Trial pitting farmers against Syngenta delayed until June

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A highly anticipated first-ever trial pitting a group of farmers against the global agricultural giant Syngenta AG over allegations that Syngenta’s paraquat weed killer causes Parkinson’s disease has been delayed until June, the parties involved said on Saturday.

The trial was set to begin Monday, livestreamed by Courtroom View Network, but a continuance was ordered setting a new trial date for June 1. A spokesman for the plaintiffs’ legal team said the delay was not due to any settlement efforts, but due to “a combination of scheduling and Covid issues.”

The case is titled Hoffman V. Syngenta and is set for a bench trial in St. Clair County Circuit Court in Illinois before Associate Judge Kevin Hoerner.

The plaintiffs are farmers who developed Parkinson’s after repeated exposure to paraquat products, specifically Syngenta’s widely used Gramoxone brand, and the spouses of those farmers. Three of the original plaintiffs in the case have died, including plaintiff Thomas Hoffman.

Parkinson’s is a disorder that impacts nerve cells in the brain and  leads in advanced cases to severe physical debilitation and often dementia and death.

Experts in the study and treatment of Parkinson’s warn that the disease is on the rise. One such expert, Dutch neurologist Bastiaan Bloem, predicts the number of people suffering from Parkinson’s will double to more than 13 million in the next 20 years.

Bloem is one of many scientists who blame exposure to paraquat as among multiple risk factors for developing Parkinson’s.

Also named as defendants in the case are Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., formed as a joint venture between Chevron USA and Phillips 66. Chevron helped distribute Syngenta’s products in the United States. Illinois agricultural cooperative Growmark is also a defendant for its role in supplying paraquat products.

There are currently at least 20 lawsuits filed in multiple state and federal courts across the country on behalf of plaintiffs who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and claim Syngenta’s paraquat weed killers are to blame.

Lawyer C. Calvin Warriner III, who is not involved in the Hoffman case but has other plaintiffs suing over the same issues, said he predicts “hundreds if not thousands of cases” will be filed in the next year because of “solid” scientific evidence linking paraquat to Parkinson’s.

Paraquat litigation grows, first trial set for May 10

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Six more lawsuits alleging Syngenta’s weed killing pesticide paraquat causes Parkinson’s Disease were filed last week in Pennsylvania, California and Illinois, adding to more than a dozen similar lawsuits already filed in U.S. courts.

The lawsuits all allege that exposure to paraquat,  which is banned in more than 30 countries though not in the United States, causes the incurable and progressive Parkinson’s disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain, leading in advanced cases to severe physical debilitation and often dementia and death.

Many Parkinson’s experts say the disease can be caused by a range of factors, including exposure to pesticides such as paraquat, as well as other chemicals.

The first trial set to take place in the United States is to begin on May 10 in St. Clair County Circuit Court in Illinois. Missouri lawyer Steve Tillery  is representing the plaintiffs in Hoffman V. Syngenta and said he plans to introduce evidence that includes internal company records showing Syngenta has known for decades that its product causes Parkinson’s Disease.

The defendants in the Hoffman case, as well as the other cases filed, name the Swiss-based Syngenta and Chevron USA as defendants.

Both Chevron and Syngenta deny there is a connection between the disease and the weed killer.

Chevron distributed and sold paraquat products in the United States starting with an agreement with a Syngenta predecessor called Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), which introduced a paraquat-based herbicide called Gramoxone in 1962. Under a license agreement, Chevron had the right to manufacture, use, and sell paraquat formulations in the U.S.

Syngenta says that its paraquat products have been approved as “safe and effective” for more than 50 years and it will “vigorously” defend the lawsuits. Syngenta is owned by China National Chemical Corporation, known as ChemChina.

The complaints were filed on April 30 by a team of law firms: DiCello Levitt Gutzler, Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, P.C. and  Searcy Denney.

