner to help preserve glyphosate efficacy that simultaneously reduces the likelihood of resistance
- Targets even the most difficult-to-control weeds, such as barnyard grass, Florida beggarweed, Italian ryegrass, Johnsongrass, Palmer amaranth, morning glory, and sicklepod
- Maintains efficacy in cool, wet weather, and is compatible with various water qualities and calcium-containing nitrogen fertilizers, including CAN17
Poisoning is highly likely when paraquat is ingested, inhaled, or has direct contact with the skin. But aside from poisoning, a few studies have also linked paraquat exposure in low dosages to the development of Parkinson’s disease.
Costello et al study (2009) – This study found that there is an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease among younger people when they are exposed to a combination of paraquat-based herbicides and the fungicide maneb.
Tanner et al study (2011) – This study concluded that there is a 2.5 increased likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease among people who mixed or applied paraquat on a regular basis. The study also found that the risk increases even more if you have a certain defect in a specific gene. In their report, the study authors said that their findings “suggest that paraquat use plays a role in human PD. Because paraquat remains one of the most widely used herbicides worldwide, this finding potentially has great public health significance.”
Sanders et all (2017) – The study established an association between regular exposure to paraquat and the development of Parkinson’s disease, and the researchers concluded that “exposure to certain pesticides induces oxidative stress and increase Parkinson’s disease risk.” They also found that “mitochondrial DNA damage is found in dopaminergic neurons in idiopathic PD and following pesticide exposure in experimental models thereof.”
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) defines Parkinson’s disease as “a brain disorder that leads to shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with walking, balance, and coordination.” People who have been officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease are also highly likely to have significant “mental and behavioral changes, sleep problems, depression, memory difficulties, and fatigue.”
Although both men and women can develop Parkinson’s disease, this progressive nervous system disorder is 50% more prevalent among men than women. Aside from sex, there are other risk factors that can also increase your chances of developing Parkinson’s disease.
Age – The likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease increases with age. This is why most people who are diagnosed with Parkinson’s are aged 60 or older.
Family history – People who have close relatives with Parkinson’s disease have an increased risk of developing the same disorder. But the risk is relatively small unless the disease is alarmingly common among family members.
Exposure to toxic and harmful substances – Constant and long-term exposure to herbicides and pesticides known to have toxic substances linked to Parkinson’s can slightly increase your chances of contracting the disease.
The Mayo Clinic lists the following as the most common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It may not be the same for everyone and early signs could be so mild that they often go unnoticed until it is too late, but these are the typical indications of the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
- Shaking that begins in the limbs, usually on hands and fingers
- Bradykinesia or slowed movement
- Stiff muscles that limit the range of motion
- Impaired posture
- Loss of balance
- Inability to perform even the most basic movements
- Impaired speech and writing abilities
- Deterioration of cognitive abilities
- Depression and other emotional and psychological changes
- Slowed swallowing that leads to drooling
- Difficulty in chewing and eating
- Difficulty in sleeping
- Difficulty urinating
- Constipation due to slowed digestive tract
- Sudden drop in blood pressure
- Loss of sense of smell
Aside from Gramoxone, here are other commonly used herbicides that contain paraquat according to Healthline:
Roundup is another popular herbicide in the US but it does not contain paraquat. However, the now infamous weedkiller has also been the subject of tens of thousands of lawsuits due to the carcinogenic properties of its main active ingredient glyphosate.
- Costa Rica
- New Zealand
- Dominican Republic
- South Korea
These countries believe that there are enough grounds for such drastic measures due to concerns surrounding the deterioration of the environment, as well as people’s health, as a result of regular paraquat use.
The US EPA has been accused of overlooking the “unreasonably dangerous” nature of paraquat despite the growing number of environmental and health concerns linked to Syngenta’s herbicide Gramoxone. And even though paraquat has been heavily restricted to only professional use in the US, it has not been completely banned and has been allowed to continue by the EPA.
However, in October 2020, the EPA issued a revised set of guidelines regarding the use of paraquat. Here are the updated proposed safety measures, taken directly from the EPA’s website:
“As outlined in the proposed interim decision for paraquat, the agency is proposing new measures to reduce risks associated with paraquat in order to better to protect human health and the environment. These measures include:
- Prohibiting aerial application for all uses and use sites except cotton desiccation;
- Prohibiting pressurized handgun and backpack sprayer application methods on the label;
- Limiting the maximum application rate for alfalfa to one pound of active ingredient per acre;
- Requiring enclosed cabs if area treated in 24-hour period is more than 80 acres;
- Requiring enclosed cabs or PF10 respirators if area treated in 24-hour period is 80 acres or less;
- Requiring a residential area drift buffer and 7-day restricted entry interval (REI) for cotton desiccation;
- Requiring a 48-hour REI for all crops and uses except cotton desiccation; and
- Adding mandatory spray drift management label language.”
