A cough. A rash. Trouble breathing. Memory problems. There are a lot of symptoms that could be the result of chemical exposure. Here’s how to know and what legal options you can explore.
Chemical exposure is included in personal injury law as a toxic tort.
A tort is a wrongful act that leads to civil liability. A toxic tort is a case when the plaintiff is injured from exposure to a chemical or toxin.
A toxic tort case typically falls into one of these 10 categories:
- Asbestos exposure that causes lung cancer, mesothelioma, or other lung disease
- Lead paint exposure that causes brain damage in children
- Pesticides, including dioxin and DDT, which cause birth injuries (i.e. birth defects)
- Contamination of groundwater or soil because of chemicals or waste dumping
- Workplace chemical exposure
- Toxic landfill waste, which can cause leukemia and other illnesses
- Mold exposure, which could cause respiratory illness
- Dry cleaning chemicals and solvents, which cause brain and major organ damage
- Environmental exposure to gases or airborne toxins
- Chemicals in defective medications (pharmaceutical or product liability)
Within these categories, there are some common exposures that have been the subject of many lawsuits:
Pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides are chemicals used to kill weeds and insects to protect crops and vegetation. Some pesticides are known to cause cancers and neurodevelopmental issues for children.
Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the United States agricultural sector and the second most used in the home and garden sector. Roundup is the most popular product that contains glyphosate, but more than 750 products sold in the U.S. contain glyphosate.
According to a 2022 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 80% of the 2,310 urine samples drawn from children and adults in the United States contained glyphosate.
A number of research papers, including a 2019 paper published in the Mutation Research journal, found that glyphosate exposure increases the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (a unit of the World Health Organization) classified glyphosate as a human carcinogen in 2015.
"People of all ages should be concerned, but I’m particularly concerned for children,"" said Phil Landrigan, director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College. "Children are more heavily exposed to pesticides than adults because pound-for-pound they drink more water, eat more food and breathe more air."
There are also lawsuits pending by people who claim to be ill from Paraquat, which is an herbicide (plant killer) used for weed and plant control. Paraquat has been found to lead to lung damage when inhaled, and it’s highly poisonous if swallowed. People who are licensed applicators of Paraquat are at the highest risk for exposure.
Diacetyl and other flavorings
Diacetyl is used to produce butter flavoring for popcorn and other foods. It’s highly toxic to workers who are exposed to it in manufacturing plants. Aside from popcorn manufacturing, it’s also used in facilities that process coffee beans, baked goods, tortillas, candy, chewing gum, and other products.
Lead (usually in older pipes or paint chips), mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and manganese can cause serious illness depending on the length and nature of exposure.
People can be exposed to carbon monoxide in their own homes, usually because of kerosene space heaters, charcoal barbecue grills, gas water heaters, propane stoves or heaters, spray paint, and paint removers or solvents. Sometimes it’s because of a malfunctioning appliance, but it can also happen when appliances are used properly but in a poorly ventilated space.
Most lawsuits for carbon monoxide poisoning are filed against landlords who didn’t properly configure detection and alarm systems to provide proper warning of a hazard.
- Always read instructions for any item that involves gasoline or propane. Follow its guidelines for storage, proper use, and ventilation.
- Install carbon monoxide detectors in your home. Your home should have one unit on each floor, placed about knee-high, and be free from obstruction from curtains, furniture, or anything else that would prevent it from effectively detecting this colorless, odorless gas. Check your detector’s batteries at least once every 6 months. Safety.com offers more guidance on how to select, install, and maintain a carbon monoxide detector.
How to prove a chemical tort
In most personal injury cases, you can establish when and how you were injured — if it was a car accident, slip and fall, or other specific incident, you know immediately exactly how you got hurt. It can be hard to determine who was responsible for your injury, but when the cause of the injury is clear, it’s a little easier to get to the bottom of who’s liable.
However, when your injury is caused by chemical exposure, you might not know the cause for a long, long time.
A lingering cough, respiratory issues, persistent skin irritation... these symptoms could appear for any number of reasons, and you might live with them for a while before you feel it’s even necessary to see a doctor. A doctor might also see certain symptoms and make a diagnosis that’s correct, but isn’t linked to chemical exposure.
For example, mesothelioma is a cancer that is only caused by asbestos exposure. But if you’re diagnosed with one of the majority of cancers or other illnesses that’s not linked to a specific cause, it will be hard to prove that the reason is because of chemical exposure.