Mark DiCello, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys bringing the cases, said Chevron and Syngenta have “long known they were peddling this poison,” and that the science surrounding paraquat “is conclusively on the side of the plaintiffs.”

Jeffrey Goodman, another of the plaintiffs’ attorneys helping bring the litigation said the filings so far are but the “tip of the iceberg” of what he expects to expand into a major mass tort case.

“The manufacturers of paraquat knew for decades that their product was linked to Parkinson’s disease yet chose to hide this information from regulators and the public,” Goodman said.

The newly filed cases are:

The new cases join at least 14 lawsuits filed by eight different law firms in six different federal courts across the country.

Paraquat Papers

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Multiple lawsuits are pending in the United States alleging the weedkilling chemical paraquat causes Parkinson’s disease, and the first case to go to trial over the allegations against Syngenta over paraquat and Parkinson’s was originally scheduled for April 12 but was rescheduled for May 10 in St. Clair County Circuit Court in Illinois. The trial is expected to be delayed due to precautions related to the Covid-19 virus.

That Illinois case – Hoffman V. Syngenta – is one of at least 14 cases ending against Syngenta alleging the company’s paraquat products cause Parkinson’s Disease. The Hoffman case also names Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. and Growmark Inc. as defendants. Chevron distributed and sold Gramoxone paraquat product in the United States in an agreement with a Syngenta predecessor called Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), which introduced paraquat-based Gramoxone in 1962. Under a license agreement, Chevron had the right to to manufacture, use, and sell paraquat formulations in the U.S.

Lawyers around the United States are advertising for plaintiffs, seeking to draw in thousands of people who’ve been exposed to paraquat and now suffer from Parkinson’s.

Some of  the most recently filed cases were brought in federal courts in California and Illinois. Among those cases are Rakoczy V. Syngenta,  Durbin V. Syngenta and Kearns V. Syngenta.

Several scientific studies have linked paraquat to Parkinson’s, including a large study of U.S. farmers jointly overseen by multiple U.S. government agencies.  Farmers use paraquat in the production of many crops, including corn, soy and cotton. The Agricultural Health Study (AHS) said it found that “exposure to agricultural pesticides may increase a person’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.” In 2011, AHS researchers reported that “participants who used paraquat or rotenone were twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease as people who didn’t use these chemicals.”

A more recent paper from AHS researchers stated that “Extensive literature suggests an association between general pesticide use and Parkinson’s disease (PD). However, with few exceptions, little is known about associations between specific pesticides and PD.”

Parkinson’s is an incurable progressive nervous system disorder that limits a person’s ability to control movement, causing tremors, loss of balance and eventually often leaving victims bedridden and/or bound to a wheelchair. The disease is not necessarily fatal but typically becomes severely debilitating.

Dutch neurologist Bastiaan Bloem, who recently authored a book about Parkinson’s, blames widespread exposure to herbicides such as paraquat, along with other toxic chemicals used in agriculture and manufacturing, for the spread of the disease.

Acutely Toxic 

Along with fears about links between paraquat and Parkinson’s, paraquat is also known to be an extremely acutely toxic chemical that can quickly kill people who ingest very small amounts. In Europe, the sale of paraquat has been banned since 2007, but in the United States the pesticide is sold as a “Restricted Use Pesticide” due to “acute toxicity.”

As part of discovery in the Parkinson’s litigation, lawyers have obtained internal records from Syngenta and its predecessor corporate entities dating back to the 1960s. Many of these documents are sealed, but some have started to come to light.

Those unsealed discovery documents, which include copies of letters, minutes of meetings, study summaries, and emails, are being made available on this page.

Most of the documents unsealed to date deal with corporate discussions about how to keep paraquat herbicides on the market despite its deadliness, through measures designed to reduce accidental poisonings. Specifically, many of the documents detail an internal corporate struggle over the addition of an emetic, a vomit-inducing agent, to paraquat products.  Today, all Syngenta paraquat-containing products include an emetic called “PP796.”  Liquid paraquat-containing formulations from Syngenta also include a stenching agent to produce a foul odor, and a blue dye to differentiate the dark-colored herbicide from tea or cola or other beverages.