Most of the plaintiffs in the paraquat lawsuits are agricultural workers who have developed Parkinson’s disease as a result of constant occupational exposure to paraquat. They claimed that even though they used paraquat as directed and handled in the recommended manner, it is still an “unreasonably dangerous” substance that Syngenta and Chevron knew about the dangers of but failed to inform consumers of the risks.
But Syngenta remains defensive of its product. In a statement, Syngenta said that they “take product safety very seriously and have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in improving product formulations and safening methods for use of paraquat which involve no direct human contact.” Syngenta also added that over the years, they “have trained more than 42 million farmers around the world in the safe use of our products and offer emergency medical advice round the clock worldwide.”
The agrichemical giant also remains confident about the safety of its paraquat-based Gramoxone as “modern expert medical opinion is on our side” and that “the FAO/WHO, US EPA and other bodies have not changed their recommendations either.”
In a November 2021 ruling, Chief US District Judge Nancy J. Rosenstengel dismissed Chevron as a co-defendant in the ongoing paraquat lawsuits, effectively removing their liability in all future paraquat litigation.
Despite having manufactured and distributed paraquat years ago, Chevron stopped its production and distribution in 1986 — decades before the paraquat lawsuits even began.
In the ruling, it was decided that “to avoid unnecessary litigation on the aforementioned issues at this time, Chevron Phillips Chemical Company LP, Chevron Phillips Chemical Company LLC, Phillips 66, Phillips 66 Company, and Chevron Corporation shall be dismissed by counsel for plaintiff(s) without prejudice…unless good cause can be shown within five days of entry of this order why such defendants should not be dismissed.”
- Anyone who had been exposed to and has used Gramoxone and other paraquat-based herbicides
- Anyone who is officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease due to known and confirmed paraquat exposure and currently undergoing treatment and/or medication
- Anyone who is officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease due to known and confirmed paraquat exposure but has not been required to undergo treatment and/or medication
- Anyone who lost a loved one to Parkinson’s disease and/or other complications from PD due to known and confirmed paraquat exposure
Syngenta has already denied the claims of the plaintiffs’ legal counsel that there is alleged documentary evidence proving that the agrochemical company knew of the connection between paraquat and Parkinson’s but refused to do anything about it.
In a statement, Syngenta said that they have “great sympathy for the health issues faced by the plaintiffs and others suffering from the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease” and that they “care deeply about the health and well-being of farmers and are dedicated to providing them safe and effective products.”
However, they also reiterated that “there is no credible evidence that paraquat, which has been widely used for more than 55 years, causes Parkinson’s disease. No peer-reviewed study, including the largest study which involved 38,000 farmers, has ever concluded paraquat causes Parkinson’s disease. The EPA and other government authorities have extensively analyzed this issue and similarly found no evidence that paraquat causes Parkinson’s disease. The facts simply do not support the Plaintiffs’ allegations, and we intend to defend this product and our legal position vigorously in court.”
Having said that, settlement may not be an option for Syngenta after all.
But should they decide to take that route, it is likely that there will be no fixed paraquat lawsuit settlement amount that each plaintiff is guaranteed to receive because every paraquat case is unique. Several factors such as age, overall health conditions before and after the Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, and provable frequency of paraquat use and exposure all come into play and will affect how much a paraquat victim will receive.
Moreover, the terms of the settlement agreements are rarely made public and always confidential, so it is likely impossible to determine how much each settlement costs.
Some paraquat cases are also part of a paraquat class-action lawsuit in multidistrict litigation (MDL). Cases included in this are not settled individually and equally, so it would be difficult to put an exact dollar figure for each paraquat settlement.
No two paraquat lawsuits are the same. Some plaintiffs may have it worse than others depending on how bad their condition got after their continued talcum powder use, so there is really no fixed amount on how much they are going to get. Several factors can also influence a paraquat settlement, so it can be challenging to get exact figures for your losses.
However, some factors are more common than others, so while each paraquat lawsuit is unique, the following factors will always affect the settlement amount.
- Previous, ongoing, and future medical costs
Plaintiffs who were exposed to any paraquat-containing herbicide may be eligible to recover the costs of past, present, and even expected future medical bills related to their Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. Severe and long-term physical, mental, and emotional suffering often translate to greater hospitalization costs, so a paraquat lawsuit that involves these kinds of suffering will undoubtedly take more time and cost more.
- Lost income
Developing Parkinson’s disease after exposure to paraquat-based herbicides can render the paraquat lawsuit plaintiffs useless for a long time after their diagnosis. Even if they manage to fully recover and overcome Parkinson’s disease, there is a chance that they may not be able to work in the same capacity again, or worse, become unable to do anything at all because their diagnosis left them completely disabled.
