If you poll any random group of Americans, they’re likely to tell you that political television commercials are the absolute worst. And heading into the midterm elections, it’s about to heat up. Before long our favorite crime dramas and reality-show indulgences will be interrupted by attack ads, paid-for-by disclaimers, and politicians awkwardly pretending to be normal people.
But I’m about to lay down a trump card (sure, pun intended) that you weren’t expecting. The absolutely worst commercials are those soliciting clients for mass tort litigation (you know, like class-action type things). We all know them: mesh used for hernia repair, breast implants, and asbestos.
If you were watching television in almost any U.S. market in March and April, you probably saw advertisements soliciting would-be plaintiffs who were exposed to the crop-protection tool paraquat and later developed Parkinson’s disease. Nearly 15,000 commercials ran in April to the tune of $1.9 million. The lawsuits aimed at paraquat aren’t new — they started back in 2017 — but the media blitz was the highest ever in March and April of 2022. Though the 2021 campaign was nothing to sneeze at.
If this story sounds familiar, you probably followed the Roundup litigation. In those cases, the plaintiffs claimed that exposure to Roundup, including its active ingredient glyphosate, caused them to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Not a single pesticide regulatory agency in the world has concluded the data supports such an association, including the recent decision by the Independent European Chemicals Agency. But that didn’t stop juries from finding against demonized agricultural companies and awarding million-dollar verdicts to sympathetic people with terminal illnesses.
» Related: I called the glyphosate-lawsuit hotline out of curiosity. Here’s what happened
Like Roundup, paraquat is a widely used herbicide in the United States. Unlike glyphosate, paraquat is a restricted-use pesticide and may only be applied by certified applicators. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one sip is lethal (who can forget the ridiculous if-glyphosate-is-safe-then-why-don’t-you-drink-it taunts). Oddly, some people were transferring the herbicide into beverage containers where an unsuspecting victim would drink it (the EPA specifically wrote regulations about this …).
But for the general public, paraquat poses no real risk. In the EPA’s 2019 human-health risk assessment, it “found no dietary risks of concern associated with paraquat when it is used according to the label instructions.”
Certified applicators, who are most likely to come into contact with it, are required to take certain measures to reduce their risks of exposure. Most importantly, the EPA concluded the association with Parkinson’s disease is unfounded:
After a thorough review of the best available science, as required under FIFRA, EPA has not found a clear link between paraquat exposure from labeled uses and adverse health outcomes such as Parkinson’s disease and cancer.
Too bad the commercials left out that important tidbit.
Unfortunately, mass tort litigation is a big business. As any lawyer, myself included, will tell you that litigation is expensive, even when you have a good case. These large-scale cases require more capital, sometimes attracting third-party investors, like hedge funds. In other words, there are literally financiers, with no connection to the case, who profit when plaintiffs recover big judgments.
These mass tort firms now have a recipe for success: Invent questionable scientific evidence, find a sympathetic plaintiff, sue the manufacturer, and payday. This isn’t about justice or paying for someone’s cancer treatments — this is about big money. For farmers, that’s a scary prospect. Roundup, paraquat, and other pesticides are important crop-protection tools. How many multi-million-dollar lawsuits can the manufacturers withstand before they decide it isn’t worth it?
That’s quite a trump card, eh? So remember that while you’re watching yet another political commercial this fall. Mass tort advertisements are much, much worse.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.