Skip to main content

Paraquat: The Farmer Destroyer Disguised as an Herbicide

For two decades, scientists have been studying the effects of Paraquat exposure on humans. From one study to the next, these researchers have concluded that such exposure puts a person at greater risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. It is devastating news for farmers who regularly apply this popular herbicide and endure prolonged exposure to its dangerous properties.

Sadly, the U.S. is dragging behind the rest of the world in its appreciation of the dangers of Paraquat. More than 70 countries across the globe have already banned the herbicide. Meanwhile, U.S. farmers continue to suffer substantial health risks, many unwittingly so, just so they can put food on the family table.

Lack of Education About the Risks Puts Farmers in Danger

Paraquat is a restricted-use herbicide, meaning that since 1978, a license was required to purchase the product. More recently, only certified applicators, individuals who have completed an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved training program, can mix, load, or apply this product. Still, the herbicide has been handled by farmers and farm workers for over five decades and remains on the market in the U.S.

For LaRuby May, Of Counsel at Levin Papantonio Rafferty (LPR) who has been appointed to the Paraquat multidistrict litigation (MDL) leadership team, this is the altruistic motivation for attorneys taking Paraquat cases. “This product is still legal in the U.S. today,” she said. “Being able to educate people who still might use it—in addition to identifying plaintiffs who developed Parkinson’s—is really the motivation to get into the Paraquat space.” This means spending time with these individuals and helping them understand what exposure really means.

In her conversations with farmers, May has learned a lot about how they think and how their perspectives led to illness-causing exposures to this harmful herbicide. At the time of usage, many of the farmers she met weren’t concerned about exposure. “The farmers were farmers working to provide for their families.,” May said. “Their concerns about Paraquat were less about the dangers of exposure and more about the effectiveness and cost of the product. They didn’t want to be wasteful.”

Many of the farmers wore protective gear as a result of seeing the skulls and crossbones on the label, but they weren’t wearing it because they thought this stuff was going to kill them if it got on their skin. They thought maybe if they drank it, it was going to kill them. But they didn’t think that if they got a little bit on their skin that that was potentially going to cause Parkinson’s. They just weren’t thinking that way, and the manufacturer never gave them the choice to decide.”

It's Not Just About Identifying Potential Plaintiffs

LPR Attorney Sarah Doles, who has been assigned the roles of co-lead and also liaison counsel in the MDL, agrees that educating farming communities about the dangers of Paraquat exposure is as important as identifying potential plaintiffs who have already developed Parkinson’s.

“I feel like we are missing a lot of Hispanic workers,” Doles said. “I think just going into some of these Black and Brown communities—even if they’re not comfortable signing up for a case, or they’re not comfortable because they don’t have legal status—just making them aware this is very dangerous work is important work for us.”

This has been a critical area of focus for May. The attorney is thankful that LPR is supporting her in going into underrepresented populations even within the farming community—Black farmers, for example—and working with 2020 Farmers Cooperative and St. Helena Cattle Company to spread the word about the risks of Paraquat.

Debilitated by Parkinson’s

“Parkinson’s is a horrible disease,” May commented.

She added that LPR represents cancer patients and those with other diseases, but that Parkinson’s is unique in that it doesn’t shorten your life, but it debilitates the way in which you live it.

“Many of the folks we represent were farming as a part of their livelihood, providing products that the others of us use,” May said. “They were farmers trying to feed their families, trying to feed other people, and to be exposed to Paraquat that causes Parkinson’s is so unfair.”

Doles, too, has seen firsthand the brutal effects of Parkinson’s disease. It’s a hard thing to watch, especially as the patients are losing their motor skills. “Generally, for the most part, their cognitive skills are still very sharp,” Doles explained, “so they know exactly what’s happening to them. They’re well aware of their inability to communicate.”

Ultimately, all Parkinson’s patients become unable to take care of themselves. They will require care, and it cannot be assumed that this care will come from a spouse, partner, or family member. “Not everyone is built to be a caregiver, and that’s okay,” Doles said. In these cases, the patient will require professional care for the remainder of their life.

The Right Stuff for Representing Paraquat Clients

The nature of Parkinson’s disease and the people who develop it from Paraquat exposure present unique challenges for these cases.

Communication Struggles

For starters, the disease itself can leave many clients struggling to communicate orally or in writing. “The lawyers and staff working on these cases need to be comfortable trying to communicate with clients who are difficult to understand and may only be able to talk for a short period at any one time,” Doles suggested.

Gathering Evidence

Second, exposure can go back decades, which makes preparing cases especially labor intensive. According to Doles, helping the client recount type and frequency of exposure is extremely important. Typically, this information cannot be obtained in the same ways other types of documentation, such as pharmacy records, can be recovered. This is not to say that potential clients without documentation should be out of the running. However, it becomes crucial that the client be able to say that they sprayed Paraquat with a certain frequency and explain how they sprayed it, where they sprayed it, what crops or areas they sprayed, how they know it was Paraquat, and where they bought or obtained the Paraquat. Counsel’s ability to help the client relay their story is crucial.

“Somehow in mass torts, we lost the concept that a plaintiff testifying that he or she used a certain product is evidence,” Doles remarked. “Somehow, we’ve let the defendants run over us and say, ‘You don’t have any evidence of it.’ Well, the plaintiff said so, and that’s evidence.”

Knowledge of Agriculture

Doles also underscores the value of attorneys having a solid understanding of agricultural practices to successfully represent clients in these cases.

Advice for Taking Paraquat Cases

Besides having “the right stuff,” there are things attorneys can do to improve their successes with Paraquat cases, beginning with educating themselves. “Learn as much as you can about the current status of the science related to this case,” Doles said, suggesting that the Mass Torts Made Perfect session on Paraquat is an excellent source of this information.

Attorneys should also determine their threshold and tolerance for attrition before they sign any cases. “Other attorneys may tell you that they can sign a case for half the cost, but different criteria are likely being used that you aren’t aware of,” she cautioned.

Finally, Doles urges attorneys to make sure they understand what cases they are signing and have a plan for investigating them within the limited time that the law allows. “For example, leadership has maintained throughout the litigation that only cases involving direct exposure to Paraquat should be filed,” Doles said.

MDL Trial Date Set for July 2023

MDL 3004 is assigned to the Honorable Nancy J. Rosenstengel, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. As of August 26, 2022, the case count had reached 1,851.

Doles said that experts will be disclosed in the MDL in October. The MDL trial date is set for July 2023 and will follow right behind the California state court JCCP trial date in June 2023. As co-lead, Doles is responsible for coordinating all of the pretrial proceedings on behalf of all the plaintiffs. As liaison counsel, she is the primary contact between the court and all the plaintiffs.

“After over a year of working mostly behind the scenes, we are looking forward to the facts and science coming to light and sharing the stories of these plaintiffs,” Doles said.

Paraquat cases can prove challenging because many farmers do not keep a lot of records, making it difficult to show that exposure was to Paraquat. “But they’re worth it. They’re so worth it,” May said, “in terms of the harm they are suffering and the harm that they will suffer, and to hold accountable these people who knew that Paraquat could do exactly what Paraquat was doing. These cases are worth it.”

This article originally appeared in MTMP Magazine, Fall 2022.