EPA Review 

Paraquat is currently undergoing the EPA’s registration review process, and on Oct. 23, 2020, the agency  released a proposed interim decision (PID) for paraquat, which proposes mitigation measures to reduce human health and ecological risks identified in the agency’s 2019 draft human health and ecological risk assessments.

The EPA said that through collaboration with the National Toxicology Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the agency completed a “thorough review” of the scientific information on paraquat and Parkinson’s Disease and concluded that the weight of evidence was insufficient to link paraquat to Parkinson’s disease. The agency published this “Systematic Review of the Literature to Evaluate the Relationship between Paraquat Dichloride Exposure and Parkinson’s Disease.”

USRTK will add documents to this page as they become available.

Federal court rejects Syngenta’s bid to toss lawsuit over paraquat herbicide

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A federal judge has denied Swiss chemical company Syngenta’s effort to throw out one of a growing number of lawsuits alleging the company’s weed killing products cause Parkinson’s Disease. The decision offers a boost for the expanding number of law firms and plaintiffs making similar claims.

In an April 12 ruling, U.S. District Judge John Ross in the Eastern District of Missouri denied a motion filed by Syngenta and co-defendant Chevron that sought to dismiss a lawsuit brought by married Missouri couple Henry and Tara Holyfield.

“We were pleased that the court denied the motions to dismiss,” said Steven Crick, an attorney with the firm of Humphrey, Farrington & McClain who is representing the Holyfields. “We are also confident that the defendants’ efforts to dismiss or derail the case will continue.”

The lawsuit alleges Henry Holyfield developed Parkinson’s, a debilitating and incurable progressive nervous system disorder, due to his exposure to paraquat in his work as a crop duster. The suit alleges that paraquat was distributed “without adequate instructions on safe use” and “without instructions or warnings that the paraquat was dangerous to health and life and caused disease.”

Syngenta manufacturers and distributes paraquat-based Gramoxone, a widely used weed killer popular with American farmers but banned in more than 30 countries because it is known to be acutely toxic. Syngenta acknowledges the dangers of accidental poisoning associated with paraquat, and its products carry strict warning labels about precautions needed for safe use.

But the company has denied the validity of scientific research that has found associations between paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s Disease.

Chevron gained sales and distribution rights for Gramoxone paraquat product in the United States in an agreement with a Syngenta predecessor called Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), which introduced paraquat-based Gramoxone in 1962. Under a license agreement, Chevron was granted rights to manufacture, use, and sell paraquat formulations in the U.S.

In their motion to dismiss the case, Syngenta and Chevron argued that the Holyfield claims were preempted by federal law governing regulation of paraquat by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Paraquat has been heavily regulated by the EPA for decades under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)…” the motion states. “Through decades of scrutiny, the EPA’s judgment continues to be that paraquat is safe for sale and use so long as EPA-prescribed precautions are taken and instructions are followed. To ensure uniformity, FIFRA prohibits states from imposing any labeling requirements “in addition to or different from” FIFRA’s requirements and EPA-approved labels… But that is exactly what the complaint seeks to do.”

Judge Ross said the argument was flawed. FIFRA states that registration approval by the EPA “does not
constitute an absolute defense” to claims that a product was “mislabeled,” he wrote in his decision. Moreover, a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case titled Bates v. Dow Agrosciences established that the EPA’s approval of a product does not rule out claims of a failure to warn brought under state law.

“This Court is aware of no case since Bates in which a court has declined jurisdiction over a FIFRA-related claim pursuant to the doctrine of primary jurisdiction,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “The results of the EPA’s review of paraquat, moreover, will not dictate the success or failure of Plaintiffs’ claims.”

