“Environmental catastrophe” in Nebraska tied to pesticide-contaminating plant; See regulatory documents regarding AltEn neonicotinoid problems

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(Updated June 10 with state regulatory announcement about seed company clean-up efforts.)

An “environmental catastrophe” unfolding in Nebraska is drawing scrutiny from around the United States and sparking questions about why regulators were unwilling or unable to rein in years of questionable activities by the company known as AltEn LLC.

AltEn has been operating an ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska, and advertising the plant site as a disposal facility for seeds coated in an array of pesticides known to be dangerous to humans and wildlife.

It has become a common practice by large seed companies such as Monsanto-owner Bayer AG, Syngenta, Corteva and others to sell seeds for growing corn, soy, wheat and other crops that are coated with neonicotinoids and other chemicals designed to help the plants fight off insects and disease.

Disposing of unwanted supplies of these treated seeds can be costly and complicated, so AltEn’s eagerness to take in the coated seed was welcomed by the seed companies.  The companies say they believed AltEn would properly use and/or dispose of the seeds and they were not aware of a contamination threat.

But the concentration of pesticide-coated seeds being taken in at the AltEn site left the plant’s wastewater and byproducts such as distillers grains contaminated with an pesticides at levels much higher than what is considered safe.

Now the area’s water and soil is showing evidence of contamination.

Carol Blood, a Nebraska state senator, calls the situation an “environmental catastrophe.”  Fish die-offs have been reported miles downstream from the plant and university researchers have reported the decimation of dozens of honeybee colonies, while state officials have received reports of sick and dying geese and other birds.

See this May 29, 2021 story in the Guardian.

As reported in the Guardian, the contamination has been ongoing for years. There have been accidental spills and leaks of the plant’s pesticide-laden waste, which has been stored in poorly maintained lagoons and piled into hills of a putrid lime-green mash called “wet cake.” The company had also distributed the waste to area farmers for spreading across fields as “soil conditioner.”

It was only earlier this year – after the Guardian exposed the problems – that state officials ordered the plant to close, and began clean-up efforts. In February, roughly  a month after the revelations about the dangers of the AltEn plant’s practice of using pesticide-treated seeds, Nebraska state regulators ordered the plant closed.  

The Nebraska Attorney General’s office sued the company in March, alleging multiple violations of environmental regulations and said there is an “ongoing threat to the environment,” because of AltEn’s actions.

Nebraska lawmakers also have now passed a bill restricting the use of pesticide-treated seeds for ethanol production.

And researchers from the University of Nebraska and from Creighton University are launching a 10-year study of the impacts of the AltEn contamination on human and environmental health.

On June 10, 2021, the state announced that a coalition of seed companies – calling themselves the AltEn Facility Response Group – has formally asked the state to allow them develop and help implement short- and long-term remediation plans for the environmental cleanup.

The concerns in Mead are but the latest example of growing global fear about the impacts of neonicotinoids.

See here some of the regulatory documents related to the controversy as well as other background materials:

May 20, 2021 Bayer to NDEE email re pipe leak

May 20, 2021 seed company letter to NDEE re cattle facility sale

May 18, 2021 Bayer email with NDEE over pipe leak report

May 17, 2021 memorandum with aerial photos of AltEn site

May 14, 2021, NDEE approves Bayer request on AltEn water movement 

May 7, 2021 letter regarding pond pesticide sampling concerns

April 8 letter regarding soil sampling at Mead City Park

March 31, 2021 pond sampling results letter

Feb 14, 2021  inspection report of leak

Jan 13, 2021 EPA OPP letter to NDEE regarding pesticides in ethanol wastewater lagoons

Nov. 17, 2020, EPA OPP letter to NDEE regarding pesticides in AltEn wet cake 

Analysis of wetcake distillers grains

Wastewater analysis 

April 2018 citizen complaint

State response to April 2018 complaints

May 2018 state response to complaints

AltEn Stop use & sell letter June 2019

State letter denying permits and discussing problems

May 2018 list of farmers where they spread the waste

July 2018 discussion of wetcake being treated seed

Sept 2020 letter re spills with photos

October 2020 letter of noncompliance

February 2013 permit application from AltEn

Aerial Photos of site taken by state

How Neonicotinoids Can Kill Bees

Trends in neonicotinoid pesticide residues in food and water in the United States, 1999-2015

Letter from health experts to EPA warning on neonicotinoids

Letter from Endocrine Society to EPA on neonicotinoids 

Neonicotinoid pesticides can stay in the U.S. market, EPA says

Petition to California to regulate neonic-treated seeds

Vanishing Bees: Science, Politics and Honeybee Health (Rutgers University Press, 2017)

See photos below taken by Nebraska state investigators in May 2021 and provided to US Right to Know.

