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In 2018, a California school groundskeeper took Monsanto Company to court, alleging that Roundup, one of America's most popular weed killers, caused his Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer.
The jury agreed and ordered Monsanto to pay the man $289 million in damages, concluding the world's first Roundup cancer trial.
Since then, more than 100,000 plaintiffs exposed to Roundup have sought retributions in the courts. While Bayer, the colossal German chemical and pharmaceutical company that now owns Monsanto, has agreed to pay billions of dollars to put these cancer lawsuits to rest, legal experts say migrant farmworkers, who are at the forefront of pesticide and herbicide exposures—including Roundup—are expected to be left out.
It is hard to know exactly how many migrant farmworkers have filed lawsuits against Bayer. However, after speaking with law firms that have represented plaintiffs from major Roundup cancer lawsuits and farmworker organizations across the country, Environmental Health News has found little evidence that any migrant farmworkers have done so. Fear of retaliation, and a lack of legal resources and legal immigration status, has diminished migrant farmworkers' likelihood to seek justice and compensation.
Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman is the law firm that co-represented Dewayne Lee Johnson—the high school groundskeeper in the first-ever Roundup cancer trial. The firm, which has since represented about 3,400 plaintiffs in Roundup cancer lawsuits, told EHN that no farmworkers have come to the firm asking to be represented. The firm also noted that when they asked the United Farm Workers (UFW), one of the nation's largest agricultural workers' organizations, how many UFW farmworkers had come forward for the settlement, the answer was none.
In an email to EHN, Moore Law Group, the Louisville, Kentucky-based law firm that co-represented the plaintiff Edwin Hardeman in the second Roundup cancer trial and claims to represent thousands of individuals across the country who have been exposed to Roundup and developed Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, also wrote, "we do not represent any migrant farmworkers to our knowledge." "[Migrant farmworkers] are in a really difficult position," Jennifer Moore, founder of the firm and co-trial counsel for Edwin Hardeman, told EHN. "If their immigration status is in question, they might be scared to come forward."
Roughly half of the more-than-one-million crop farmworkers in the U.S. do not have work authorization, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, though the real number is hard to measure and is predicted to be more. The same data states that the highest percentage of unauthorized farmworkers in the U.S. is in California. Although the exact number is hard to obtain, researchers and advocates estimate that more than 60% of the 400,000-plus farmworkers in California lack legal status.
"Given the fact that so many farmworkers are undocumented, it is really, really challenging to expect that they would come forward in a lawsuit," Laurie Beyranevand, a law professor at Vermont Law School who directs the school's Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, told EHN. "Just putting their name out in a public record or to be part of the class and give testimony that is public... that [itself] creates a tremendous amount of challenges and obstacles for farmworkers."
Migrant farmworkers' pesticide exposure
Roughly half of the more-than-one-million crop farmworkers in the U.S. do not have work authorization, according to USDA data. Salinas Valley, California, is a major agricultural hub that relies heavily on migrant labor. (Credit: David Prasad/flickr)
The lack of migrant farmworkers in the Roundup settlement does not mean that they are not exposed to the weed killer. "Farmworkers, either directly or indirectly, are working with a lot of dangerous chemicals such as glyphosate," Eriberto Fernández of the United Farm Workers Foundation, a sister organization to the UFW, told EHN.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And farming accounts for 90% of glyphosate use in this country, according to a 2018 study, which also estimated that since Monsanto introduced Roundup in 1974, overall use of glyphosate increased 200-fold until 2014. Ninety percent of this increase, the review found, came from agriculture.
Take California, one of the top agricultural states in the U.S. The entire state is in "a glyphosate bath," Martha Richmond, an environmental biochemist at Suffolk University in Boston who was the author of the review, told EHN. "I was horrified when I looked at this data." In 2017, California applied more than 200 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients to more than 100 million acres of farmland, the state's Pesticide Use Report calculated. And glyphosate, according to the report, was sprayed on more acres than any other pesticide and was in the top three pesticides used by weight.
Farmworkers are often exposed to a plethora of chemicals, which makes the situation messier. Roundup is just "one of a whole toxic soup of pesticides" that farmworkers are exposed to, Jeannie Economos, the health and safety coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida, told EHN.
"On many occasions, they would fumigate right next to me while I was picking fruits," Ernestina Solorio, a Mexican farmworker who came to Watsonville, California, in 1993, told EHN. "I just picked the fruit and nobody told me what they were spraying."