There are currently at least 14 lawsuits filed by eight different law firms in six different federal courts across the country. The lawsuits are all filed on behalf of plaintiffs who have been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disorder, and they all allege exposure to Syngenta’s paraquat caused their conditions. Several other cases making the same allegations are pending in state courts as well.

Move to consolidate U.S. paraquat litigation as cases mount against Syngenta

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Lawyers suing Swiss chemical company Syngenta are asking a U.S. judicial panel to consolidate more than a dozen similar lawsuits under the oversight of a federal judge in California. The move is a telling sign of the expansion of litigation that alleges the company’s weed killing products cause Parkinson’s Disease.

According to the motion, filed April 7 by the Texas-based Fears Nachawati law firm with the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, there are currently at least 14 lawsuits filed by eight different law firms in six different federal courts across the country. The lawsuits are all filed on behalf of plaintiffs who have been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disorder, and they allege exposure to Syngenta’s weed killers made with a chemical called paraquat for the disease. Several other cases making the same allegations are pending in state courts.

“The cases are excellent candidates for coordinated pretrial proceedings because they arise from the same poisonous toxin causing the same crippling disease resulting from the wrongful conduct of the same three defendants,” the Fears Nachawati brief in support of its motion states. “Movant expects that the number of similar cases filed in state and federal courts across the country will expand rapidly.”

The motion seeks transfer specifically to Judge Edward Chen in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Majed Nachawati, a partner with the Fears Nachawati firm, said the firm was still investigating the size and scope of the overall litigation but believes the paraquat litigation against Syngenta “will be significant and material in nature…”

“Very soon, there is going to be litigation in dozens of federal courts across the country,” Nachawati said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers will be seeking internal corporate documents as well as depositions of corporate officials related to the “testing, design, labeling, marketing, and safety of paraquat herbicides,” along with corporate research and evaluations of the toxicity and safety of its paraquat products.

The Miller Firm of Virginia, which helped lead the Roundup cancer litigation against Monsanto that resulted in an $11 billion settlement with Monsanto owner Bayer AG, is among the law firms joining in the paraquat litigation. The Miller firm supports the effort to consolidate the federal actions in California, where thousands of Roundup cases were also consolidated for pretrial proceedings, according to the firm’s lead attorney Mike Miller.

“We are confident that science strongly supports the causal connection between paraquat and the devastation of Parkinson’s disease,” Miller said of the motion. “The Northern District of California is well equipped to handle these cases.”

The cases against Syngenta also name Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. as a defendant. Chevron distributed and sold Gramoxone paraquat products in the United States starting with an agreement with a Syngenta predecessor called Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), which introduced paraquat-based Gramoxone in 1962. Under a license agreement, Chevron had the right to manufacture, use, and sell paraquat formulations in the U.S.

Syngenta and Chevron have denied the allegations.

Syngenta says that its paraquat products have been approved as “safe and effective” for more than 50 years and it will “vigorously” defend the lawsuits. Syngenta is owned by China National Chemical Corporation, known as ChemChina.

Scientific studies

Parkinson’s is an incurable progressive disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain, leading in advanced cases to severe physical debilitation and often dementia. Many Parkinson’s experts say the disease can be caused by a range of factors, including exposure to pesticides such as paraquat, as well as other chemicals.

Several scientific studies have linked paraquat to Parkinson’s, including a large study of U.S. farmers jointly overseen by multiple U.S. government agencies. That 2011 research reported that people who used paraquat were twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease as people who did not use it.

“Numerous epidemiological and animal studies have linked paraquat to Parkinson’s disease,” said Ray Dorsey, a professor of neurology and director of the Center for Human Experimental Therapeutics at University of Rochester in New York. Dorsey is also the author of a book about prevention and treatment of Parkinson’s Disease.

“The evidence linking paraquat to Parkinson’s disease is probably the strongest of any pesticide commonly used,” he said.