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Consolidation approved for lawsuits against Syngenta and Chevron over herbicide

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A U.S. judicial panel has ordered the pretrial consolidation of dozens of lawsuits against Syngenta and Chevron over allegations that paraquat weed killer, which has been used widely around the world for more than 50 years, causes Parkinson’s disease.

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation said that “to date, 77 actions and potential tag-along actions are pending in sixteen different districts,” and they all involve “common factual issues concerning the propensity of paraquat to cause Parkinson’s Disease.” The cases will include “complex scientific and regulatory issues,” the panel said.

“Centralization will eliminate duplicative discovery; avoid inconsistent pretrial rulings; and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel and the judiciary,” the panel stated in its order.

The panel determined the cases will be transferred to the federal court in the Southern District of Illinois and assigned to U.S. Judge Nancy Rosenstengel for handling.

Lawyer Majed Nachawati, whose firm is among those representing hundreds of plaintiffs suing Syngenta and Chevron, applauded the decision, and said the litigation is “monumentally important.” It was Nachawati’s firm that requested the MDL.

Syngenta, a Swiss company owned by a larger Chinese chemical company, developed and markets the paraquat-based Gramoxone brand, while Chevron has been a distributor of Syngenta’s paraquat products in the United States.

The formation of the paraquat multidistrict litigation (MDL) underscores the legal threat Syngenta faces in the litigation.  An MDL was also formed for the lawsuits filed against Monsanto over allegations that its Roundup weed killers cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma; ultimately tens of thousands of people sued the company for such claims and Monsanto’s owner, Bayer AG, is now facing settlement payouts of more than $10 billion.

Syngenta said in a statement that it agrees with the decision to coordinate the various federal lawsuits before one judge.

“This will help the parties and the courts proceed in a timely and efficient way,” the company said.

Chevron did not respond to a request for comment.

Used since the ’60s

Paraquat has been used in the United States since 1964 as a tool to kill broadleaf weeds and grasses. Farmers often use paraquat before planting crops or before those crops emerge. It has long been known to be extremely dangerous to anyone who ingests even a small amount, and regulators have issued warnings and placed restrictions on its use because of poisoning risks.

The body of science showing links between Parkinson’s disease and paraquat is less clear, having evolved over time. The EPA does not currently confirm a causal link to Parkinson’s disease. But many scientists say the research showing causation is robust.

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.

The Agricultural Health Study (AHS), which is backed by numerous U.S. agencies and researchers, has found that “exposure to agricultural pesticides may increase a person’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.” And in 2011, AHS researchers reported that participants who used paraquat or another pesticide were “twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease” as people who were not exposed to those chemicals.

Syngenta maintains that newer and better research, including by AHS scientists, has discounted a tie between paraquat and Parkinson’s.

In addition to the cases brought on behalf of people suffering from Parkinson’s, additionally, a class action lawsuit was filed in federal court in Iowa on May 3 by a law firm representing people who fear they may get the disease in the future.

The suit seeks “equitable relief in the form of medical monitoring, including, but not limited to, the costs of diagnostic testing” for farmers and others exposed to paraquat who are allegedly at “increased risk” for Parkinson’s, according to the legal filing.

Settlement rumors

What was supposed to be the first trial over allegations that Syngenta’s paraquat causes Parkinson’s has been delayed multiple times and the parties may be nearing a settlement, according to sources close to the case.

The trial in the case of Hoffman V. Syngenta is pending in St. Clair County Circuit Court in Illinois and has had multiple trial dates set and then cancelled, the most recent earlier this month.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs in that case had pronounced publicly that he had internal Syngenta documents that would expose the company’s alleged knowledge of connections between paraquat and Parkinson’s.

