Chemical giant pays out for birth defects

Last updated 01:21 18/07/2008

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Two families who blame a fungicide for their children's serious birth defects have won confidential payouts from United States chemical giant DuPont after a 12-year legal battle.

Former Christchurch man Mark Ison, whose son Blake was born with no eyes and a double cleft palate, said he was relieved the saga was over, but angry the company continued to deny its product caused health problems.

Blake's mother, Karen, was exposed to the fungicide Benlate while working as a Christchurch City Council parks worker before his birth in 1993.

Two other children born to parks staff about the same time reportedly also suffered birth defects.

In 1997, the Isons and another former council worker, Andrea Reilly, filed a lawsuit against DuPont, with four British families who also had children with eye abnormalities.

Ms Reilly's son, Jesse Hanham, died in 1998, aged seven. Neither she, nor Jesse's father, Stephen Hanham, could be contacted yesterday.

The case went to the US Supreme Court three times before DuPont announced a tentative settlement of US$9 million (NZ$12.4 million) last May for the six original plaintiffs and another 26 families who said Benlate had caused defects in their children.

Mr Ison said he could not discuss details because of a "media freeze" decreed by the American lawyers. He denied that the final payout, made this year, was lavish.

"It will give Blake a buffer but that's it. It was to shut us up and they got away with the minimum amount possible."

The families who took the case had succeeded in their main aim, however - to have Benlate taken off the market, he said.

"We think our action played an important part in that ... We didn't want anyone else to go through what we had."

DuPont, which began manufacturing Benlate in the 1950s, stopped production in 2001 after crop damage claims. It could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Mr Ison said he and his wife were naive when they set out to battle a huge multinational.

"We thought once the company could see our children had been damaged they would take it off the market immediately, but it was only when the cost of litigation became bigger than profit margins that they did something."

The company has paid more than NZ$3 billion in litigation costs so far.

The family moved to Queensland last year, partly to pursue better learning opportunities for straight-A pupil Blake, 14, and his sisters and brother, aged 12, 11 and 9.

Blake was heavily involved in a surf club, where he had become the youngest person to gain a radio operator qualification.

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"He gets any help he needs here; anything he wants to learn, he can," Mr Ison said. "In New Zealand, he was lucky to get a teacher-aide for a couple of hours."

- The Dominion Post

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