Migrant Justice rally
Will Lambek, left, and Enrique Balcazar, both of Migrant Justice, speak at a 2018 rally outside federal court in Burlington about Vemont migrant farmworkers. Photo by Alan J. Keays/VTDigger

Last month, Bayer reached a $2 billion settlement that would cover future legal claims that the weed killer Roundup causes cancer. 

While migrant farmworkers in Vermont are routinely exposed to the herbicide, the current settlement would likely exclude them from getting any of the money, experts say.

The $2 billion Bayer settlement establishes a fund that would pay between $5,000 and $200,000 per plaintiff over the next four years. Only those who have already developed cancer following exposure to Roundup are eligible to apply.

But Will Lambek, an organizer for the activist group Migrant Justice, said that condition is “the major exclusionary factor” that would make it nearly impossible for migrant farmworkers to receive compensation.

“It would be very likely that anybody who does get sick because of the accumulation of toxins in their system would be in their country of origin by the time they start presenting with symptoms,” Lambek said.

“If somebody is unable to work, they’re not going to stick around Vermont to try to get treatment,” he said. 

Without an income, it would be impossible for the workers to stay in Vermont, according to Lambek.  

UVM professor Bindu Panikkar, who studies environmental health and justice, echoed that concern. “When you hire farmworkers, they are looking for able-bodied people,” she said.

Panikkar said the chemicals in question have a long latency period. “It would probably take a number of years before you even find out that you have cancer,” she said. 

According to Panikkar, glyphosate use in Vermont could be affecting underground water supplies, another source of exposure for farmworkers.

Even though the global settlement with Bayer — a German multinational pharmaceutical and life sciences company and one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world — is meant to address cases around the world, many migrant farmworkers come from rural areas in southern Mexico, where there’s little chance the information will reach them, Lambek said.

In Vermont, many migrant workers work in the dairy industry, where Roundup is commonly applied to corn. Farmworkers live and work close to the weedkiller applications.

“Vermont is perceived to be an environmentally clean state, but that’s not actually the case,” Panikkar said, pointing to the lack of a discussion in the dairy industry about the harmful impact of chemicals on human health.

While Roundup use raises concerns for farmers and neighbors, Panikkar said occupational health exposure primarily falls on people working in the fields and in the barns.

‘Awash in herbicides’

According to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, 42,125 pounds of glyphosate, one of the active ingredients in Roundup, were applied to farmland in 2018. Nearly 29,000 pounds were applied to cornfields.

“We are awash in herbicides,” said Sylvia Knight, an independent environmentalist who has been studying glyphosate since 1995.

Glyphosate is most commonly used for agriculture in Vermont, but that’s not its only use. Herbicides like Roundup that contain glyphosate are also used in forestry, along highway rights-of-way, in lawn care, and along utility rights-of-way. They are periodically applied under power lines, too.

According to Knight, there are no rules in place to protect farmworkers or require notice or any kind that the compound is going to be applied. Knight said while Vermont law calls for the reduction of herbicide use, it’s actually gone up.

In fact, the use of glyphosate jumped dramatically from 2008 to 2009, when farmers began using Roundup Ready Corn, which is genetically modified so that it can tolerate the use of glyphosate.

A bill introduced this session by Rep. James McCullough, D-Williston, proposes to ban the use of glyphosate as well atrazine, another herbicide with serious health and environmental risks. While atrazine is banned in the European Union, use of the low-cost herbicide has been going up in Vermont. The bill would also ban the insecticide chlorpyrifos, a nerve agent that Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has called “alarming.”

Germany, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia have already banned the use of glyphosate. Some cities in the United States have followed suit, restricting the use of the herbicide.

But in Vermont, the bill has seen little action so far this session, and Knight wasn’t optimistic about its prospects.

“I doubt that bill is going to go through as is because our farming system is based now on using glyphosate-based herbicides,” she said.

‘A huge eye-opener’

There isn’t consensus on whether glyphosate causes cancer. Bayer — who acquired Roundup developer Monsanto in 2018 for $63 billion — denies that Roundup causes cancer. In 2015, the World Health Organization said that glyphosate was likely carcinogenic, but under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency disagreed.

In spite of these disagreements, legal expert Jennifer Rushlow, associate dean for environmental programs at Vermont Law School, said previous litigation laid the foundation for the current settlement. In 2018, a California jury awarded $289 million to Dwayne Johnson, a former school groundskeeper who had terminal cancer.  

“The jury was convinced that Roundup caused this man’s cancer, and that was something that had not come out that clearly before,” said Rushlow.

“That was just a huge eye-opener, I think to Monsanto and to the legal world about the scale of damages that could be expected here,” she said.

Rushlow has written about why future Roundup settlements should compensate migrant farmworkers. But she says the proposed settlement is “not all that it’s cracked up to be.”

While $2 billion might sound like a lot of money, an individual plaintiff would only get a maximum of $200,000, and they could receive as little as $5,000 — significantly less than the Johnson case. Plus, the individual would also have to prove to a scientific panel that Roundup caused their cancer.

The $2 billion settlement would be in effect for a period of four years, and it would be open to those who have not yet filed a lawsuit against the company.

While the company has promised to get the word out there about the settlement funds, it’s unclear how they would reach undocumented migrants, Rushlow said. 

Other barriers to access could include language, concerns about entering the court system and a lack of information about available protections. In spite of these barriers, migrant farmworkers have received compensation from lawsuits in the past. In Vermont, Migrant Justice recently reached a $100,000 settlement with ICE after a 2018 lawsuit alleged that the agency had harassed and detained Migrant Justice activists in a targeted way.

The current Bayer settlement has not yet been approved. U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco will have to sign off on the proposed settlement before it can be finalized.

According to Rushlow, there’s no established timeline for how long that decision will take. And, she said, it may not get accepted at all, which would send Bayer back to the drawing board.  

For Rushlow, the proposed settlement is a positive development for workers who are exposed to chemicals.

But, she said, “it feels like slow progress when someone who’s become sick from being exposed to a chemical like this may only get $5,000.”

“It’s a step in the right direction, but a small one,” Rushlow said. 

Amanda is a graduate of Harvard University, where she majored in romance language and literature, with a secondary focus on global health. She grew up in Vermont and is working on a master’s degree in...