What’s a substance we all assumed was safe but has actually turned out to be deadly? From tobacco to asbestos to radium, unsafe consumer products and hazardous materials cling to the air inside homes, are sprayed onto suburban lawns, sit in pill bottles, and are used everyday at the workplace.
Enter into the history of some of the biggest product liability lawsuits ever and you’ll find massive environmental catastrophes, huge oversights in research, some of the biggest lawsuit settlements of all time, and, in some circumstances, thousands of innocent people who have lost their lives.
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While sometimes, one might claim that hindsight is 20/20 and the culprits were ignorant of the potential effects or innocent of wrongdoing, one will more often find cases in which companies took an active role in suppressing damaging information from reaching consumers’ ears. The most famous case of that includes the active role the tobacco industry took in inventing conflicts of interest, paying for so-called “merchants of doubt.” Many of the companies that produced hazardous materials launched massive campaigns about their safety, involving themselves in the science behind whether or not the substance was dangerous.
In many of these product liability cases, it took a lot of bravery, persistence, and action on behalf of the victims to turn the tide against big-money efforts and protect the interests of consumers, from the work of a group of low-income women being harmed while working on watches to persistent scientists like Dr. Herb Needleman or Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey. We might consider them to be heroes today, but many of them were ostracized at the time.
These huge product lawsuit settlements usually are the result of massive class-action lawsuits against companies. Learn about these stories and class-action lawsuit examples to understand companies’ and consumers’ roles. If you’ve been affected by toxic pollution, faulty medical devices, or broken products, know that the option to talk to a product liability lawyer is available. Check the active class-action lawsuit database to see if there’s already a lawsuit open about your case, and don’t lose hope.
20 Hazardous Materials We Were Told Were Safe
1. Glyphosate: The Monsanto Roundup Lawsuit and Lymphoma
The Roundup cancer lawsuit is one of the most unsettling product liability lawsuits in the past five years. Since 1974, 1.6 billion kilograms of Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, have been applied in the U.S. It’s considered to be the most widely used weed-killer in the world and is now known to be a possible carcinogen. One Californian couple, Alva and Alberta Pilliod, sued for $2 billion in damages in 2019. For many people, the case is still ongoing, with some estimating the Roundup lawsuit settlement amounts in the range of $10 billion.
2. Asbestos: An Insulator That Causes Mesothelioma
It’s now somewhat widely known that asbestos is a public health threat that leads to a particularly dangerous form of cancer called mesothelioma. In 1973, consumers used a record high of 803,000 tons of asbestos in the U.S., and it’s still present in many old homes.
3. Silicone Breast Implants: Ruptures and Gel Bleeds Leading to Lupus
This cosmetic surgery implant gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s but, prior to the 1990s, the FDA did not regulate the synthetic gels used. The implants had high rupture and gel bleed rates, resulting in everything from autoimmune diseases like lupus to death. More than 170,000 women sued because of illnesses due to their implants.
4. Thalidomide: A Pill Marketed for Morning Sickness That Led to Birth Deformities
This drug, which is still used to treat cancers and leprosy, was initially promoted for people with anxiety and “tension.” Pregnant women were prescribed the drug for morning sickness. More than 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities, usually of the limbs, as a result of teratogenesis from thalidomide use. There is a high risk of severe, life-threatening defects. U.S. FDA reviewer Frances Oldham Kelsey was given a presidential award for blocking the sale of the drug in America.
5. Lead-Based Paint: Wall Paint Causes Major Behavioral Changes in Children
Dr. Herbert Needleman, who was attacked and accused of fraud by corporate interests, was one of the leaders who documented the dangers of lead poisoning in children. It’s been estimated that somewhere between 500,000 and 1.2 million children have lead poisoning in the U.S., a condition that results in headaches, behavioral issues, exhaustion, weight loss, seizures, and sometimes death. Unfortunately, it’s an ongoing issue. Despite the fact that lead-based paints have been banned for residential use since 1978, the CDC estimates that 24 million housing units still have significant lead-based paint hazards.