But Syngenta steadfastly has denied any such evidence exists.

“Syngenta has great sympathy for the health issues faced by the plaintiffs and others suffering from the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease,” the company’s statement reads.  “We care deeply about the health and well-being of farmers and are dedicated to providing them safe and effective products. 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.”

Another delay for trial set to examine allegation that Syngenta weed killer causes Parkinson’s

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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 again and may not take place at all, according to sources close to the case.

The trial in the case of Hoffman V. Syngenta was scheduled to start June 1 in St. Clair County Circuit Court in Illinois before Associate Judge Kevin Hoerner. Previously it was set to begin May 10, and prior to that it had a trial date in April.

The cancellation of the June 1 trial date came amid speculation that the parties are deep into settlement talks. No new trial date has yet been set, according to a St. Clair County Circuit Court clerk.

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

The trial was to be livestreamed by Courtroom View Network, and plaintiffs’ attorney Steve Tillery had vowed to unveil decades of internal corporate documents he said would show Syngenta knew its paraquat-based weed killer causes Parkinson’s disease, a disorder that impacts nerve cells in the brain and  leads in advanced cases to severe physical debilitation and often dementia and death.

Tillery would not respond to a request for comment, and a Syngenta spokesman also declined to comment.

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.

The caseload is expected to grow rapidly, and on Thursday the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation heard arguments on a motion filed by the Texas-based law firm of Fears Nachawati asking that pending paraquat lawsuits be consolidated for pretrial proceedings in the Northern District of California, the same federal court where Roundup litigation was consolidated.

Additionally, a class action lawsuit was filed in federal court in Iowa on May 3. The suit seeks “equitable relief in the form of medical monitoring, including, but not limited to, the costs of diagnostic testing” for farmers and others exposed to paraquat who are allegedly at “increased risk” for Parkinson’s, according to the legal filing.

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.”

Syngenta argues that newer and more robust research, including by AHS scientists, has discounted a tie between paraquat and Parkinson’s.

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.

International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a Food Industry Lobby Group

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The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a corporate-funded nonprofit organization based in Washington DC, with 17 affiliated chapters around the world. ILSI describes itself as a group that conducts “science for the public good” and “improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment.” However, investigations by academics, journalists and public interest researchers show that ILSI is a lobby group that protects the interests of the food industry, not public health.

Recent news

  • An April 2021 study in Globalization and Health documents how ILSI plays a key role in helping the food industry shape scientific principles by promoting the acceptance of public-private partnerships and permissiveness about conflicts of interest. 
  • Coca-Cola has severed its longtime ties with ILSI. The move is “a blow to the powerful food organization known for its pro-sugar research and policies,” Bloomberg reported in January 2021.  
  • ILSI helped Coca-Cola Company shape obesity policy in China, according to a September 2020 study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh. “Beneath ILSI’s public narrative of unbiased science and no policy advocacy lay a maze of hidden channels companies used to advance their interests. Working through those channels, Coca Cola influenced China’s science and policy making during every phase in the policy process, from framing the issues to drafting official policy,” the paper concludes.

  • Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know add more evidence that ILSI is a food industry front group. A May 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition based on the documents reveal “a pattern of activity in which ILSI sought to exploit the credibility of scientists and academics to bolster industry positions and promote industry-devised content in its meetings, journal, and other activities.” See coverage in The BMJ, Food and drink industry sought to influence scientists and academics, emails show  (5.22.20)

  • Corporate Accountability’s April 2020 report examines how food and beverage corporations have leveraged ILSI to infiltrate the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and cripple progress on nutrition policy around the globe. See coverage in The BMJ, Food and soft drink industry has too much influence over US dietary guidelines, report says (4.24.20) 

  • New York Times investigation by Andrew Jacobs reveals that a trustee of the industry-funded nonprofit ILSI advised the Indian government against going ahead with warning labels on unhealthy foods. The Times described ILSI as a “shadowy industry group” and “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of.” (9.16.19) The Times cited a June study in Globalization and Health co-authored by Gary Ruskin of U.S. Right to Know reporting that ILSI operates as a lobby arm for its food and pesticide industry funders.

