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Dow Chemical pesticide Chlorpyrifos caused kids’ brain damage, California lawsuits say

It’s approved for use on more than 80 food crops, including oranges, berries, grapes, soybeans almonds and walnuts, but California banned the sale of the pesticide last year and ended spraying this year.

A foreman watches workers pick fruit in an orchard in Arvin, California. Lawsuits filed in four California counties seek class-action damages from Dow Chemical and its successor company over a widely used bug killer containing Chlorpyrifos that has been linked to brain damage in children.
A foreman watches workers pick fruit in an orchard in Arvin, California. Lawsuits filed in four California counties seek class-action damages from Dow Chemical and its successor company over a widely used bug killer containing Chlorpyrifos that has been linked to brain damage in children.
Damian Dovarganes / AP

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Lawsuits filed in California seek class-action damages from Dow Chemical and its successor company over a widely used bug killer linked to brain damage in children.

Chlorpyrifos is approved for use on more than 80 crops, including oranges, berries, grapes, soybeans, almonds and walnuts, though California banned sales of the pesticide last year and spraying of it this year. Some other states, including New York, have moved to ban it.

Stuart Calwell, the lead attorney for the lawsuits, said its effects linger in California Central Valley agricultural communities contaminated by chlorpyrifos during decades of use, with measurable levels still found in his clients’ homes.

The lawyers on the case estimate that at least 100,000 homes in the nation’s largest agricultural state might need to dispose of most of their belongings because they are contaminated with the pesticide.

“We have found it in the houses, we have found it in carpet, in upholstered furniture, we found it in a Teddy bear, and we found it on the walls and surfaces,” Calwell said. “Then, a little child picks up a Teddy bear and holds on to it.

“It’s not going away on its own,” he said.

State records show 61 million pounds of the pesticide were applied from 1974 through 2017 in four counties where the lawsuits were filed, Calwell said.

Officials with Dow and its affiliated Corteva Inc. did not respond to requests for comment.

Corteva stopped producing the pesticide last year. The Delaware company was created after a merger of Dow Chemical and Dupont and had been the world’s largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos. It has said the product is safe and that it stopped production because of declining sales.

Scientific studies have shown chlorpyrifos damages the brains of fetuses and children. First used in 1965, it was banned for household use in 2001.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to ban the product or declare it safe, including for infants and children. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April ordered the EPA to make a decision after studying the product for more than a decade. The Trump administration had halted the rule-making process.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of people in Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties, though Calwell said they are a precursor to seeking class-action status. Aside from Dow-related companies, the suits name farming companies they say applied the chemical.

The plaintiffs are parents suing on behalf of children who suffered severe neurological injuries the lawsuits blame on exposure to the chemical while in the womb or very young.

Aside from nearby spraying, the lawsuits say the parent, relatives or others in frequent contact with the child worked in fields or packing plants and became contaminated with the chemical, then passed on to the child.

Calwell filed related lawsuits last fall on behalf of farmworkers who his firm said “spent years marinating in the pesticide.”

The first of those related lawsuits blames chlorpyrifos for causing autism, cognitive and intellectual disabilities in a now-teenager born in 2003. The teenager’s father worked spraying pesticides on farm fields and his mother packed what the lawsuit says was chlorpyrifos-covered produce in a facility surrounded by fields treated with the pesticide, often applied by aerial spraying.

Calwell similarly sued Monsanto for damages he said it caused to homes in Nitro, West Virginia, with its use of dioxin to make the defoliant known during the Vietnam war era as Agent Orange. That case was settled for $93 million, with Monsanto paying to decontaminate 4,500 homes — a fraction of the number in California Calwell said will require more extensive decontamination, then medical monitoring.