UPDATE: August 10, 2018 - A state court jury in California just returned a verdict in a case against Monsanto and their herbicide “Roundup,” awarding the plaintiff DeWayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper, $288 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Roundup is a hidden force that’s behind everything we eat. It is so widely used that the herbicide became the most heavily-used agricultural chemical in the world.1 Americans alone have used about 1.8 millions tons of Roundup since it was first introduced in the 1970s.
Normally this would just be an interesting tidbit about the agricultural industry, but it may have real-world consequences on workers who are exposed to high levels of Roundup on a daily basis.
Evidence may suggest a link between the popular weed killer and cancer. Those who claim to have suffered from unexpected side effects after being exposed to Roundup are pursuing lawsuits against Monsanto.
Roundup is the brand name for a type of herbicide sold by Monsanto. The active ingredient in the weed killer is called glyphosate. The chemical was first discovered by a scientist and chemist for the agrochemical corporation in 1970.2
Initially, marketers were unsure how to sell the herbicide since glyphosate was a non-selective herbicide, meaning it killed anything it touched. However, the herbicide had the benefit of decreasing the need for farmers to till to control weeds.
The herbicide quickly grew in popularity and has spread to other products under the Roundup brand. It became so influential that the Monsanto scientist who first discovered glyphosate received the highest honor for technical achievement in 1987. According to Monsanto, he was given the National Medal of Technology because Roundup had an impact “upon the production of agricultural food and fiber as well as agricultural practices throughout the world.”3
As patents on the formula for Roundup have expired, other companies have used glyphosate in their products, including Rattle by Helena and Touchdown by Zeneca.
Despite the use of glyphosate by other companies, Roundup remains a top seller.
Unlike earlier herbicides, Roundup does not discriminate between weeds and crops. This means Monsanto recommends applying the weed killer right on the target.
What makes the product so unique is that it is only supposed to target plants.
Glyphosate attacks an enzyme called the EPSP synthase. By inhibiting the enzyme, essential growth proteins are no longer produced. This causes the plant to die within a few days. Since the enzyme is only found in plants, Monsanto suggests Roundup is safe for people and pets.4
There have always been some concerns over the safety of Roundup. Some evidence suggests that workers who are exposed to high levels of pesticides may be at a higher risk of cancer.
Other studies offered more specific findings. For example, one of the earliest studies in 2001 found that men exposed to higher levels of glyphosate had a higher risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL).5 Another study in 2009 drew similar conclusions after looking at thousands of men in the United States who were exposed to pesticides.6
But the most controversial decision that raised concerns about the safety of the herbicide came in March 2015 when the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reclassified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic in humans.”7
The IARC, which is the cancer research arm of the specialized agency for the United Nations, looked at epidemiological studies and animal studies to conclude how the herbicide could affect humans.
The classification of the IARC as “probably carcinogenic” emboldened those who were diagnosed with cancers like NHL to sue Monsanto for negligence and a failure to warn consumers about cancer risks.
Most of the Roundup lawsuits are alarmingly similar.
In one case, Christine Sheppard was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and had to undergo grueling chemotherapy that has left her in pain ever since.8 She never knew what caused her cancer until she noticed the IARC classification one day. Sheppard had sprayed her coffee farm in Hawaii with Roundup for five years.
Thousands of people have come forward to tell their story and take on the multibillion-dollar corporation.
Despite claims from cancer survivors, recent studies on glyphosate and Roundup have contradicted the findings from the IARC.
In November 2017, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute concluded that there was no apparent association between glyphosate and cancers like non-Hodgkin lymphoma.8 There was “some evidence” of increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia that needed further investigation.
Executives at Monsanto said they felt vindicated by the findings supporting the safety of Roundup and even said that the study “definitively demonstrates in a real-world environment that glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer.”9
Then, in December 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that Roundup likely does not cause cancer.10 In its human health risk assessment, the agency “found no other meaningful risks to human health when the product is used according to the pesticide label.”
In mid-2017, unsealed court documents in Roundup lawsuits appeared to show tactics from Monsanto that would undermine regulatory agencies like the IARC. But one of the most damning documents showed Monsanto contacting an official at the EPA to influence some of the investigations into Roundup.
Although that official no longer works at the EPA, environmental groups point to the possible bias of the EPA in assessing the safety of glyphosate.
“The only way the EPA could conclude that glyphosate poses no significant risks to human health was to analyze industry studies and ignore its own guidelines when estimating cancer risk,” Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said about the December 2017 assessment.12 “The EPA’s biased assessment falls short of the most basic standards of independent research and fails to give Americans an accurate picture of the risks posed by glyphosate use.”
Even in the face of conflicting information and disagreements among agencies, thousands of people continue to come forward to talk about how Roundup may have given them cancer.
Those who have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma or other cancers after using Roundup are encouraged to contact a qualified attorney to find out more about pursuing legal action.
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