As such, it's even harder for farmworkers to establish causation when litigating against a specific pesticide manufacturer for the harms caused, Beyranevand said. To build a strong case, she explained, a farmworker would need experts to document what's being sprayed, what chemicals the farmworker was exposed to, and a medical expert to testify the connection between that particular chemical and the medical conditions that the worker has. In the case of Edwin Hardeman vs. Monsanto, for instance, the plaintiff's team "assembled a large number of world renowned experts" on Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma to explain the science to the jury, Hardeman's co-trial counsel Moore told EHN.
"You have to build your case," said Moore. "It is very costly."
Roundup cancer link
For decades, Monsanto, now part of Bayer, has claimed Roundup is safe to use. However, in 2015 the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listed glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans."
Although Monsanto immediately pushed back, many countries—including Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam—banned or restricted the use of glyphosate-based herbicides since the WHO's announcement.
"A lot of people think that if a chemical is on the market, it must have been approved by the government," Dr. Philip Landrigan, an environmental epidemiologist at Boston College who formerly served as the Chief for Environmental Hazards Activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told EHN. "But in fact, many of the chemicals on the market have received only minimal scrutiny and examination."
"I can say with a high degree of confidence that I believe that glyphosate causes lymphoma," Landrigan added.
U.S. regulatory agencies, meanwhile, assert that glyphosate is safe. In January 2020, the EPA reapproved the use of glyphosate as a herbicide, saying that the agency found "no risks of concern to human health" from current uses. Additionally, the EPA claims that there is "no evidence that glyphosate causes cancer in humans" and "no indication that children are more sensitive to glyphosate."
Critics, however, denounced the EPA's decision and raised concerns about its close ties with the pesticide industry. For example, former EPA official Jess Rowland allegedly told a Monsanto executive, "If I can kill this I should get a medal," while referring to a potential negative review of the weedkiller from another government agency, according to court documents.
Bayer still stands by its safety claim today. In an email statement, a Bayer spokesperson told EHN that, "Roundup has been assessed and approved by independent health regulators worldwide, including the EPA, which have found that Roundup can be used safely as directed." However, following the costly lawsuits, Bayer announced this July that the company will pull glyphosate-based products from U.S. residential markets, but not from the commercial and agricultural markets.
Farmworker workplace protections
Workers in a farm field in Nipomo, California, in San Luis Obispo County. (Credit: Tony Webster/flickr)
Studies have shown that pesticide exposure is a known health risk for farmworkers. Even so, farmworkers seldom come forward to report exposure incidents, fearing deportation and retaliation, Jaime Chavez, a field organizer for the Rural Coalition, a Washington D.C.-based grassroots organization that represents rural farmers and farmworkers across the country, told EHN. Chavez was not aware of any migrant farmworkers participating in the Roundup cancer lawsuits.
"People are scared because they don't have documents, and if they talk about that [pesticide exposure], they can get fired. Or sometimes the [farm] owner would say 'if you talk, we will call immigration,' " Yesica Ramirez, a farmworker turned organizer for the Farmworker Association of Florida based in Apopka, Florida, told EHN.
Beyond not having legal status, Beyranevand, the Vermont Law School professor, said farmworkers also aren't adequately protected by worker safety laws. .
Currently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) exempts farms with 10 or fewer employees from its safety rules and regulation on. And while OSHA regulates most toxic chemicals in the workplace, the agency does not oversee pesticides in agricultural fields. Instead, pesticides are regulated by the EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.Things got even worse during the Trump administration. In October 2020, the EPA revised its Worker Protection Standards, weakening the application exclusion zone requirements for pesticides in the field and relaxing the rules for suspending pesticide application if workers or the public come in contact with the application area. However, due to petitions, the changes have been temporarily halted.
Inadequate healthcare for farmworkers
In addition to lacking legal rights, farmworkers also lack resources to document and pinpoint damages caused by pesticides even if they were willing to come forward, Beyranevand pointed out.
Federal data showed that migrant farmworkers and their families often have limited access to healthcare. According to the 2015-2016 National Agricultural Workers Survey released by the U.S. Department of Labor, just 47% of the farmworkers interviewed in the survey had health insurance, and only 63% of the farmworkers went to see a healthcare provider in the U.S. in the last two years.
Even when farmworkers do seek medical attention, Richmond of Suffolk University said they often lack access to medical facilities that can provide long-term follow-up to treat chronic diseases. A 2003 Lancet article noted that healthcare providers "seldom receive training in the recognition and treatment of pesticide exposure." As a result, many farmworkers exposed to pesticides have often been misdiagnosed, Economos, of the Farmworker Association of Florida, said.