Some studies have not found any clear links between paraquat and Parkinson’s and Syngenta asserts that the most recent and authoritative research does not show a connection.

Indeed, a study published in 2020 found connections between some other pesticides and Parkinson’s, but no strong evidence showing paraquat causes the disease.

Upcoming trial

One case filed in a state court is scheduled to go to trial next month. Hoffman V. Syngenta is slated for trial May 10 in St. Clair County Circuit Court in Illinois. A status conference is scheduled for the end of this month.

Missouri lawyer Steve Tillery, who is representing the plaintiffs in the Hoffman case as well as several other plaintiffs in other paraquat lawsuits, said despite Syngenta’s assertions to the contrary, he has accumulated evidence that includes internal company records showing Syngenta has known for decades that its product causes Parkinson’s Disease.

“They shouldn’t be selling this product, said Tillery. “This chemical should be off the market.”

Thailand’s reversal on glyphosate ban came after Bayer scripted U.S. intervention, documents show

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A year ago Thailand was set to ban the widely used weed killing chemical glyphosate, a move applauded by public health advocates because of evidence the chemical causes cancer, along with other harms to people and the environment.

But under heavy pressure from U.S. officials, Thailand’s government reversed the planned ban on glyphosate last November and delayed imposing bans on two other agricultural pesticides despite the fact that the country’s National Hazardous Substances Committee said a ban was necessary to protect consumers.

A ban, particularly on glyphosate, would “severely impact” Thai imports of soybeans, wheat and other agricultural commodities, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Ted McKinney warned Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha in pushing for the reversal. Imports could be impacted because those commodities, and many others, typically are laced with residues of glyphosate.

Now, newly revealed emails between government officials and Monsanto parent Bayer AG show that McKinney’s actions, and those taken by other U.S. government officials to convince Thailand not to ban glyphosate, were largely scripted and pushed by Bayer.

The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation organization. The group sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Commerce on Wednesday seeking additional public records regarding the actions of the departments of trade and agriculture in pressuring Thailand on the glyphosate issue. There are several documents the government has thus far refused to release regarding communications with Bayer and other companies, the organization said.

“It’s bad enough that this administration has ignored independent science to blindly support Bayer’s self-serving assertions of glyphosate’s safety,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But to then act as Bayer’s agent to pressure other countries to adopt that position is outrageous.”

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup herbicides and other brands developed by Monsanto, which are worth billions of dollars in annual sales. Bayer bought Monsanto in 2018 and has been struggling ever since to suppress mounting global concerns about scientific research showing that glyphosate herbicides can cause a blood cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The company is also fighting off lawsuits involving more than 100,000 plaintiffs who claim their development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma was caused by exposure to Roundup and other Monsanto glyphosate-based herbicides.

Glyphosate weed killers are the most widely used herbicides in the world, in large part because Monsanto developed genetically engineered crops that tolerate being sprayed directly with the chemical. Though useful to farmers in keeping fields free of weeds, the practice of spraying herbicide over the tops of growing crops leaves varying levels of the pesticide in both raw grain and finished foods. Monsanto and U.S. regulators maintain pesticide levels in food and livestock feed are not harmful to humans or livestock, but many scientists disagree and say even trace amounts can be dangerous.

Different countries set different legal levels for what they determine to be safe amounts of the weed killer in food and raw commodities. Those “maximum residue levels” are referred to as MRLs. The U.S. allows the highest MRLs of glyphosate in food when compared to other countries.

If Thailand banned glyphosate, the allowed level of glyphosate in food likely would be zero, Bayer warned U.S. officials.

High-level help

The emails show that in September 2019 and again in early October of 2019 James Travis, senior director for Bayer international government affairs and trade, sought assistance in reversing the glyphosate ban from multiple high-level officials from the USDA and the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).