  • The New York Times revealed the undisclosed ILSI ties of Bradley C. Johnston, a co-author of five recent studies claiming red and processed meat don’t pose significant health problems. Johnston used similar methods in an ILSI-funded study to claim sugar is not a problem. (10.4.19)

  • Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog, ILSI: true colors revealed (10.3.19)

ILSI ties to Coca-Cola 

ILSI was founded in 1978 by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola who worked for Coke from 1969-2001. Coca-Cola has kept close ties with ILSI. Michael Ernest Knowles, Coca-Cola’s VP of global scientific and regulatory affairs from 2008–2013, was president of ILSI from 2009-2011. In 2015, ILSI’s president was Rhona Applebaum, who retired from her job as Coca-Cola’s chief health and science officer (and from ILSI) in 2015 after the New York Times and Associated Press reported that Coke funded the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network to help shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks.  

Corporate funding 

ILSI is funded by its corporate members and company supporters, including leading food and chemical companies. ILSI acknowledges receiving funding from industry but does not publicly disclose who donates or how much they contribute. Our research reveals:

  • Corporate contributions to ILSI Global amounting to $2.4 million in 2012. This included $528,500 from CropLife International, a $500,000 contribution from Monsanto and $163,500 from Coca-Cola.
  • A draft 2013 ILSI tax return shows ILSI received $337,000 from Coca-Cola and more than $100,000 each from Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrisciences, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer CropScience and BASF.
  • A draft 2016 ILSI North America tax return shows a $317,827 contribution from PepsiCo, contributions greater than $200,000 from Mars, Coca-Cola, and Mondelez, and contributions greater than $100,000 from General Mills, Nestle, Kellogg, Hershey, Kraft, Dr. Pepper, Snapple Group, Starbucks Coffee, Cargill, Uniliver and Campbell Soup.  

Emails show how ILSI seeks to influence policy to promote industry views 

A May 2020 study in Public Health Nutrition adds evidence that ILSI is a food industry front group. The study, based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records requests, reveals how ILSI promotes the interests of the food and agrichemical industries, including ILSI’s role in defending controversial food ingredients and suppressing views that are unfavorable to industry; that corporations such as Coca-Cola can earmark contributions to ILSI for specific programs; and, how ILSI uses academics for their authority but allows industry hidden influence in their publications.

The study also reveals new details about which companies fund ILSI and its branches, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions documented from leading junk food, soda and chemical companies.

A June 2019 paper in Globalization and Health provides several examples of how ILSI advances the interests of the food industry, especially by promoting industry-friendly science and arguments to policymakers. The study is based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via state public records laws.  

The researchers concluded: “ILSI seeks to influence individuals, positions, and policy, both nationally and internationally, and its corporate members deploy it as a tool to promote their interests globally. Our analysis of ILSI serves as a caution to those involved in global health governance to be wary of putatively independent research groups, and to practice due diligence before relying upon their funded studies and/or engaging in relationship with such groups.”   

ILSI undermined obesity fight in China

In January 2019, two papers by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh revealed ILSI’s powerful influence on the Chinese government on issues related to obesity. The papers document how Coca-Cola and other corporations worked through the China branch of ILSI to influence decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Read the papers:

ILSI is so well-placed in China that it operates from inside the government’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.

Professor Geenhalgh’s papers document how Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants “helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related diseases” by operating through ILSI to cultivate key Chinese officials “in an effort to stave off the growing movement for food regulation and soda taxes that has been sweeping the west,” the New York Times reported.  

Additional academic research from U.S. Right to Know about ILSI 

The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has over 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI.  

ILSI sugar study “right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook”

Public health experts denounced an ILSI-funded sugar study published in a prominent medical journal in 2016 that was a “scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar,” reported Anahad O’Connor in The New York Times. The ILSI-funded study argued that warnings to cut sugar are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.  

The Times story quoted Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research, on the ILSI study: “This comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science,” Nestle said. “This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful.” 

Tobacco companies used ILSI to thwart policy 

A July 2000 report by an independent committee of the World Health Organization outlined a number of ways in which the tobacco industry attempted to undermine WHO tobacco control efforts, including using scientific groups to influence WHO’s decision-making and to manipulate scientific debate surrounding the health effects of tobacco. ILSI played a key role in these efforts, according to a case study on ILSI that accompanied the report. Findings indicate that ILSI was used by certain tobacco companies to thwart tobacco control policies. Senior office bearers in ILSI were directly involved in these actions,” according to the case study. See: 

The UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents Archive has more than 6,800 documents pertaining to ILSI

ILSI leaders helped defend glyphosate as chairs of key panel 

In May 2016, ILSI came under scrutiny after revelations that the vice president of ILSI Europe, Professor Alan Boobis, was also chairman of a UN panel that found Monsanto’s chemical glyphosate was unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. The co-chair of the UN Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), Professor Angelo Moretto, was a board member of ILSI’s Health and Environment Services Institute. Neither of the JMPR chairs declared their ILSI leadership roles as conflicts of interest, despite the significant financial contributions ILSI has received from Monsanto and the pesticide industry trade group. See: 

ILSI’s cozy ties at U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  

In June 2016, U.S. Right to Know reported that Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of a CDC division charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, tried to help ILSI’s founder Alex Malaspina influence World Health Organization officials to back off policies to reduce sugar consumption. Bowman suggested people and groups for Malaspina to talk to, and solicited his comments on some CDC summaries of reports, the emails show. (Bowman stepped down after our first article was published reporting on these ties.)

This January 2019 study in the Milbank Quarterly describes key emails of Malaspina cozying up to Dr. Bowman. For more reporting on this topic, see: 

ILSI influence on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

report by the nonprofit group Corporate Accountability documents how ILSI has major influence on U.S. dietary guidelines via its infiltration of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.  The report examines the pervasive political interference of food and beverage transnationals like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, and how these corporations have leveraged the International Life Sciences Institute to cripple progress on nutrition policy across the globe.

ILSI influence in India 

The New York Times reported on ILSI’s influence in India in its article titled, “A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World.”

ILSI has close ties to some Indian government officials and, as in China, the nonprofit has pushed similar messaging and policy proposals as Coca-Cola – downplaying the role of sugar and diet as a cause of obesity, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution, according to the India Resource Center. 

Members of ILSI India’s board of trustees include Coca-Cola India’s director of regulatory affairs and representatives from Nestlé and Ajinomoto, a food additive company, along with government officials who serve on scientific panels that are tasked with deciding about food safety issues.  

Longstanding concerns about ILSI 

ILSI insists it is not an industry lobby group, but concerns and complaints are longstanding about the group’s pro-industry stances and conflicts of interest among the organization’s leaders. See, for example:

Untangle food industry influences, Nature Medicine (2019)

Food agency denies conflict-of-interest claim. But accusations of industry ties may taint European body’s reputation, Nature (2010)

Big Food Vs. Tim Noakes: The Final Crusade, Keep Fitness Legal, by Russ Greene (1.5.17) 

Real Food on Trial, by Dr. Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros (Columbus Publishing 2019). The book describes “the unprecedented prosecution and persecution of Professor Tim Noakes, a distinguished scientist and medical doctor, in a multimillion rand case that stretched over more than four years. All for a single tweet giving his opinion on nutrition.”

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.”

Neonicotinoids: a growing concern

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On January 10, The Guardian published this story about a small rural Nebraska community that has been struggling for at least two years with contamination tied to neonicotinoid-coated corn seed. The source is an area ethanol plant that has been marketing itself as a free “recycling” location for seed companies such as Bayer, Syngenta and others who needed a place to get rid of excess supplies of these pesticide-treated seed stocks. The result, the townspeople say, is a landscape laced with stunningly high levels of neonicotinoid residues, which they say have triggered illnesses in both humans and animals. They fear their land and water are now irreparably contaminated.

State environmental officials have recorded levels of the neonicotinoids at a staggering 427,000 parts per billion (ppb) in testing of one of the large hills of waste on the site of the ethanol plant property. That compares to regulatory benchmarks saying levels must be under 70 ppb to be considered safe.

See this page for more details and documents.

