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Monsanto ordered to pay $857 million to Washington school students and parent volunteers over toxic PCBs

Monsanto on Monday was ordered to pay $857 million to a group of seven former students and parent volunteers at a Washington state school who claimed the company's chemicals sickened them. 

The judgment, which was reported by Bloomberg, AFP, Reuters and other news outlets, comes as Monsanto is facing thousands of lawsuits over its weed-killing chemical Roundup. Last month, the company was ordered to pay $332 million to a man who said Roundup caused his cancer.

In the most recent case, the former students and parent volunteers claimed that exposure to Monsanto's polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from fluorescent light fixtures caused a host of health problems, including brain damage and autoimmune disorders. PCBs, which were banned from production in 1979 due to their toxicity, were commonly used in caulking, light fixtures and other parts of buildings from the 1950s to 1970s, according to Massachusetts' Bureau of Climate and Environmental Health.

"Although they were banned in 1979, they're still present in the environment," said Keri C. Hornbuckle, a professor and environmental engineer at University of Iowa who also was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Washington trial. "PCBs are called forever chemicals because they break down so slowly — PFAS compounds are also called that for the same reason," she said.

About 55,000 schools were constructed during the peak decades of PCB production, of which Monsanto was the sole commercial manufacturer, Hornbuckle noted. Schools are of concern because PCBs are particularly harmful to children, she added.

"Because schools were built to last and they're not regularly modeled, those materials still reside in the caulking around the windows and in between masonry and structural joints of the building," she said.

Even so, many of the health impacts of PCBs — ranging from cancer to ADHD — can be caused by issues other than the chemical, Hornbuckle said. "We do know that PCBs can cause all these kinds of things," she said. "The problem is that in showing this particular injury happened because of that probably requires a thing like a jury to think about all the possibilities."

Hornbuckle said she was surprised by the size of the award, adding that the jury probably "wanted to make a statement."

Punitive damages

An attorney for the plaintiffs, Henry Jones, told CBS News, "No one who heard this evidence would ever change places with any of these people in exchange for all the money the jury awarded."

The jury ordered the firm to pay a total of $73 million compensation and $784 million in punitive damages to the five former students and two parent volunteers at the Sky Valley Education Center, which is located north of Seattle, according to AFP.

In a statement to CBS MoneyWatch, Monsanto said it disagreed with the verdict and plans to appeal. "We disagree with the verdict and will pursue post-trial motions and appeals to get this verdict overturned and to reduce the constitutionally excessive damages awarded," a spokesperson from Monsanto said in an emailed statement.

"The objective evidence in this case, including blood, air and other tests, demonstrates that plaintiffs were not exposed to unsafe levels of PCBs, and PCBs could not have caused their alleged injuries," the spokesperson added.

The company, which is now owned by German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, noted that it recently won a personal injury trial in Illinois with similar claims. 

Even so, Monsanto is facing additional lawsuits over PCBs, including one from the state of Vermont which alleged the chemical company knew its PCB formulations were toxic and could cause harm in humans. 

Vermont's Burlington School District has also sued Monsanto over PCBs, alleging that the company should pay for the construction of a new high school after it had to abandon the town's high school due to PCB levels that exceeded the state's limits.

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