Eyeless children championed by Observer win $7m test case
Ten years ago, we revealed the possible link between a fungicide and a tragic birth defect. Now a US court has found a chemical giant guilty
Antony Barnett, public affairs editor
Sunday December 21, 2003
A group of 30 British families who blame a controversial pesticide for causing their babies to be born without eyes have won a historic breakthrough in their quest to get justice and multi-million pound compensation.
Ten years after The Observer first revealed the possible link between the agricultural chemical Benlate and this tragic medical condition, the Supreme Court in
After fierce legal wrangles and appeals through the
It is the first time in legal history that a chemical company has been found guilty of causing birth defects. The case has echoes of Thalidomide, the drug found to cause babies to be born with deformed limbs.
The American judges concluded that John Castillo's condition was caused as a result of the boy's mother, Donna, being sprayed with Benlate when she was seven weeks pregnant in November 1989 as she walked past a fruit farm in
Jim Ferraro, the American lawyer who acted for the Castillos and is representing the British families, said: 'This is a major victory and we now hope to win justice for the British families who have suffered for years from this tragedy.'
Next year the affected British families are to sue DuPont in
'This is fantastic news,' he said. 'It shows that a large corporation cannot railroad over the terrible problems its chemicals have caused. My wife was exposed to Benlate very early on in her pregnancy and we are absolutely convinced that it caused Darren's problems.
'When he was born, the hospital in
The safety of benomyl, the chemical ingredient of Benlate, has been questioned for several years. In 1991 scientists at the
As long ago as 1972, the US official watchdog, the Environmental Protection Agency, advised that DuPont should put a label on Benlate warning that it could 'cause birth defects ... and exposure during pregnancy should be avoided'. But lobbying from DuPont persuaded the EPA that the warning was misleading and unnecessary, so it never appeared.
One of the most dramatic pieces of evidence to emerge during the legal disputes has been an internal DuPont report on research the company funded in 1997 by an independent laboratory in
Some scientists believe this reveals how the eyes act as a kind of powerful magnet to attract the benomyl and explains how the chemical destroys the eyes of a foetus. DuPont has always argued that humans could be exposed to large doses of this fungicide without any risks to health. But scientists say the risks are at a very different level for a foetus at the very early stages of pregnancy, when the essential structures of a baby's eye and brain are being formed. DuPont has recently withdrawn Benlate from the global market because of mounting litigation costs.
The company has always denied that Benlate was the cause for the birth defects and argued that the families' claim was based on 'junk science'. It claims to have spent more than $1.3 billion over the past decade fighting Benlate lawsuits and paying damages. Most cases have emanated from hundreds of growers of flowers, ornamental plants and food crops who alleged that the fungicide wrecked their produce.