The tale of the toll on the community in Mead, Nebraska, is but the latest sign that state and federal regulatory oversight of neonicotinoids needs to be strengthened, according to environmental advocates and researchers from several U.S. universities.

Most widely used insecticides

The controversy over the class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics, has been growing in recent years and has become a global conflict between the corporate behemoths that sell neonics and environmental and consumer groups who say the insecticides are responsible for extensive environmental and human health harm.

Since being introduced in the 1990s, neonicotinoids have become the world’s most widely used class of insecticides, sold in at least 120 countries to help control damaging insects and protect agricultural production. The insecticides are not only sprayed on plants but also coated on seeds. Neonicotinoids are used in producing many types of crops, including rice, cotton, corn, potatoes and soybeans. As of 2014, neonicotinoids represented more than 25 percent of the global pesticide market, according to researchers.

Within the class, clothianidin and imidacloprid are the most commonly used in the United States, according to a 2019 paper published in the journal Environmental Health.

In January 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency released a proposed interim decisions for acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam, specific insecticides within the neonicotinoid class. The EPA said it was working to reduce the amount used on crops associated with “potential ecological risks,” restricting when the pesticides could be applied to blooming crops.

Tied to bee deaths

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that neonicotinoids are a factor in the widespread colony collapse disorder of bees, which are essential pollinators in food production. They are also seen as at least partly to blame for an “insect apocalypse. The insecticides have also been tied to serious defects in white-tailed deer, deepening concerns over the chemical’s potential to harm large mammals, including people.

The European Union banned the outdoor use of neonics clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam in 2018, and the United Nations says neonics are so hazardous that they should be “severely” restricted. But in the United States, neonics remain widely used.

Bayer’s Shady PR Firms: FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, FTI Consulting

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Originally posted May 2019; updated November 2020

In this post, U.S. Right to Know is tracking public deception scandals involving PR firms that agrichemical giants Bayer AG and Monsanto have relied on for their product defense campaigns: FTI consulting, Ketchum PR and FleishmanHillard. These firms have long histories of using deceptive tactics to promote the political agendas of their clients, including pesticide, tobacco and oil industry defense campaigns.

Recent scandals

NYT exposes FTI Consulting firm’s shady tactics for the oil industry: In a Nov. 11, 2020 New York Times article, Hiroko Tabuchi reveals how FTI Consulting “helped design, staff and run organizations and websites funded by energy companies that can appear to represent grassroots support for fossil-fuel initiatives.” Based on her interviews with a dozen former FTI staffers and hundreds of internal documents, Tabuchi reports on how FTI monitored environmental activists, ran astroturf political campaigns, staffed two news and information sites and wrote pro-industry articles on fracking, climate lawsuits and other hot-button issues with direction from Exxon Mobile.

Monsanto and its PR firms orchestrated GOP effort to intimidate cancer researchers: Lee Fang reported for The Intercept in 2019 on documents suggesting that Monsanto antagonized regulators and applied pressure to shape research of the world’s leading herbicide, glyphosate. The story reports on deceptive PR tactics, including how FTI Consulting drafted a letter about glyphosate science signed by a senior GOP congressman.

Monsanto documents reveal tactics to discredit public interest investigation: Internal Monsanto documents released via litigation in August 2019 revealed a range of tactics the company and its PR firms used to target journalists and other influencers who raised concerns about pesticides and GMOs, and tried to counter an investigation into their activities by U.S. Right to Know.

See USRTK’s fact sheets, based on documents obtained from our investigation, reporting on third-parties engaged in pesticide industry defense: Tracking the Pesticide Industry Propaganda Network.

In May 2019, we reported on several scandals involving Bayer’s PR firms:

‘Monsanto File’ scandal

Journalists at Le Monde reported May 9 that they obtained a “Monsanto File” created by the public relations firm FleishmanHillard listing a “multitude of information” about 200 journalists, politicians, scientists and others deemed likely to influence the debate on glyphosate in France. Le Monde filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office alleging that the document involved illegal collection and processing of personal data, spurring the prosecutor’s office to open a criminal probe. “This is a very important discovery because it shows there are objective strategies to silence strong voices. I can see they were trying to isolate me,” France’s former Environment Minister Segolene Royal, who is on the list, told France 24 TV.

