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Iowa Senate passes bill to limit lawsuits over pesticide-related illnesses

cornfield next to a road
Grant Gerlock
A bill that passed the Iowa Senate would limit Iowans' ability to sue for pesticide-related health problems.

Republicans in the Iowa Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would bar Iowans with severe illnesses from suing pesticide manufacturers for failing to warn them of potential health risks like cancer.

Bayer, the chemical company that produces Roundup, proposed the bill in Iowa and other states in an effort to reduce lawsuits alleging the commonly used weedkiller has caused cancer. It says pesticide makers cannot be held liable for failing to alert people of possible health risks as long as their products have a federally-approved label.

Republican supporters of the bill said it would ensure pesticide companies are not sued for following federal labeling rules, while Democrats said the bill sides with corporations against Iowans facing terminal illness.

Senate President Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said the bill is needed to protect modern farming practices.

“Iowa feeds the world,” Sinclair said. “And we need partners in that who aren’t constantly under threat of lawsuits for following the very laws governing the way they do business.”

Senate Minority Leader Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said the bill takes away Iowans’ right to sue for being sickened by pesticides, and it protects multinational corporations.

“This bill is stripping away the legal protections for Iowa farmers,” she said. “And they are the people who are getting diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s from chemicals they’re putting on their land that we know [are] causing it.”

Lobbyistsfor Bayer have argued that because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, is not likely to be carcinogenic, it would be illegal for them to include a cancer warning on the Roundup label.

But juries and judges across the country have ordered Bayer to pay billions of dollars to people diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, who alleged Bayer failed to warn them that they could get cancer from Roundup exposure.

Opponents of the bill said there are studies that show higher levels of glyphosate exposure are linked to carcinogenic activity, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer found it is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, said Iowans would still be able to sue if they can prove a pesticide caused their illness. He said the bill would close an unfair legal loophole that people with cancer use to win lawsuits.

“It’s about, ‘How can we win? How can we win with the least amount of effort?’” Edler said. “Well you know what, when you can sue a company because they can’t do a darn thing to protect themselves, that’s a lot easier than proving causation that doesn’t exist.”

Democrats said Iowa could become the first state to pass a bill protecting pesticide makers, meaning only Iowans would have their rights restricted.

Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said lawsuits from Iowa make up 1% of the Roundup exposure cases against Bayer.

“That means 99% of all cases are somewhere else,” he said. “Do you think, for one minute, that [Bayer] is going to quit making this because Iowa doesn’t pass it?”

Dotzler said he believes there is a link between glyphosate exposure and farmers getting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“It’s a death sentence,” he said. “So what about their families and their children? That don’t mean anything to you? I don’t get it.”

Democrats also pointed out that Iowa was recently found to have the fastest-growing rate of new cancers in the country. Report authors said that could be linked to Iowa’s high rate of binge drinking, but others believe agricultural chemicals could be a main culprit.

The bill that passed excludes pesticide companies owned by the Chinese government from liability protections. That means lawsuits associated with paraquat, which has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, would not be limited by this bill. But all other current and future pesticide manufacturers could be protected by this bill.

The bill passed 30 to 19 in the Senate, with four Republicans joining all Democrats in voting against the bill.

The House Ways and Means Committee had the bill scheduled for a vote earlier Tuesday, but did not bring the bill up for a vote.

Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann of Wilton, who chairs the committee, said the bill is “still very much alive.”

“We’re just working through questions that members had,” he said. “It’s a big bill. And big bills take time. And we’re just going back and doing our homework on some questions that I was asked.”

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter