Corteva facing farmworker lawsuits over chlorpyrifos

12:15 PM | October 27, 2020 | J R Pegg

Attorneys representing farmworkers who have sued Corteva Agriscience for alleged harm from the insecticide, chlorpyrifos, say that they will soon expand their litigation against the company.

The initial lawsuit – filed last month at a state court in central California – alleges that Corteva is liable for neurological harm suffered by the child of farmworkers exposed to chlorpyrifos. The plaintiffs allege that their son, who suffers from autism as well as other cognitive and intellectual disabilities, was exposed to the organophosphate insecticide in utero and throughout his early life. He is 17, and was born premature.

According to Alba Luz Calderon de Cerda and Rafael Cerda Martinez, exposure occurred from the air in their home, adjacent fields and packing houses where they had worked, and from contaminated drinking water.

According to the complaint, “It is extremely unlikely that Rafael Jr will ever be able to be gainfully employed or able to live independently, and he is reasonably certain to need some assistance and care for the rest of his natural life.”

The lawsuit claims that Corteva, previously Dow AgroSciences, had hidden the dangers of the insecticide. The complaint names Corteva, as well as the California cities of Avenal and Huron where the family lived, and several companies that had sprayed the pesticide.

The plaintiffs are asking for general and compensatory damages as well as medical costs and punitive damages for the “willful, reckless, and recklessly indifferent conduct of the defendants.”

“Manufacturers and distributors of chlorpyrifos have greedily ignored the harm caused to workers and their children,” said lead attorney Stuart Calwell of Calwell Luce diTrapano LLC, a West Virginia-based law firm. “While this lawsuit can’t undo the damage done to countless families in central California, it will begin to bring justice to these communities.”

And there are more lawsuits to come, according to Mr Calwell. His firm said earlier this week that more than 50 additional plaintiffs have come forward and “new cases will be filed this week on behalf of other families who have been similarly damaged”.

Controversy continues

The litigation comes in the wake of the Trump administration’s sustained effort to keep chlorpyrifos on the market despite growing concerns about the neurological harm posed by the insecticide. The EPA last month released a revised risk assessment that highlighted uncertainty about the potential neurodevelopmental effects to children, which is at odds with the Agency’s previous conclusions. The EPA in 2016 found that cumulative exposures posed undue risks of brain damage to children and prompted the Agency to propose revoking food tolerances and banning the use of the insecticide on food crops.

The Trump administration reversed course in early 2017, citing uncertainty about the health risks from chlorpyrifos and touting the benefits of the insecticide for agriculture. US farmers use an estimated 5 million pounds (2,270 tonnes) of the insecticide on more than 50 crops, including almonds, apples, citrus fruit, maize and strawberries.

The EPA has said that it intends to issue a proposed interim decision this month that would outline any recommended risk mitigation measures needed to address potential risks to the public, farmworkers and the environment.

However, nothing short of a ban is likely to quell controversy over chlorpyrifos. Environmentalists and the EPA have been engaged in litigation for more than a decade and the Trump administration’s decision to reverse the Agency’s position is still before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Court held arguments in July, with environmental groups asserting that the EPA could not show that the insecticide was safe, and thereby could not comply with federal food safety law.

Agency critics point to evidence that shows prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos levels far lower than those referred by the EPA in its assessments can cause permanent brain damage in children. They also link the insecticide to lower birth weight, attention deficit disorder, and a reduced IQ.
The EPA’s reversal from a ban has prompted three states – California, Hawaii and New York – to prohibit agricultural uses of chlorpyrifos. Democrat lawmakers in the Congress have introduced legislation to force the Agency into following suit. The EU imposed a ban in January, and even some in the pesticide industry appear unconvinced it has much of a future. Shortly after the move by the EU, Corteva confirmed it would cease production of the insecticide this year.