(Reuters) – A French court on Monday declared U.S. biotech giant Monsanto guilty of chemical poisoning of a French farmer, a judgment that could lend weight to other health claims against pesticides. In the first such case heard in court in France, grain grower Paul Francois, 47, says he suffered neurological problems including memory loss, headaches and stammering after inhaling Monsanto’s Lasso weed killer in 2004. Not long after, Francois began experiencing lasting symptoms that prevented him from working, which he says were directly linked to exposure to the chemical. Since Lasso’s packaging did not bear adequate warnings about the dangers of exposure, Francois alleged at the time that Monsanto was essentially negligent in providing adequate protection for its customers.
Surprising to many, the French court agreed with the claims and evidence presented before it, declaring earlier this year that “Monsanto is responsible for Paul Francois’ suffering after he inhaled the Lasso product … and must entirely compensate him.” The court is said to be seeking expert opinion on how to gauge Francois’ losses in order to determine precisely how much Monsanto will be required to compensate him in the case. “It is a historic decision in so far as it is the first time that a (pesticide) maker is found guilty of such a poisoning,” said Francois Lafforgue, Paul Francois’ lawyer, to Reuters earlier in the year.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to alachlor can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, spleen, and eyes, and may lead to the development of anemia and even cancer. The EPA apparently views alachlor as so dangerous, in fact that the agency has set the maximum contaminant level goals (MCLG) for alachlor to zero in order to “prevent potential health problems. In 2007, France officially banned Lasso from use in the country in accordance with a European Union (EU) directive enacted in 2006 prohibiting the chemical from further use on crops in any member countries. But despite all the evidence proving that alachlor can disrupt hormonal balance, induce reproductive or developmental problems, and cause cancer, the chemical is still being used on conventional crops throughout the U.S. to this very day.
Lasso, a pre-emergent soil-applied herbicide that has been used since the 1960s to control grasses and broadleaf weeds in farm fields, was banned in France in 2007 following an EU directive after the product had already been withdrawn in some other countries. Though it once was a top-selling herbicide, it has gradually lost popularity, and critics say several studies have shown links to a range of health problems.
Monsanto’s Roundup is now the dominant herbicide used to kill weeds. The company markets it in conjunction with its biotech herbicide-tolerant “Roundup Ready” crops. The Roundup Ready corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops do not die when sprayed directly with the herbicide, a trait that has made them wildly popular with U.S. farmers. But farmers are now being encouraged to use more and different kinds of chemicals again as Roundup loses its effectiveness to a rise of “super weeds” that are resistant to Roundup.
And while the risks of pesticide are a generally known and accepted hazard of farming in most places, and farmers are cautioned to take care when handling the chemicals, increased use of pesticides will only cause more harm to human health and the environment, critic say.
“The registration process does not protect against harm. Manufacturers have to be held liable for adverse impacts that occur,” said Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides, a non-profit group focused on reducing pesticide use.
France, the EU’s largest agricultural producer, is now targeting a 50 percent reduction in pesticide use between 2008 and 2018, with initial results showing a 4 percent cut in farm and non-farm use in 2008-2010. The Francois claim may be easier to argue than others because he can pinpoint a specific incident – inhaling the Lasso when cleaning the tank of his crop sprayer, whereas fellow farmers are trying to show accumulated effects from various products. While this is a victory for Paul Francois and his family, we will have to wait and see if this will benefit any farmers in the United States that have battled the effects of agricultural chemicals without proper safety warnings. The only fact I can provide is that it is too little and too late for my Grandfather who passed away from cancer after many years of farming in the Erie Pa. area. He is one of many I want to remember on this Memorial Day.
With personal and professional regards – Vince