Los Angeles sues Germany’s Bayer for decades-old contamination by Monsanto chemicals

Los Angeles, California has joined the parade of plaintiffs suing Bayer, holding the German company responsible for extensive environmental contamination caused by toxic chemicals its US subsidiary Monsanto sold decades ago.

Claiming Monsanto hid its knowledge that the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) it manufactured for 42 years were harmful, Los Angeles County is demanding the company pay for the damage these products have done to the environment. The municipality has spent a fortune on cleanup, including retrofitting storm water systems, in an effort to prevent further damage.

PCB contamination is “a big problem in our county. It’s a significant overall cost to clean that up,” said Scott Kuhn, a lawyer working for the county, adding that the compensatory and punitive damages could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Monsanto stopped manufacturing PCBs in 1977, officially because they were not “readily biodegradable.” The substances were outlawed by the US in 1979 and have been causally linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system damage, and other health problems. They were once used in electrical insulation and fireproofing, as well as floor finish, paint, and other construction materials.

Internal communications, however, suggest Monsanto was aware of the hazards of PCBs for years before they stopped making and selling them. The company was internally discussing their potential legal liability and warning that “direct lawsuits were possible” even as they publicly declared PCBs were not “highly toxic” in communications with American regulatory agencies.

After purchasing Monsanto last year for $63 billion, Germany’s Bayer has found itself paying through the nose for the company’s past misdeeds following three court victories by cancer victims who claim their non-Hodgkins lymphoma was caused by exposure to the company’s blockbuster weed-killer Roundup.

Earlier this month, a jury awarded a California couple an eye-popping $2.1 billion in punitive damages over Monsanto’s failure to warn customers of the risks posed by glyphosate, the herbicide’s primary ingredient – the largest settlement against the company yet. Another 13,400 or so Roundup lawsuits are currently pending.

Bayer has denied the merit of Los Angeles’ claims, and boasted in its recent annual report that it had “meritorious defenses” against PCB-related claims. Los Angeles is not the first municipality to sue Monsanto for PCB cleanup; St. Louis, Missouri won a $46.5 million judgment in 2016, and West Anniston, Alabama reached a $700 million settlement with the company over PCB contamination in 2003. The states of Washington and Ohio have filed similar suits.

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