PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — In a David and Goliath battle, one local family is taking on the major chemical companies in the United States regarding the manufacture and use of chemical pesticides.
Can those pesticides cause illness, or even death? The answers could be concerning for golfers, gardeners and parents with children who play in chemically-treated parks.
KDKA sportscaster Rich Walsh loves the game of golf, but these days there’s something, or more specifically someone, missing. His father, Thomas Walsh, died of leukemia seven years ago after spending 38 years spraying chemical pesticides as a greenskeeper and golf course superintendent.
“I know everyone goes through losses,” Walsh said. “But he was 56 years old, and I know these chemicals had something to do with it. I lost my dad. I lost my best friend, and I lost my golf partner too.”
In these years after Thomas Walsh’s death, that grief has turned into resolve as Walsh and his attorneys have mounted what could be a landmark case against the world’s major chemical companies – names like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and Bayer – to prove that his dad died from chemical exposure.
“I have to do something,” Walsh said. “It was my dad, and these chemicals took his life. If I sit back, it will happen to someone else. And I don’t want to see it happen to someone else.”
For Walsh, that quest began when his dad checked into West Penn Hospital with what was thought to be pneumonia. But his physician diagnosed the cancer after seeing that Mr. Walsh’s chromosomes had been altered – an indication of chemical exposure.
“I didn’t even know the doctor at the time, and he came up to me, I’ll never forget it, in the waiting room,” Walsh said. “He said, ‘Just a question. Was your dad ever exposed to chemicals? Does he work with pesticides at all?’ And it just lit up and I’m thinking, ‘yeah, every single day.'”
But what sets his case apart will be evidence from Thomas Walsh himself, who kept meticulous diaries of every chemical he sprayed and their amounts — more than two dozen different chemical pesticides made by almost as many companies — spread out over three decades.
The Walsh family has even enlisted Dr. Nachman Brautbar, the same medical expert who help famed consumer advocate Erin Brockovich prove contamination claims in the landmark case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
Attorney Anthony D’Amico believes they can prove a direct causation between these chemicals and Mr. Walsh’s death, but an army of corporate lawyers say they can’t. KDKA contacted each of the chemical companies named in the suit and most sent back statements denying any responsibility for Mr. Walsh’s death.
Even Jay Feldman, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Beyond Pesticides, says the Walsh case is a long shot, since it’s difficult to prove that any one chemical or combination of chemicals caused the leukemia.
“You know, chemical companies hide behind weak regulation, weak law and the fact that we live in a toxic soup,” Feldman said. “And they know that they’re shielded to some degree from liability because of the difficulty in creating or proving causation.”
But Feldman says the Walsh family may make an even bigger impact in the court of public opinion, in finding alternatives to chemical pesticide.
“This is not the kind of environment in which we think people should grow and learn and develop,” Feldman said.
Rich Walsh is still up for the fight.
“It’s David and Goliath, but you know, sometimes David wins,” he said. “And I’m hoping that David wins this one. Deep down inside, I know I’m right. They took my dad’s life.”