6. Fenfluramine/Phentermine: The Diet Drugs That Led to Heart Failure
Marketed as “the hot new diet pill,” the fenfluramine/phentermine drug combination and its successor, Redux (dexfenfluramine)/phentermine, were meant to be used for anti-obesity treatments. The drugs potentially caused fatal pulmonary hypertension, heart valve problems, and death. The so-called fen-phen lawsuit was one of the biggest health-care product liability lawsuit settlements ever. The fen-phen lawsuit settlement in 2005 was $21.1 billion.
7. Tobacco: A “Doctor-Approved” Hobby That Was Also the #1 Risk Factor for Lung Cancer
We could talk at length about the fault of the tobacco industry. Internal documents of the industry show how active these companies were in suppressing information. While doctors once prescribed cigarettes for asthma, the understanding of the dangers only increased over time. In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the tobacco industry advertised to children, deceived consumers, paid scientists to debunk peer-reviewed studies, and perpetuated freedom of choice as an appealing marketing strategy. It’s now considered to be somewhat of a solved problem in the U.S. since the massive $246 billion Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. But unfortunately, it is still very much a huge issue for the world; there are still 1.1 billion smokers worldwide, and about 80% of them live in low- and middle-income countries, according to the WHO.
8. DDT: A Popular Insecticide That Accumulates in Fatty Tissues
Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) was found to accumulate in fatty tissues of predators and persist in the environment. It’s classified as a probable human carcinogen. Famously, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring revealed how the eggs of the national bird, the bald eagle, were being negatively affected by DDT. But prior to its banning, the very popular insecticide was used for 30 years; approximately 1.35 billion pounds were used domestically.
9. Rofecoxib (Vioxx/Ceoxx): The Arthritis Medication That Increased Risks of Heart Attack and Stroke
More than 84 million people were prescribed Vioxx, an anti-inflammatory NSAID, to treat arthritis, migraine, menstrual pain, and acute pain. But a standard dose of these NSAIDs can increase the taker’s risk of heart attack and stroke. Vioxx is estimated to have killed nearly 60,000 patients, and the Vioxx lawsuit led its creator, Merck, to pay out $4.85 billion in a settlement. While Merck pulled the product from shelves, the fact that patients had a concerning increase in risk after 18 months showed a huge error of judgment for the international company.
10. Arsenic: Victorian Wallpaper That Could Kill You
While it now is considered almost quaint, death by wallpaper was a major concern between 1834 and 1874, when there was a 2,615% increase in the production of potentially dangerous wallpaper. Vivid wallpaper was especially popular during the Victorian period, and chemist Carl Sheele created “Sheele’s Green,” a bright hue made with arsenic. Many people fell ill, fainted, experienced agonizing digestive pains, and even died. One of the most famous designers, William Morris, claimed that “doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever,” basically chalking up claims of adverse effects to hysteria.
11. Radium: The “Safe,” Glowing Paint That Led to the Suffering of the Radium Girls
Between 1917 and 1926, an estimated 4,000 workers were told that the luminous paint they were using to paint watch dials was harmless, and they were encouraged to frequently lick their camel-hair brushes to form a fine point. These “radium girls,” who sometimes would literally glow after their shift was done, experienced gruesome effects, such as anemia, bone fractures, necrosis of the jaw, and death. Some of the victims were so contaminated that the radiation can be detected with a Geiger counter above their graves. The radium girls’ fight became an important turning point for labor rights and health. Mae Keane, one of the last of the radium girls, died at 107 and attributed her survival to the fact that she refused to put the paint in her mouth.
12. Talcum Powder: Issues With Asbestos and a Potential Link to Ovarian Cancer
Some Johnson & Johnson health-care products have been treated with suspicion as of late, but talcum powder remains a hugely popular product in the U.S. While testing and research is not yet definitive on whether it causes ovarian cancer and lung cancer, the European Union has banned talc in health products, and the CDC and FDA have been continuously studying its effects. Lawsuits are ongoing, and research continues into whether or not it causes cancer. Meanwhile, the company has recalled several batches of the powder for containing asbestos.
13. Dicamba: An Herbicide That “Drifts”
This herbicide can lead to “Dicamba drift,” in which the substance vaporizes from treated fields and spreads to neighboring fields, affecting other crops. Toxicity factors have been and are being researched. Very recently, a grower was awarded $265 million in damages due to this problematic drift affecting neighboring crops.