Most cancers have a variety of causes, some of which could be genetic and others can be environmental. However, even if you have a cancer that might have an environmental link, you still need to show that a toxin that’s been shown to cause that particular cancer was present in your air, soil, water, or elsewhere in a place where you lived or worked for a significant period of time.
As in any personal injury case, there are specific elements that must be proven in order to establish liability for a toxic tort:
- The defendant owed a legal duty to the plaintiff. In some cases, a chemical exposure liability case is complicated because the plaintiff’s injury might not show up for years or decades after the exposure occurred. At that point, it can be hard to determine who was responsible for the exposure. A “duty” is a legal responsibility that a person or company has avoided causing harm or injury to another.
- The defendant breached their legal duty. This means that the defendant was negligent by not acting on their legal duty to avoid causing harm. In a chemical exposure case, an example of breaching a duty is a company that dumps chemical byproducts from manufacturing activities into a nearby reservoir that provides drinking water to residents. The defendant had a duty to the residents to reasonably avoid subjecting them to chemicals that could be harmful.
- The breach caused injury, which is if the defendant’s actions or omissions resulted in a plaintiff becoming ill or suffering other injury as a result of the chemical exposure.
- The injury resulted in a cost to the plaintiff. If you were exposed to a chemical that gave you a skin rash, for example, and it went away with no treatment (or minimal treatment, like an over-the-counter cream), the situation might meet each of the first 3 criteria for negligence. Someone left a chemical on a surface where it didn’t belong, they should’ve reasonably known that your skin would come into contact, and you did receive an injury... but in order to make it a legal claim, there needs to be an injury that resulted in actual costs for medical treatment or other expenses.
Here are a few factors the court would take into consideration to establish that chemical exposure caused your illness:
- Medical testimony or documentation by experts that link the toxin to your illness.
- Evidence that you were exposed to the toxin. For example, if you lived near a manufacturing plant that dumped chemical waste, you’d need to prove that the contamination reached your home through the air, water, or soil. Or, if you believe your respiratory illness was caused by toxic mold spores, you’d need an expert who tested the property for the existence of mold.
- Evidence of illnesses of people in similar environments. If the contamination affected your town or neighborhood, you’d need testimony that your neighbors or other people nearby had similar diagnoses. If the exposure was in your workplace, you’d need to show that other people who were exposed to the same chemical or substance are also experiencing its effects.
- Public warnings about the toxicity or danger of the chemical. If a government agency like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued warnings or recalls about the hazards related to the chemical, that information can help your case.
Calculating damages for a chemical exposure claim
How much you can claim in damages depends largely on how severe an injury you suffered.
In general, damages are split into two categories: economic and non-economic.
Economic damages are those that have a specific monetary value. This would include medical treatment, lost wages or future earning potential, assistive devices, therapies and rehabilitative services, assistance of aides or other home care workers, and any expenses you’ve had to pay because of your injury.
Non-economic damages are for losses that don’t have a specific amount attached, like pain and suffering. Non-economic damages could also include punitive damages, which are added to a damage award when the defendant’s conduct was so egregious that the court decides to add punitive damages as punishment or deterrent.
How do we know when chemical exposure is dangerous?
Not all chemicals are bad or dangerous to your health. There are lots of good chemicals that help us every day. For example, you might take a daily multivitamin. Those little pills are made up of a variety of chemicals designed to boost your health. When taken correctly and according to the proper dose, they shouldn’t harm you.
Some chemicals are derived from plants, others are created in laboratories. The food we eat is chemicals. We are chemicals. According to a strict scientific definition, water is a chemical.
So, how do we know if a chemical is safe or harmful?
Researchers use several layers of data to answer that question.
Experts rely on statistics to determine the safety (or harm) of various chemicals. Here are two such factors:
- Morbidity: This metric relies on incidence (the number of new cases of a disease or condition in a certain population during a specific time period) and prevalence (the total number of people with that disease or condition in the population at that particular time).
- Mortality: This is the proportion of the population who die of a specific disease or condition, calculated as a rate per 100,000 people during a specific year.
Although these statistics can help to evaluate diseases by people’s ages, genders, or racial and ethnic groups, they can also determine how environmental exposures can present risk for certain groups or locations of people.
“Numerous human diseases and conditions have been linked with exposures to environmental contaminants, some more strongly than others. Identifying diseases that might be associated with environmental contaminants, and determining the existing data sources available for them, is a key part of the effort to better characterize links between environmental exposures and adverse health outcomes.”