- Pain and suffering damages
As far as paraquat lawsuits are concerned, damages are not only physical and financial. Mental and emotional suffering, while not quantifiable in bills and receipts, can be just as painful and stressful, if not more.
The trauma a person with Parkinson’s will continue to endure long after their diagnosis can be as lasting as the physical deterioration they will experience due to the disease. And since there is no way to determine how much a person’s pain and suffering cost, these kinds of damages will greatly vary for each paraquat lawsuit plaintiff.
- Loss of joy in living
If the Parkinson’s diagnosis leaves a paraquat lawsuit plaintiff is permanently disabled and unable to enjoy life the way they did before they got the disease, they can pursue damages to compensate for the disease’s impact on their life. While no amount could ever make up for a life-long disability, the justice system can work to provide some monetary respite.
Assigning value to a paraquat lawsuit means projecting how much the jury will award and how much Syngenta and Chevron are willing to pay. It also means identifying the settlement amount the plaintiffs are willing to accept should they decide to resolve the case outside of the court.
Two major factors come into play when valuing the settlement amount of a paraquat lawsuit: the extent of the plaintiff’s damages and the extent of Syngenta and Chevron’s liability.
However, if a plaintiff cannot provide substantial evidence to establish Syngenta and Chevron’s fault, their paraquat litigation settlement amount could significantly decrease even if they have tremendously suffered from Parkinson’s disease as a result of continued paraquat use through the years.
Should that be the case, Syngenta and Chevron might be more inclined to contest their liability in court instead of settling, and the plaintiffs may find it more difficult to negotiate for higher settlement compensation payouts.
It is for the same reason that many plaintiffs are more likely to accept a lower settlement amount because of the risk of not getting anything at trial.
Paraquat lawsuit settlements may not always be the best course of action for every paraquat lawsuit, but there are a few reasons why they can be more beneficial than trials.
- Guaranteed payout
In a paraquat lawsuit settlement, compensation is guaranteed once both the plaintiffs and the defendants Syngenta and Chevron agree on the terms. After all, nothing ensures recovery than being able to financially support it.
With legal intervention and involvement of the federal court, the amount the paraquat lawsuit plaintiffs will receive may not be as high as anticipated. And while most of the paraquat cases have generally had favorable outcomes so far, engaging multibillion-dollar companies like Syngenta and Chevron in a legal battle is usually more of a financial burden to the plaintiffs than the business they are going against.
- Avoiding the additional financial burden
Paraquat cases and other related legal proceedings are costly for both parties, but most especially for the plaintiffs. Not all paraquat plaintiffs are financially capable of pursuing paraquat litigation in court, and even Syngenta nor Chevron will not want to spend more than they already need to compensate for the plaintiffs’ losses.
- Saves time
It can take a while before a paraquat lawsuit gets assigned to a judge for trial, and once it does, it may take months or even years before a verdict is reached. Add that to the considerable amount of money both parties will be forced to spend on various court costs and a paraquat settlement instantly becomes the more practical option.
Another advantage of a paraquat settlement is the opportunity for the plaintiffs and the defendants to structure the settlement in a way that works for both of them. For instance, instead of receiving the paraquat settlement amount in a lump sum, the plaintiffs may decide to receive it in installments, provided that Syngenta and Chevron both agree to this payment setup as well.
- Preventing a negative verdict
There are two types of valuation used to determine the settlement amount in paraquat cases: trial value and settlement value. The trial value is the amount you expect the court to award, while the settlement value is the amount the plaintiffs hope to settle their paraquat cases for.
These values are rarely equal to each other. Because victims are settling a paraquat case to avoid the risk of losing at trial, the settlement value will always be much lower than the trial value. But even though the settlement value is less than the trial value, at least the compensation is guaranteed.
So far, there have been 600 paraquat lawsuits lodged against Syngenta. The agrochemical company has also paid hundreds of millions of dollars to date, but Syngenta could be paying up to billions more as many cases are still awaiting their turn in court.
The paraquat class action and individual lawsuits are still ongoing, and the litigation process still has a long way to go. For the plaintiffs, the outcome of the remaining cases is anyone’s guess. As for Syngenta, they can only hope that the odds will be in their favor in future legal proceedings so they can finally put an end to the issues hounding the company for the last couple of years.
Either way, both parties surely intend to win at whatever cost. But until when can the legal battle go on? Time can only tell.
The paraquat lawsuits are a complex and complicated matter, and while many of the cases have been settled and had a generally favorable outcome, the end of this legal battle is far from over.
If you or a loved one have been exposed to Gramoxone or other paraquat-based herbicides, and have reasonable cause to believe that you developed serious health risks because of it, reach out to us to see if you can still participate in an ongoing lawsuit.