14. PCBs: A Widely Used Carcinogen Dumped Into the Hudson
An estimated 1.1 billion pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls were produced between 1929 and 1977 in the U.S. According to the EPA, PCBs are a potential carcinogen in humans. They also cause skin conditions in adults and neuro-behavioral and immunological changes in children. New Yorkers might be familiar with the substance due to the massive dumping of PCBs into the Hudson River, leading to one of the biggest landmark environmental law cases of the past century in the state.
15. Atrazine: An Herbicide Found in Drinking Water and an Endocrine Disruptor
This herbicide for corn, sugarcane, and turf is considered to be the second most widely used herbicide in the U.S. It’s also one of the most common contaminants of drinking water. While the EPA has asserted that Atrazine is not linked to cancer in humans, some studies have found it to be an endocrine disruptor, which can affect children’s health, sexual development, pregnancy, and the immune system. Scientist Tyrone Hayes was pursued by the company after asserting that the chemical might be harmful to amphibians.
16. Agent Orange: A War Chemical With Horrific Effects on Vietnamese, American Veterans, and Future Generations
Up to 4 million people were exposed to this defoliant chemical, which was one of the “rainbow herbicides” used during the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1975. Aside from massive environmental damage including destroyed forests and harmed species diversity, Vietnamese citizens and U.S. veterans experienced an increase in cases of leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, spina bifida, and cancers. It’s even led to birth defects in veterans’ children.
17. Cocaine: An Addictive Drug Found in Soda and Cough Remedies
In the Victorian era, cocaine was considered a wonder drug, appearing in cigarettes, popular drinks like the 1886 recipe for Coca-Cola, and medicines like Ryno’s Hay Fever and Catarrh Remedy. This substance is highly addictive, with potentially life-threatening effects. Two laws, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, began the prohibition of cocaine in the U.S.
18. Mercury: A Highly Toxic Treatment for Syphilis and Depression
Mercury and drugs containing mercury were once popular treatments for syphilis, constipation, depression, toothaches, and the pain of childbirth. The “mercury cure” was used for numerous things, but we now know today that mercury is extremely toxic, and effects on the brain, kidneys, and lungs can result in memory loss, muscle weakness, mood swings, and several diseases, such as Minamata disease. Today, mercury poisoning results from consuming concentrated mercury in fish and shellfish, and pregnant women are typically warned to avoid such foods.
19. PFOA/PFAS: An Extremely Common Industrial Surfactant and Potential Carcinogen
It’s a very common industrial surfactant used in feedstock, food packaging, textiles, sealants, upholstery, microwave popcorn, Teflon products, and more. It’s been increasingly problematic in drinking water, and the EPA has committed to regulating this issue. About 99.7% of Americans have detectable perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in their blood serum, with an average of 4 parts per billion. A carcinogen that accumulates in the body for long periods of time, PFOA can also affect the immune system, endocrine system, liver, and reproductive system. Internal documents at major companies like 3M have revealed that they had an active role in suppressing damaging information about PFOA. This will likely become a huge environmental case in the next few years. Some have gone so far as to call it the “forever chemical.”
20. Oxycodone: A Highly Marketed, Highly Addictive Opioid
Using an aggressive marketing campaign, which involved conference attendance, call lists of approximately 44,500 physicians, coupons, and claims that the risk of addiction was “less than one percent,” Purdue Pharma’s sales escalated from $48 million in 1996 to $1.1 billion in 2000. As of 2017, more than 17% of Americans had had at least one opioid prescription filled, with an average of 3.1 prescriptions per patient.
From 1999 to 2017, nearly 218,000 Americans died from prescription opioid overdoses, according to the CDC. In 2017, the HHS declared the U.S. opioid epidemic a public health emergency. Numerous court cases and consumer lawsuit claims have brought this to light, with Purdue Pharma offering $10-12 billion to settle claims before filing for bankruptcy, but the fight is far from over.
While some of these substances, like mercury, lead, radium, and asbestos, seem like they’re from ancient history, others on our list, like Oxycodone, PFOA, Dicamba, and glyphosate, will continue to be distressingly relevant in the coming decades, some even possibly leading to future product settlements. Either way, it’s important to understand that not all companies have a fair sense of responsibility when it comes to protecting consumers.