- A jury recently ordered Monsanto to pay $US289 million in damages to a plaintiff who alleged that his cancer was the result of using Roundup, the company’s popular herbicide.
- On Wednesday, a California judge cut that amount to $US49 million.
- Neither the original trial nor the latest finding mean that glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – causes cancer.
- Instead, the jury’s ruling is based on their assertion that Monsanto intentionally kept information about Roundup’s potential risks hidden from the public.
- The science linking glyphosate and cancer is limited at best, and experts say it’s safe.
A jury in San Francisco this summer ordered Monsanto to pay $US289 million in damages to a school groundskeeper who developed cancer after years of using Roundup, the company’s popular herbicide. But on Wednesday, a California judge dealt a major blow to that decision, reducing the penalty to $US49 million or about a fifth of the original amount.
Importantly, neither the trial’s original outcome – nor the latest decision – reveal anything about the science behind Roundup and cancer.
Instead, the decisions simply shed light on how a judge and members of a jury felt about whether Monsanto (which recently merged with chemical giant Bayer and announced plans to dissolve its name) intentionally kept information about Roundup’s potential harms from the public.
While the jury clearly felt Monsanto hid information, the judge in the latest ruling appeared to believe they were less at fault than originally decided. The lawsuit is just the first part of what could be a decades-long legal fight over Roundup’s chief ingredient, a chemical called glyphosate.
When it comes to the science, the evidence tying glyphosate to cancer is limited at best. Most scientists say that it is safe to use.
Could Roundup have caused someone’s cancer? Probably not.
Before developing a type of cancer known as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the plaintiff in the recent trial, Dewayne Johnson, had used Roundup regularly in his job as a groundskeeper at a California public school. For neglecting to alert Johnson (and the rest of the public) about the potential links between Roundup and cancer, the jury ordered Monsanto to pay Johnson $US39 million to cover his medical bills, pain, and suffering, plus an additional $US250 million for punitive damages (or punishment).
But as for whether Roundup could actually have been the sole or even primary cause of an individual’s cancer, the research leans heavily toward “no.”
The scare over a potential link between Roundup and cancer appears to have begun with a now widely-criticised statement put out by a World Health Organisation group known as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015.
That year, the IARC put glyphosate – Roundup’s active ingredient – in a cancer-risk category one level below widely-recognised harmful activities like smoking. But several researchers have said the IARC’s determination was bogus because there is no evidence that glyphosate causes cancer. In fact, a lengthy review found that the IARC had edited out portions of the documents they used to review glyphosate to make the chemical look far more harmful than its own research had concluded.
During the latest court case, Monsanto attempted to counter plaintiff Johnson’s claims that Roundup caused his cancer using extensive testimony from expert witnesses. They pointed out that the evidence definitively linking the glyphosate in Roundup to cancer is scant. More broadly, figuring out what caused one individual’s cancer is a tricky business for any scientist – a point several experts have made since the most recent Monsanto verdict came out last week.
“This verdict is just the first in what could be a long legal battle over Roundup, and proving causality in such cases is not easy,” Richard Stevens, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine who specialises in cancer and its causes, wrote in a recent post for The Conversation.
New research could change the controversial classification of glyphosate
The IARC’s 2015 statement is not final.
“The agency has often changed its classification of an agent based on new evidence after initial evaluation,” Stevens wrote. “Sometimes it has become more certain that the agent poses a hazard, but in other cases it has downgraded the hazard.”
Based on new studies (typically in mice), glyphosate could go from its current status – where some people see it as a potential cancer risk – to being recognised as having a very low risk for harm.
Several studies of glyphosate and cancer are ongoing, and more are coming out each year. Just last year, a review of studies looking at the ties between glyphosate and cancer concluded that in the low amounts of that people are actually exposed to, glyphosate “do[es] not represent a public concern.”
Conversely, the new evidence could come out strongly against glyphosate and suggest that it’s incredibly harmful. As Stevens points out, new evidence dramatically changed the public perception of another popular product which was initially labelled cancerous – a zero-calorie sweetener called saccharin, which is sold under the brand name Sweet’ N Low.
In the 1980s, any product containing the sweetener was required to carry a warning label saying that it was “determined to cause cancer.” But the science was flawed: the rats that had been used in the studies were especially prone to bladder cancer, and the findings did not apply to people. So in 2016, the sweetener was removed from a list of cancer-causing ingredients.
But glyphosate’s status remains to be seen. For now, the court cases merely reflect the determinations of juries and judges – not the conclusions of the majority of scientific experts.
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