Economos, who has been working with migrant farmworkers to help them file pesticide exposure complaints for more than 10 years, also thinks they will face immense hurdles to come forward and join the Roundup lawsuits.
"I can't tell you how many times people come to us with reports, and then I write down the details. Then I say, 'Okay, do I have your permission to make your complaint?' They say no," she said. "You have no idea how heartbreaking that is."
Banner photo: Southern California migrant farmworkers. (Credit: Russ Allison Loar/flickr)
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Translocation is a conservation technique that returns lost species to their previous habitats or moves then to new, safer areas in a bid to boost their wild populations. But research shows that it only works about half the time, with failures often linked to low numbers of individual animals being released, or the presence of invasive predators.
A new federal bill proposed last week by U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL), the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act, aims to curb plastic waste and pollution in the U.S. National Park system.
If passed, the legislation would reduce the use of disposable plastic products—including single-use beverage bottles, plastic bags, and plastic foodware—in many national park facilities across the country. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
"No one wants to see single-use plastic pollution in our national parks, and there's no reason we should when sustainable alternatives exist. Single-use plastic products only mar these special places, and their damage can last for centuries despite being used for only a moment," Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director at international ocean advocacy group Oceana, said in a statement.
The United States is one of the largest plastic waste producers in the world. In 2018 alone, the country generated more than 35 million tons of plastic. While most of the plastic was sent to landfills, a significant amount ends up polluting our water and land—including our national parks.
"National parks are bipartisan—everybody loves the national parks," Quigley told EHN. As people continue to appreciate the beauty of national parks, he said, he hopes the bill educates and encourages them to reduce their plastic waste and protect the environment.
Merkley told EHN, "Plastic pollution threatens our ability to live in healthy communities and to enjoy the beauty and majesty of our national parks, today and in the future."
Quigley said he hopes his bill will pass in the House this fall and advance to the Senate floor, adding, "we're going to get very creative on how we move this thing forward."
Reducing plastic sales and use
Representative Mike Quigley
The bill isn't an outright ban on single-use plastic products. Instead, it directs the National Park Service to draft plans for reducing the sale and use of plastic products at the parks. To that end, the bill "is not one size fits all," Quigley said, as each regional park director could tailor the waste-reduction effort for their region.
Scaling down plastic consumption and waste is not a new initiative for the National Park Service. In 2011, the Obama administration issued guidance that encouraged national parks across the country to stop selling plastic water bottles. Under the voluntary plastic ban, 23 out of 417 national parks—including Grand Canyon National Park and Zion National Park—restricted bottled water sales. As a result, Zion National Park in Utah saved 60,000 water bottles, or 5,000 pounds of plastic waste, by installing water stations and selling reusable water bottles, according to a statement from Quigley's office following the announcement of the new bill.
The Trump administration overturned the Obama-era policy in 2017. The reversal came just weeks after the Senate confirmation of David Bernhardt, who was appointed the deputy secretary for the Department of Interior, the governing agency for the National Parks. A former lobbyist, Bernhardt had worked with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the law firm that has represented Deer Park's distributor Nestlé Waters.
A few months before the policy was overturned, the National Park Service published a report stating that the Obama administration's guidance at participating national parks helped save 1.3–2.01 million disposable water bottles every year, reducing 73,000–111,000 pounds of plastic waste annually.
Politics of plastic
Quigley hopes by solidifying the plastic reduction rules into law, the Reducing Waste in National Parks Act will have a better chance of survival regardless of which party holds the White House.
"Rather than rely on the whims of whichever president happens to be in office," Quigley said, "[the bill] would codify this guidance and ensure that future administrations can't reverse it." Before this bill, Quigley tried to introduce similar versions of the act in 2017 and 2019, but both died in Congress.
The National Park Service declined to comment. "NPS does not comment on proposed legislation until we have testified on the legislation (if asked to do so)," the agency's spokesperson told EHN.
Meanwhile, environmental advocacy groups have so far applauded this bill.
"On average, the park service manages nearly 70 million pounds of waste annually, including plastics that pollute lands and waterways and harm our fragile ocean ecosystems," John Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association, an environmental group for national parks throughout the country, told EHN. "The National Park Service and all of us must continue to examine ways to reduce waste, and we applaud the effort of Sen. Merkley and Rep. Quigley to address this important issue."
Banner photo: Yellowstone National Park visitors wait for Old Faithful. (Credit: Nick Amoscato/flickr)
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