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California cracks down on weed killer as lawsuits abound

Stephanie O'Neill, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Business News

Jack McCall was a fixture at the local farmers market, where he sold avocados and other fruits he grew on his 20-acre ranch in Cambria, on California's Central Coast.

The U.S. postal worker and Little League coach was "very environmentally friendly," said Teri McCall, his wife of 41 years. He avoided chemicals, using only his tractor-mower to root out the thistle and other weeds that continually sprouted on the flat areas of the ranch.

But he did make one exception to that rule -- a fateful one, his wife now believes. For more than three decades, on the hilly parts of the ranch where he grew the avocados, and around newly planted fruit trees, Jack donned a backpack sprayer and doused weeds with the widely sold herbicide Roundup.

"He believed Roundup was safe," Teri McCall said, noting that St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. has regularly touted its flagship product as harmless to people and pets.

In 2012, the McCalls' 6-year-old dog, Duke, who regularly accompanied Jack around the farm, fell ill with swollen lymph nodes in his neck and died shortly afterward of lymphoma -- a type of blood cancer. Three years later, Jack discovered swollen lymph nodes in his own neck, Teri said. The diagnosis: a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which killed him on Dec. 26, 2015.

"I thought, 'That's kind of a coincidence that they both got lumps in their neck,'" Teri recalled. "Then I thought about all the time Duke spent sticking his nose in grass that had been sprayed with Roundup."

In March 2016, McCall filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Monsanto, alleging that the company concealed the cancer risk posed by a chemical called "glyphosate," the active ingredient in Roundup, which she now blames for the deaths of her husband and their dog.

Hundreds of similar lawsuits are pending in federal and state courthouses around the United States.

Monsanto vigorously contests them.

"To be clear: The underlying science behind glyphosate is not at question," said Scott Partridge, the company's vice president of global strategy. "Monsanto's glyphosate-based herbicides have a long history of safe use and have been studied in real-world application, including the largest study ever of the actual use of pesticides by farmers."

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