- A California jury ordered Monsanto to pay $US2 billion in damages after determining that the company’s popular weed-killer, Roundup, was a “substantial factor” in causing a couple’s cancer.
- Roundup’s active ingredient is a widely-used agricultural pesticide called glyphosate, which has been tentatively linked to cancer.
- The verdict represents a major landmark in an ongoing legislative battle against Monsanto (recently acquired by Bayer), which is being sued by thousands of other plaintiffs.
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This week ushered in another landmark verdict in the wave of lawsuits against Monsanto, the agrochemical giant behind the popular herbicide, Roundup.
On May 13, a California jury ordered Monsanto to pay $US2 billion in damages to a husband and wife, Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who each developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup for 35 years.
On March 19, a federal jury ruled that Roundup was a “substantial” contributor to 70-year-old Edwin Hardeman’s cancer diagnosis in 2015. Hardeman used the weed-killer to tend his property for more than two decades.
The year before, a judge ordered Monsanto to pay $US289 million in damages to a groundskeeper who attributed his cancer to Roundup. (The damages were later reduced to nearly $US80 million.) Unlike the Hardeman verdict, the judge ruled that Monsanto had intentionally withheld information about Roundup’s potential harm, but did not make any claims about whether it contributed to the plaintiff’s cancer.
The recent court battles have generated questions about whether glyphosate, a widely-used agricultural pesticide and the active ingredient in Roundup, poses a danger to human health.
How dangerous is glyphosate?
In 2018, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) discovered traces of glyphosate in dozens of Quaker, Kellogg’s, and General Mills products, including cereals like Cheerios and Lucky Charms. Less than a year later, it uncovered the same chemical in certain beers and wines.
The group said that some of the levels of glyphosate were “harmful” to humans, but the scientific link between glyphosate and cancer remains tentative.
Much of the concern surrounding the chemical boils down to a report published by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which said the herbicide was “probably carcinogenic in humans.” Reuters later reviewed the material and found that the IARC had edited parts of the document that didn’t align with its conclusion.
An environmental exposure professor at Harvard previously told Business Insider that the IARC was a “world-renowned and reputable” institution releasing findings that had benefited global cancer researchers.
But many scientific institutions disagree that glyphosate should be labelled a carcinogen.
Organisations like the Environmental Protection Agency, the European Commission, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency, and the World Health Organisation’s International Program on Chemical Safety have all stated that glyphosate does not present a public health concern.
Monsanto has also denied the connection between Roundup and cancer, pointing to scant scientific evidence.
New research could change the controversial classification of glyphosate
Several studies of glyphosate and cancer (typically in mice) are ongoing, and more are coming out each year.
“The [IARC] has often changed its classification of an agent based on new evidence after initial evaluation,” Richard Stevens, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine who specialises in cancer and its causes, wrote in a post for The Conversation. “Sometimes it has become more certain that the agent poses a hazard, but in other cases it has downgraded the hazard.”
New evidence could suggest that glyphosate is incredibly harmful, or not at all a risk. 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.
For now, the Monsanto court cases reflect the determination of a jury, not the conclusion of the majority of scientific experts, though they do complicate the narrative.
In 2017, a court case led to the public release of internal emails between Monsanto and federal regulators, which suggested that the company wrote its own research on glyphosate while attributing it to academics. The case also uncovered evidence that a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to suppress a federal study of glyphosate that was set to be led by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
In a statement to Business Insider, Bayer said this week’s verdict “conflicts directly with … the consensus among leading health regulators worldwide.”
“We have great sympathy for Mr. and Mrs. Pilliod, but the evidence in this case was clear that both have long histories of illnesses known to be substantial risk factors for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” the company said in a statement. “The verdict in this trial has no impact on future cases and trials.”
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