“This is a very important discovery because it shows there are objective strategies to silence strong voices.”

Francois Veillerette, an environmentalist also on the list, told France 24 that it contained personal contact details, opinions and level of engagement in relation to Monsanto. “This is a major shock in France,” he said. “We don’t think this is normal.” Bayer has since admitted that FleishmanHillard drew up “‘watch lists’ of pro- or anti-pesticides figures” in seven countries across Europe, the AFP reported. The lists contained information about journalists, politicians and other interest groups. The AFP said it filed a complaint with a French regulatory agency because some of its journalists were on the list that surfaced in France.

Bayer apologized and said it suspended its relationship with the firms involved, including FleishmanHillard and Publicis Consultants, pending an investigation. “Our highest priority is to create transparency,” Bayer said. “We do not tolerate unethical behavior in our company.” (The firms were later cleared of wrongdoing by the law firm hired by Bayer.)

Further reading:

Posing as a reporter at Monsanto cancer trial

Adding to Bayer’s PR troubles, AFP reported on May 18 that an employee of another “crisis management” PR firm that works with Bayer and Monsanto — FTI Consulting — was caught posing as a freelance journalist at a federal trial in San Francisco that ended with an $80 million judgment against Bayer over glyphosate cancer concerns.

The FTI Consulting employee Sylvie Barak was seen chatted up reporters about story ideas at the trial. She claimed to work for the BBC and did not disclose that she actually worked for a PR firm.

Further reading:

Ketchum and FleishmanHillard run GMO PR salvo

In 2013, the agrichemical industry tapped FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, both owned by Omnicom, to head up a PR offensive to rehabilitate the image of its embattled GMO and pesticide products. Monsanto selected FleishmanHillard to “reshape” its reputation amid “fierce opposition” to genetically modified foods, according to the Holmes Report. Around the same time, FleishmanHillard also became the PR agency of record for Bayer, and the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) — a trade group funded by Bayer (Monsanto), Corteva (DowDuPont), Syngenta and BASF — hired Ketchum public relations firm to launch a marketing campaign called GMO Answers.

Spin tactics employed by these firms included “wooing mommy bloggers” and using the voices of supposedly “independent” experts to “clear up confusion and mistrust” about GMOs. However, evidence surfaced that the PR firms edited and scripted some of the “independent” experts. For example, documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Ketchum scripted posts for GMO Answers that were signed by a University of Florida professor who claimed to be independent as he worked behind the scenes with Monsanto on PR projects. A senior vice president at FleishmanHillard edited the speech of a UC Davis professor and coached her how to “win over people in the room” at an IQ2 debate to convince the public to accept GMOs. Ketchum also gave the professor talking points for a radio interview about a scientific study.

Academics were important messengers for industry lobbying efforts to oppose GMO labeling, reported the New York Times in 2015. “Professors/researchers/scientists have a big white hat in this debate and support in their states, from politicians to producers,” Bill Mashek, a vice president at Ketchum, wrote to the University of Florida professor. “Keep it up!”  The industry trade group CBI has spent over $11 million on Ketchum’s GMO Answers since 2013, according to tax records.

GMO Answers ‘crisis management’ success

As one sign of its success as a PR spin tool, GMO Answers was shortlisted for a CLIO advertising award in 2014 in the category of “Crisis Management & Issue Management.” In this video for CLIO, Ketchum bragged about how it nearly doubled positive media attention of GMOs and “balanced 80% of interactions”  on Twitter. Many of those online interactions are from accounts that appear independent and do not disclose their connection to industry’s PR campaign.

Although the Ketchum video claimed GMO Answers would “redefine transparency” with information from experts with “nothing filtered or censored, and no voices silenced,” a Monsanto PR plan suggests the company counted on GMO Answers to help spin its products in a positive light. The document from 2015 listed GMO Answers among the “industry partners” that could help protect Roundup from cancer concerns; in a “resources” section on page 4, the plan listed links to GMO Answers alongside Monsanto documents that could communicate the company message that “Glyphosate is not carcinogenic.”

This Ketchum video was posted to the CLIO website and removed after we called attention to it.