Chemical exposure from products and pharmaceuticals
A product liability lawsuit arises when a defendant puts an item into the stream of commerce that is defective and harms the user. A chemical exposure injury can sometimes be a product liability case (which falls into the overall classification of personal injury).
For example, if a child’s toy contains a high level of lead and the child is diagnosed with lead poisoning after using the toy in its intended manner (as a teether, for example), that could be a product liability claim. The parents could file a claim against the manufacturer of the toy for their child’s injuries.
Some chemical exposure cases are because of injuries from defective drugs. If something went wrong in the manufacturing process of a drug, contamination by another substance can cause severe harm to the patient.
Chemical exposure and birth defects
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 3% of babies born in the U.S. have some type of structural birth defect. The CDC attributes most defects to genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors.
There are certain chemicals — including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and pesticides — that have been conclusively linked to birth defects like nervous system issues and developmental problems.
Other research shows that babies born to mothers who lived near a hazardous waste site during pregnancy are more likely to have spina bifida, cleft lip or palate, gastroschisis, hypospadias, chromosomal anomalies like Down syndrome, and heart or blood vessel defects.
The family of a baby born with a birth defect that’s caused by a wrongful toxic or chemical exposure, either in the environment where the mother lived or worked during pregnancy, or that the mother ingested (such as chemicals in drinking water or a defective drug) can file a lawsuit on the baby’s behalf. A personal injury lawyer will rely on a variety of experts including toxicologists and epidemiologists to prove that the chemical exposure caused the baby’s birth defect.
Class action lawsuits from chemical exposure
A class action is a single lawsuit with many plaintiffs who have similar injuries caused by the same defendant.
In a chemical exposure case, the primary example is if a company affected a town’s water supply by dumping hazardous chemicals in or near enough to cause contamination.
A Civil Action is a 1998 movie starring John Travolta (based on a book by the same name) in which residents of Woburn, Massachusetts sued a tannery after a large number of fatal cases of leukemia and other cancers were diagnosed in community because of groundwater contamination.
You might also be familiar with the true story on which the movie Erin Brockovich was based. In a similar situation, it was discovered that Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) had discharged wastewater that contained chromium VI to unlined ponds at the site of a compression station in Hinckley, California. After percolating into the groundwater, it was found many years later that the exposure was related to a significant number of cancer cases in the town.
Residents began to show symptoms of mysterious illnesses that were connected to concerns about chlorine, other organic matter, and lead. A federal judge approved a $97 million settlement for the state to replace water lines for 18,000 homes. Other cases, including many in criminal court, are pending against Michigan officials for failing to prevent this harm.
Statutes of limitations for a chemical exposure lawsuit
One of the biggest challenges related to a chemical exposure or other toxic tort case is that symptoms often don’t appear until many years after the exposure took place.
A statute of limitations is the period of time allowed to file a claim, and they vary by state. If you don’t file the claim in the statute of limitations period, the court can refuse to hear your case.
There’s no single standard for statutes of limitations that exists across all states. In most, though, the clock begins to run on the date that the injury happened or on the date when you knew or reasonably should have known that your injury was caused by someone’s negligence.
As soon as you become aware that your illness was caused by chemical exposure, consult a personal injury lawyer to learn the details about statutes of limitations in your state.
When to find a personal injury lawyer for a chemical exposure
If you’re experiencing symptoms that you believe were caused by chemical exposure, either in the recent or distant past, the first step is to visit a doctor who can provide a specific diagnosis for your condition.
The doctor doesn’t need to believe or agree that your condition was caused by chemical exposure — that’s where your lawyer comes in. The doctor’s job is to diagnose and treat your illness. The doctor might be aware that the type of cancer you have, for example, is often linked to a certain chemical that might be in drinking water. But unless the doctor is an expert in that specific area (which they’re likely not), the cause isn’t his or her responsibility to determine. The doctor should, however, take very careful and detailed notes in your medical record about your condition, symptoms, and what led them to your diagnosis.
Once you receive a diagnosis, you should find a personal injury lawyer who specializes in toxic tort cases. Any legal case can be complicated, but a chemical exposure claim can require digging into historical company records and other documents in order to establish causation and liability, in addition to the science of proving that the injury was caused by the chemical in question.
Your lawyer will find experts who will work to prove your case and will seek compensation for your injury. The Enjuris Personal Injury Law Firm Directory can be your first resource for finding a lawyer near you who can help you receive compensation for your chemical exposure or other personal injury.
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