Iowa farmer brings class-action claim over herbicide banned by other nations

Farmers could be hurt by new Biden administration rules, Sen. Chuck Grassley said. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service)

An Iowa farmer is leading a nationwide class-action lawsuit against the manufacturers of a commonly used weed killer linked to Parkinson’s disease.

It is one of a spate of class-action claims filed in just the past two weeks against the makers and distributors of Paraquat, a herbicide banned by China and many other nations but still legal to sell and use in the United States.

The Iowa case was filed May 3rd in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa on behalf of Doug Holliday, who farms thousands of acres near Greenfield in Adair County. Holliday has allegedly been using Paraquat on his ground crops since the 1990s. On behalf of himself and other farmers who have used Paraquat, he is suing the companies Syngenta and Chevron for manufacturing and selling Paraquat in Iowa and throughout the United States.

Paraquat is a synthetic chemical compound used since the mid-1960s as a weed killer, although the lawsuit alleges it is “the most highly, acutely toxic herbicide to be marketed over the last 70 years.” Paraquat is banned in more than 30 countries, including nations within the European Union, and in China, which is not known for an aggressive regulatory stance on health and environmental issues.

The lawsuit alleges Paraquat causes Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative, debilitating neuromuscular disorder for which there is no cure. The defendants are accused of failing to adequately warn Holliday and other users that exposure to Paraquat significantly increases their risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, and with failing to adequately test Paraquat.

Syngenta is based in Switzerland, which has banned the use of Paraquat since 1989. Chevron is a Pennsylvania corporation with its principal place of business in California. The two have yet to file a response to the Iowa lawsuit, but have defended Paraquat and questioned the studies linking it to Parkinson’s disease.

Paraquat was first introduced in 1962 and sold under the brand name Gramoxone. From 1964 to 1986, the chemical was sold in the United States by Chevron. Since 1964, Paraquat has been used in the United States to kill broadleaf weeds and grasses before the planting of field, fruit, vegetable and plantation crops and to control weeds in orchards. It was typically sold in the form of liquid concentrates and applied using a knapsack sprayer, hand-held sprayer or an aerial crop duster.

2011 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health and the Parkinson’s Institute collected data from a federal survey of farm families in Iowa and North Carolina, and concluded that those individuals were two and a half times more likely to develop Parkinson’s if they had used Paraquat or another herbicide, Rotenone.

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency noted that “there is a large body of epidemiology data on Paraquat dichloride use and Parkinson’s disease,” but the product remains legal to sell and use in the United States where its use in soybean fields has grown.

According to the lawsuit, the federal government estimates that in 2017 alone, more than 15 million pounds of Paraquat were applied to American croplands. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes Paraquat as “high poisonous,” and the fact that consuming just one tablespoon is likely to cause death has led to its use in suicides among farmers.

The lawsuit alleges that “despite the evidence demonstrating this heightened risk and causal link, the defendants continue to sell Paraquat, without properly warning consumers, properly testing Paraquat, or changing the formulation to reduce the likelihood of exposure.”

The plaintiffs are requesting a court order certifying the lawsuit as a class-action claim along with relief for the plaintiffs “in the form of medical monitoring, including, but not limited to, the costs of diagnostic testing.”

Over the past several years, the use of Paraquat increased as an alternative herbicide, Roundup, has come under increasing scrutiny as a possible carcinogen. In the past year, several law firms around the nation have launched class-action claims related to Paraquat and Parkinson’s disease. One firm has established a website with the domain name MyParaquatLawyer.com.

Earlier this month, six lawsuits were filed in one day in federal courts across three states — Pennsylvania, California and Illinois — and there are now close to 70 Paraquat lawsuits pending in courts across the nation.

One of the first lawsuits of this type is expected to go to trial in Illinois state court next month. That case, Thomas Hoffman v. Syngenta, was filed in 2017. It is being closely watched by lawyers on both sides of the Paraquat issue, as it could shape the course of the newly filed cases.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.