Further reading:

Histories of deception: FleishmanHillard, Ketchum

Why any company would put FleishmanHillard or Ketchum, both owned by the PR conglomerate Omnicom, in front of efforts to inspire trust is difficult to understand. Both companies have long histories of documented deception. For example:

Until 2016, Ketchum was the PR firm for Russia and Vladimir Putin. According to documents obtained by ProPublica, Ketchum was caught placing pro-Putin op-eds under the names of “seemingly independent professionals” in various news outlets. In 2015, the embattled Honduran government hired Ketchum to try to rehabilitate its reputation after a multi-million dollar corruption scandal.

Documents leaked to Mother Jones indicate that Ketchum worked with a private security firm that “spied on Greenpeace and other environmental organizations from the late 1990s through at least 2000, pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings.” FleishmanHillard was also caught using unethical espionage tactics against public health and tobacco control advocates on behalf of the tobacco company R. J. Reynolds, according to a study by Ruth Malone in the American Journal of Public Health. The PR firm even secretly audiotaped tobacco control meetings and conferences.

FleishmanHillard was the public relations firm for The Tobacco Institute, the cigarette industry’s main lobbying organization, for seven years. In a 1996 Washington Post article, Morton Mintz recounted the story of how FleishmanHillard and the Tobacco Institute converted the Healthy Buildings Institute into a front group for the tobacco industry in its effort to spin away public concern about the dangers of second-hand smoke. Ketchum also did work for the tobacco industry.

Both firms have at times worked on both sides of an issue. FleishmanHillard has been hired for anti-smoking campaigns. In 2017, Ketchum launched a spin-off firm called Cultivate to cash in on the growing organic food market, even though Ketchum’s GMO Answers has disparaged organic food, claiming that consumers pay a “hefty premium” for food that is no better than conventionally-grown food.

Further reading:

FTI Consulting: climate deception, tobacco ties

FTI Consulting, the “crisis management” PR firm that works with Bayer and whose employee was caught impersonating a journalist at the recent Roundup cancer trial in San Francisco, shares several similarities with FleishmanHillard and Ketchum, including its use of covert tactics, lack of transparency and history of working with the tobacco industry.

The firm is known as a key player in ExxonMobil’s efforts to evade responsibility for climate change. As Elana Schor and Andrew Restuccia reported in Politico in 2016:

“Aside from [Exxon] itself, the most vocal resistance to the greens has come from FTI Consulting, a firm filled with former Republican aides that has helped unify the GOP in defense of fossil fuels. Under the banner of Energy in Depth, a project it runs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, FTI has peppered reporters with emails that suggest “collusion” between green activists and state AGs, and has raised questions over InsideClimate’s Rockefeller grants.”

FTI Consulting employees have been caught impersonating journalists before. Karen Savage reported in January 2019 in Climate Liability News, “Two public relations strategists representing Exxon recently posed as journalists in an attempt to interview an attorney representing Colorado communities that are suing Exxon for climate change-related damages. The strategists—Michael Sandoval and Matt Dempsey—are employed by FTI Consulting, a firm long linked with the oil and gas industry.” According to Climate Liability News, the two men were listed as writers for Western Wire, a website run by oil interests and staffed with strategists from FTI Consulting, which also provides staff to Energy In Depth, a pro-fossil fuel “research, education and public outreach campaign.”

Energy In Depth presented itself as a “mom and pop shop” representing small energy providers but was created by major oil and gas companies to lobby for deregulation, DeSmog blog reported in 2011. The Greenpeace group uncovered a 2009 industry memo describing Energy In Depth as a “new industry-wide campaign… to combat new environmental regulations, especially with regard to hydraulic fracturing” that “would not be possible without the early financial commitments” of major oil and gas interests including BP, Halliburton, Chevron, Shell, XTO Energy (now owned by ExxonMobil).

Another feature in common with all these firms is their tobacco industry ties. FTI Consulting has “a long history of working with the tobacco industry,” according to Tobacco Tactics.org. A search of the UCSF Tobacco Industry Documents library brings up over 2,400 documents relating to FTI Consulting.

Further reading:

More reporting on Bayer’s PR scandals

Coverage in French

Coverage in English