Among those Bayer sought aid from was Zhulieta Willbrand, who at that time was chief of staff of trade and foreign agricultural affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  After Thailand’s decision to reverse the ban on glyphosate, Willbrand was hired to work directly for Bayer on international trade matters.

When asked if the assistance from Willbrand while she was a government official helped her get a job at Bayer, the company said that it “ethically strives” to hire people from “all backgrounds” and any inference that she was hired for any reason other than the immense talent she brings to Bayer is false.”

In an email to Willbrand dated Sept. 18, 2019, Travis told her Bayer thought there was “real value” for U.S. government engagement on the glyphosate ban, and he noted that Bayer was organizing other groups to protest the ban as well.

“On our end, we are educating farmer groups, plantations and business partners so that they too can articulate concerns and the need for a rigorous, science based process,” Travis wrote to Willbrand. Willbrand then forwarded the email to McKinney, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.

In an Oct. 8, 2019, email string with the subject line “Summary of Thailand Ban – Developments Moving Quickly,” Travis wrote to Marta Prado, deputy assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, copying Willbrand and others, to update them on the situation.

Travis wrote that Thailand looked poised to ban glyphosate at a “dramatically” accelerated pace, by December 1, 2019. Along with glyphosate, the country was planning to also ban chlorpyrifos, an insecticide made popular by Dow Chemical that is known to damage babies’ brains; and paraquat, a herbicide scientists say causes the nervous system disease known as Parkinson’s.

Travis pointed out the risk a glyphosate ban would pose to sales of U.S. commodities because of the MRL issue and provided other background material the officials could use to engage with Thailand.

“In light of recent developments, we are growing more concerned that some policymakers and lawmakers are rushing the process and will not thoroughly consult all farming stakeholders nor fully consider the economic and environmental impact of banning glyphosate,” Travis wrote to the U.S. officials.

The email exchanges show that Bayer and U.S. officials discussed potential personal motivations of Thai officials and how such intelligence could be useful. “Knowing what motivates her may help with USG counter arguments,” one U.S. official wrote to Bayer about one Thai leader.

Travis suggested that U.S. officials engage much as they had with Vietnam when that country moved in April 2019 to ban glyphosate.

Shortly after the appeal from Bayer, McKinney wrote to the Thailand Prime Minister about the matter. In an Oct. 17, 2019 letter McKinney, who previously worked for Dow Agrosciences, invited Thailand officials to Washington for an in-person discussion about glyphosate safety and the Environmental Protection Agency’s determination that glyphosate “poses no meaningful risk to human health when used as authorized.”

“Should a ban be implemented it would severely impact Thailand’s imports of agricultural commodities such as soybean and wheat,” McKinney wrote. “I urge you to delay a decision on glyphosate until we can arrange an opportunity for U.S. technical experts to share the most relevant information to address Thailand’s concerns.”

A little more than a month later, on Nov. 27, Thailand reversed the planned glyphosate ban. It also said it would delay bans on paraquat and chlorpyrifos for several months.

Thailand did finalize bans of paraquat and chlorpyrifos on June 1, of this year. But glyphosate remains in use. 

When asked about its engagement with U.S. officials on the issue, Bayer issued the following statement:

Like many companies and organizations operating in highly regulated industries, we provide information and contribute to science-based policymaking and regulatory processes. Our engagements with all those in the public sector are routine, professional, and consistent with all laws and regulations.

The Thai authorities’ reversal of the ban on glyphosate is consistent with the science-based determinations by regulatory bodies around the world, including in the United StatesEuropeGermanyAustraliaKoreaCanadaNew ZealandJapan and elsewhere that have repeatedly concluded that our glyphosate-based products can be used safely as directed.

 Thai farmers have used glyphosate safely and successfully for decades to produce essential crops including cassava, corn, sugar cane, fruits, oil palm, and rubber. Glyphosate has helped farmers to improve their livelihoods and meet community expectations of safe, affordable food that is produced sustainably.”