Monsanto, and with several tobacco industry giants (Altria Group, Philip Morris Cos., Phillip Morris USA, Carolina Leaf Tobacco, Universal Corporation, Universal Leaf Tobacco Company), are being sued in New Castle County Court by small-time Argentinean tobacco farmers.
The farmers accuse the tobacco distributors and the creator of the Roundup brand herbicide of knowingly poisoning them with herbicides and pesticides and subsequently causing “devastating birth defects” in their children. Included in the alleged birth defects are cerebral palsy, epilepsy, spina bifida, intellectual disabilities, metabolic disorders, congenital heart defects, down syndrome, psychomotor retardation, missing fingers, and blindness.
The family-owned farms were allegedly pressured by the major tobacco companies to use Monsanto’s powerful blends of chemicals to increase yields and decrease loss to pests and weeds. The companies allegedly required the farmers to replace their native tobacco strains with a new type, which is used in Philip Morris cigarettes, but requires heavier use of pesticides. They also allege that the companies told them to use vastly more herbicide than was required to control weeds, in order to clear the land on a large scale. The farmers claim that these companies assured them that Monsanto’s products were safe, and thereby “wrongfully caused the parental and infant plaintiffs to be exposed to those chemicals and substances which they both knew, or should have known, would cause the infant offspring of the parental plaintiffs to be born with devastating birth defects.”
Roundup, a chemical used by most of the farmers in the suit, contains the active ingredient glyphosate, which has been shown to kill human kidney cells, even in low doses, as well as disrupt the endocrine system. The EPA has classified it as a Class III toxic substance, and is deadly to human adults in as little as 30 grams. Monsanto’s other products are also highly controversial, with the MON810 corn variety currently under consideration for an EU-wide ban (it is already forbidden in Hungary, Austria, Germany, Greece, and Luxembourg).
In the U.S., farmers who handle and use pesticides such as Roundup are required to wear protective gear so as not to ingest or come in direct contact with the chemical. These Argentinean family farmers, however, were not wealthy enough to afford such protective gear (or even the training associated with handling dangerous agricultural chemicals), and thus were being directly exposed to large concentrations of glyphosate. The tobacco companies did not warn them of any of the potential dangers or offer to provide them with any protective gear, even after discovering the situations in which the farmers were employing the chemicals in.
Further, the farmers claim that the tobacco companies required them to purchase “excessive quantities” of Roundup, “motivated by a desire for unwarranted economic gain and profit.” They were also allegedly told to dispose of it unsafely. They were allegedly ordered to discard leftover herbicides and pesticides in locations with groundwater close to the surface – and it therefore leached straight into their drinking water supply.
Groundwater contamination by Monsanto’s chemicals (e.g. glyphosate) has been a significant problem in the past. A 2011 study confirmed that 41% of 140 groundwater samples taken from Catalonia, Spain were above the limit of quantification. These findings contradict Monsanto’s insistence that the carcinogenic chemicals break down quickly – in reality, they seem to be leeching into groundwater and sticking around long enough to build up into significant quantities.
The farmers are seeking both compensation and punitive damages for charges including negligence, product liability, breach of warranty, ultra hazardous activity, aiding and abetting, willful and wanton misconduct, and violations of Argentine laws.
Written by Matthew Beck, GIELR staff