Monsanto is a manufacturer that has been in the news, and not for good reasons, many times over the past 100 years or so. For instance, they were responsible for the production of Agent Orange, which was used extensively during the Vietnam War and is now known to be carcinogenic. Similarly, they produced DDT, which was used all over the world to manage insect infestations, another product that turned out to be a carcinogenic. And it seems that they have done it again, this time with their product Roundup. Specifically, some are now saying that glyphosate, the main active agent in Roundup, is a carcinogenic and that this is why there are higher levels of rare forms of cancer, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), in people in the agricultural and gardening sector. So can using weed killer really give you cancer?
Weed Killers and Cancer
The big question that everybody is asking right now is “does Roundup give you cancer”? The answer to that is “maybe”. Indeed, there is a real division of opinion in terms of whether or not there is a link between Roundup and cancer, with some saying the link does not exist at all and others saying the link is not just very strong, Monsanto was aware of it and hid the evidence for many years. The discussion centers, as stated, around the chemical “glyphosate”.
Numerous scientific experts have reviewed the scientific literature that is available on glyphosate and the data on NHL and they seem incapable of reaching an agreement. What caused the debate, however, was that the International Agency of Research on Cancer (IACR), part of the WHO (World Health Organization) classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogenic to humans” in 2015. Since then, numerous other studies have been developed that state this conclusion is incorrect. So who is right?
One epidemiologist believes that glyphosate and compounds that contain it can indeed cause NHL. There has been a 2017 study by the National Institute of Health (NIH), however, that concluded this association did not exist at all. However, other experts have reviewed this study and claimed that it is filled with extensive flaws. Yet, the US government has agreed with the NIH study and rejected the link between glyphosate and cancer. On the other hand, Dewayne Johnson, the man who started the first lawsuit against Monsanto for developing NHL due to exposure to Roundup, has just walked out of court $289 million richer because the jury decided in his favor.
Monsanto, unsurprisingly, continues to say that their product is completely safe. They state that they base this on hundreds of different studies, each of which confirming that there is no link between glyphosate and cancer. On the other hand, a judge has recently ordered the release of the so-called “Monsanto Papers” and it appears that a lot of the statements made in support for Monsanto were almost forced and should therefore be discredited. Indeed, those who are suing Monsanto say that the company has deliberately failed in their duty to protect consumers, putting profits over people.
A huge range of literature now exists on the public health risks associated with epidemiology, cancer, and glyphosate. Yet, depending on which side of the argument a scientist finds themselves on, around half will say that glyphosate leads to cancer, whereas the other half will say it doesn’t. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say that the product is completely safe, so long as it is used according to the instructions on the label.
Yet, it seems the legal system is siding with the victims and not with the agricultural giant. Dewayne Johnson has been awarded a very significant amount of money. The award is made up of both compensatory damages and punitive damages. This suggests that the jury currently agrees that Monsanto not just created a carcinogenic product, but that they were aware of it and deliberately hid the risks.
What Is Glyphosate?
To better understand the issue, it is important to start with an understanding of glyphosate itself. This is a very common product used as a herbicide and is found in both household and farming products. Most of the time, it is used as a weed killer and it is particularly good at treating grasses and broadleaf weeds, annual plants that compete for space with agricultural crops. John E. Franz, a Monsanto chemist, discovered it back in 1970 and it has been used ever since. Indeed, Roundup, the tradename for the agricultural weed killer marketed by Monsanto, has been around since 1974. By 2007, glyphosate was the most popular herbicide in this country’s agricultural sector. It was also the second most popular for home use in this country.
The Lawsuits Against Monsanto
There are thousands of people who claim that Monsanto’s Roundup led to them, or their deceased relatives, developing NHL. Around 400 of these lawsuits have been added to a single class-action lawsuit, which are being heard by U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who oversees the federal courts.
Meanwhile, Dewayne Johnson, a former groundskeeper in a San Francisco school, has taken on Monsanto on his own. Because his NHL is terminal, he was allowed, in 2016, to fast track his case against the company. Now, two and a half years later, he has won his case and has been awarded $285 million in both compensatory and punitive damages. See also Roundup Lawsuit Settlements Update (2018)
Of course, Monsanto continues to claim that they are innocent and that there are no dangers associated with their product at all, despite the fact that the legal system seems to not be on their side. They have stated that they will continue to defend themselves against these allegations, having strong evidence to demonstrate the connection between glyphosate and cancer simply do not exist. They state that they sympathize with those who suffer from cancer, but that they have the evidence available to show that the cause of their cancer was not glyphosate.
Dewayne Johnson, meanwhile, claimed that, over the course of two years, he would spray hundreds of gallons of Roundup on the school grounds, as often as 40 times per year. He also said that he was drenched in the product on at least two occasions. In 2014, he developed a strange rash. Being just 42 years old, he sought medical advice and was diagnosed with NHL. Two years later, he had to stop working because of his illness and he decided to take action against Monsanto instead. He has now been awarded $285, but it is likely that Monsanto will appeal against that. Whether he will ever see the outcome of the case is debatable, as he is unlikely to have more than a few months left to live. See also Examples of Monsanto Lawsuits & Litigation
Yet, in his case, the jury did agree with him. They stated that the company acted with oppression and malice and that they were aware of their actions. The jury felt that Monsanto exhibited a “reckless disregard for human life”. This has give rise to many other people coming forward in the hopes of winning their own cases against Monsanto.
But the question is “can using weed killer give you cancer?” Clearly, the answer to this question depends entirely to what side of the argument you are on. It seems public perception is very much that it can, not in the least because so many people now have strong environmental feelings and believe weed killers are harmful. There is something to be said for that, as quite a few plants have now started to develop a resistance to glyphosate. Additionally, the public is very much “against” Monsanto, as they have engaged in so many controversial tactics over the years that have harmed so many people, local farmers, and more.
However, in the eyes of the law, personal feelings towards a large company are irrelevant. What matters are the facts. And the facts about glyphosate are unclear to say the least. While some agencies and reports state that there is a “probable link” between glyphosate and human cancers, other agencies and reports say that this link is not there. Both sides of the argument, unfortunately, look at different methods of exposure, different levels of exposure, and different timespans. As a result, it is impossible to draw a permanent and definitive conclusion about which one of the two sides is right.
- Taylor & Francis Online – Glyphosate epidemiology expert panel review: a weight of evidence systematic review of the relationship between glyphosate exposure and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or multiple myeloma (April 8, 2016). Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10408444.2016.1214681.
- Entropy – Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases (April 18, 2013). Retrieved from http://www.mdpi.com/1099-4300/15/4/1416.
- OEHHA – Glyphosate Listed Effective July 7, 2017, as Known to the State of California to Cause Cancer (June 27, 2017). Retrieved from https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/crnr/glyphosate-listed-effective-july-7-2017-known-state-california-cause-cancer.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides (March 20, 2015). Retrieved from http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf.