In a landmark court verdict, the most commonly used agricultural chemical in history was recently found guilty by a San Francisco jury of causing cancer. Roundup weedkiller, which uses the active ingredient glyphosate, has been a source of controversy for decades, although no conclusive data has been drawn on its potential toxicity.
While the scientific community may be divided over the safety of Roundup and glyphosate herbicides, one California jury found the evidence compelling enough to award $289 million in damages to plaintiff Dewayne Johnson, who suffers from terminal cancer after being exposed to Roundup on a regular basis at work.
As the most common herbicide in the world, Roundup is sold for household and garden use, as well as sprayed on commercial crops that end up on consumers’ dinner plates; glyphosate use has spread even further since Monsanto’s patent on the formula expired in 2000. Johnson’s was the first lawsuit to be heard on the possible cancer-causing properties of the chemical and the verdict has prompted public health concerns among consumers and businesses.
Johnson, 46, is a former school groundskeeper who used Roundup around 20-30 times per year as part of his job; he also testified that he had two accidents during which he was soaked in the chemical. In 2014, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and now suffers from lesions on around 80% of his body.
While it is medically impossible to prove that the chemical directly caused Johnson’s cancer, it is equally impossible for the chemical’s inventor and manufacturer, Monsanto, to prove it did not. In this case, the burden of proof was on the plaintiff to convince a jury that Roundup was a “substantial contributing factor” to Johnson developing cancer – a feat that was certainly managed, with the jury awarding him around $39 million in compensation and $250 million in punitive damages. The jury also determined that Monsanto had deliberately failed to warn consumers of the potential dangers of their product, and that the company had acted with malice or oppression.
Brent Wisner, one of Johnson’s lawyers, said that his team had shown the jury documents proving that the company had known for decades that Roundup could cause cancer, adding that the verdict was a “message to Monsanto that its years of deception regarding Roundup is over and that they should put consumer safety first over profits.”
“You can’t take a lung cancer tumor and run a test that proves that tobacco caused that cancer… You’re seeing the same thing here,” said Timothy Litzenburg another Johnson attorney. “I think we’re in the beginning of that era of this dawning on us as a country — as a public — the connection between these two things.”
If he is right and the Johnson case provides a precedent that others will follow, Monsanto could be in for a world of hurt, with thousands of lawsuits already pending against the company from patients claiming that Roundup caused them to develop cancer. According to Litzenburg, he and other attorneys already have 4,000 similar cases pending in various states, and an additional 400 cases have been filed federally via multidistrict litigation.
“This is a big victory for human health worldwide,” he declared although Monsanto has already claimed that it intends to appeal the verdict. Roundup is “completely and totally safe and the public should not be concerned about this verdict,” said Monsanto Vice President Scott Partridge. He continued:
“We will appeal this decision and continue to vigorously defend this product, which has a 40-year history of safe use and continues to be a vital, effective and safe tool for farmers and others”
“More than 800 scientific studies, the US EPA, the National Institutes of Health and regulators around the world have concluded that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer,” argues Partridge. While his claim is not inaccurate, there is significant evidence that at least in some of these cases, Monsanto has applied pressure to get the scientific and regulatory results they want.
Developed in the early ‘70s, Roundup kills plants – with the exception of “Roundup ready” genetically modified species, also developed by Monsanto – and is used extensively in agriculture and forestry, as well as on household gardens. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “The general population is exposed primarily through residence near sprayed areas, home use, and diet, and the level that has been observed is generally low.” According to the organization Moms Across America, the substance has also been detected in childhood vaccines.
In 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified glyphosate as a possible carcinogen based on animal experiments, but a 1991 reevaluation changed the classification to label it non-carcinogenic to humans, a ruling that has been upheld.
A 2016 report by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in conjunction with the U.N. clashed with the EPA, as it found that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” and that the chemical caused “DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells.” The report was a major blow for Monsanto and Roundup’s reputation, despite having been signed off for decades by U.S. and international agencies.
Monsanto claims that the IARC’s report falls below the standards of those used by the EPA, however Monsanto has already been caught out interfering with the EPA’s procedures.
In Bed with Regulators
Unsealed court documents showed in 2017 that Monsanto was tipped off about the IARC results months before they were released, by Jess Rowland, a former deputy division director at the EPA who was in charge of evaluating Roundup’s cancer risk. The documents included internal company emails and email communication between Monsanto executives and regulators. They reveal that Rowland was attempting to prevent a glyphosate safety review by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR); “If I can kill this, I should get a medal,” he is quoted in an email by Monsanto executive Dan Jenkins. It appears Rowland was successful, since the review never went ahead and the ATSDR “agreed, for now, to take direction from EPA,” according to a Monsanto internal memo.
Rowland was in charge of a committee that reported insufficient evidence that glyphosate is carcinogenic in a document that was leaked, seemingly by accident, days before he resigned from the agency.
Rowland is the target of a legal filing that says he “operated under Monsanto’s influence to cause EPA’s position and publications to support Monsanto’s business.” The filing cites a 2013 letter apparently written by the late Marion Copley, a 30-year EPA scientist, expressing concerns about Rowley’s handling of glyphosate, accusing and he and others of unethical and corrupt conduct. The letter also alleges that, “It is essentially certain that glyphosate causes cancer.”
The unsealed emails also showed the company may have ghost written supposedly academic research on the safety of glyphosate, and had almost certainly done so in the case of a paper given as evidence to the EPA in 2000.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also ruled Roundup to be non carcinogenic with a renewed study in 2015, however, questions have been raised about the organization’s impartiality; the Guardian reported in 2017 that dozens of pages of the EFSA report been had copied verbatim from Monsanto materials, including sections dealing with peer-reviewed studies.
Monsanto executives are correct that agencies such as the EPA have approved glyphosate as a safe ingredient, however it is difficult to take such regulations seriously when considering the lengths the company will apparently go to in order to get what it wants. Without further access to their records, it is impossible to tell which scientific papers are reliable and which are biased.
The matter is further complicated as Johnson’s lawyers did not argue that glyphosate itself caused their client’s cancer, but rather a combination of roundup ingredients working in fatal synergy. As of yet, science still cannot determine whether Roundup or glyphosate pose a risk to the public, but judging by the Johnson verdict, the public may be deciding that for itself.