In California, a man is dying of terminal cancer. He says that the reason for his cancer is that he worked with Roundup, a weed killer produced by Monsanto that is based on glyphosate. And it seems a jury of his peers agrees with him, as he has recently been awarded a significant amount of money. Additionally, judges across the country have allowed the cases of thousands of other people to go forward. However, the reality is also that the link between Roundup, glyphosate, and cancer aren’t all that clear.
Just How Carcinogenic is Glyphosate?
Dewayne Johnson, the man who has won his case against Monsanto, was the first trial of its kind. Days later, hundreds of other lawsuit were allowed into court as well. In them, plaintiffs state that they worked with Roundup, one of Monsanto’s bestselling products, and that the glyphosate in the produce led to them developing cancer. They also claim that Monsanto was aware of this risk and falsely marketed their product as safe. Dewayne Johnson will likely die soon as a result of his non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and others have already died before him. See also Roundup Can Cause Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
Johnson was a school groundskeeper near San Francisco, a position he held for some two years. He used Monsanto regularly as part of his job and he claims that Monsanto failed in their duty of care by not warning about the carcinogenic effect. According to Johnson, he would use the product as often as 40 times a year, using, at times, hundreds of gallons for each application. Johnson started work in 2012 and, by 2014, he was diagnosed with NHL. Two years later, he could no longer work and decided to file a lawsuit against Monsanto.
According to his lawsuit, he has suffered severe and permanent injuries, both emotional and physical. He has also suffered significant financial lost, in part due to his inability to work and in part due to his high medical costs. These expenses will continue until the day he dies, which is likely to be within the next few months.
What about Glyphosate in Food?
Here is where things start to get a little bit difficult. According to reports, glyphosate is a probable carcinogenic. However, it is also found in numerous foods, including Cheerios and in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, and France. The Health Research Institute has reported on this, stating that it has found its way into foods because it is used to weed kill around the wheats and oats used the create the foods. See also Is Monsanto Polluting Our Food Supply?
According to the Organic Consumers Association, levels in the Ben & Jerry’s ice creams were high enough to cause health risks. Meanwhile, a woman has sued the Cheerios manufacturers, claiming the same.
Is Glyphosate Carcinogenic?
The big question, therefore, is whether or not glyphosate is a carcinogenic at all. Critics are quick to say that it is, and that Monsanto was aware of it. However, it seems that the scientific community is struggling to come up with a definitive answer themselves. So far, there have been numerous reports for both sides of the argument, including:
- The European Food Safety Authority from the European Union, who stated in 2015 that their peer review experts, except for one, found that it was unlikely that glyphosate is a carcinogenic and they did not feel it was necessary to classify it as such. However, the studies they peer reviewed were relating to consumables.
- The International Agency for Cancer Research (IACR) from the World Health Organization (WHO) said in that same year that glyphosate was a “probable carcinogenic” for humans. They referred specifically to the herbicide version and linked it to NHL. They based this on evidence from Sweden, Canada, and the USA, which showed that, since 2001, there had been an increase number of people diagnosed with NHL who used glyphosate-based weed killers as part of their agricultural work.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated that glyphosate was a “possible human carcinogen” in 1985. However, in 1991, an internal committee rescinded this. Consequently, it was relabeled. Then, in 2015, they reviewed this and once again came to the conclusion that it was not carcinogenic.
How Come the Findings Are So Contradictory?
The IACR’s report on glyphosate has been the most damning of all. As a result, countries all over the world took Roundup off their shelves and even banned its sale. They took various pieces of evidence into account for this decision, including the fact that evidence demonstrates that glyphosate can be genotoxic. This means that it can cause genetic damage, which can lead to cancer. See also How Glyphosate Affects Every Single Consumer in the US
However, just one year later, experts in pesticide residues from the United Nations and the WHO stated that they believed it was unlikely that glyphosate poses any kind of carcinogenic risk. However, their research was based on consuming glyphosate in their diet. Looking more specifically at NHL, it is undeniable that those who handle Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides, have higher incidences of this type of herbicide.
Yet, according to the WHO itself, the findings of the IARC and the WHO/UN team of experts are actually not conflicting at all. Specifically, this is because the IARC looked at potential cancer hazards to those who had some exposure. The 2016 review looked at the actual risk at a specific exposure level, i.e. that found in foods. According to the WHO, it should come as no surprise that the same chemicals have different effects depending on how they enter the system and at what dosage.
Not just that, the two groups used different data sets to base their conclusions on. The IARC used published research only. The 2016 group, by contrast, also looked at unpublished data. One of those studies is still waiting to be published, being a study that states there is no link between NHL and glyphosate. Had that study have been published already, then perhaps the IARC conclusion may have been different. In fact, this has been confirmed in a report by Reuters and U.S. National Cancer Institute emeritus scientist Aaron Blair. The IARC, meanwhile, has not commented on this.
There have been numerous other conflicting reports, including:
- The National Institutes of Health’s Agricultural Health Study, which looked at health issues and cancer prevalence among 89,000 farmers and their families in North Carolina and Iowa.
- The European Chemicals Agency, which said in 2017 that the scientific data currently available was not sufficient to draw any carcinogenic conclusions.
On the other hand, the EPA has not yet finished their assessment.
How Much Is too Much?
The problem is that each agency as their own measurement targets in terms of determining how much exposure to glyphosate is and is not acceptable. For instance, the European Food Safety, the UN, and the WHO used an “acceptable daily intake”. Meanwhile, the EPA refers to a “chronic reference dose”. The latter is the dose that, over the course of someone’s life, will cause a low chance of a risk. The formed looks at how much extended exposure would result in no risk. See also 3 Examples of How Roundup Causes Cancer
So this is where a difficulty lies. The EPA stated in 2002 that a chronic reference dose of glyphosate should be below 1.75mg per kilogram of weight per day. However, this was for all health effects, and not for cancer specifically. For cancer, the UN and the WHO agreed that 0.5mg for kilogram of body weight per day was the maximum. The European Food Safety Authority, meanwhile, says that an adult weight 175 pounds could directly ingest as much as 40mg per day and not have any ill-effects, and that a child or someone half that weight could ingest 20mg.
This is where things become really difficult and why there are now also lawsuits against food manufacturers. Cheerios, for instance, has been found to have 1,125.3 parts per billion (ppb), which equates to 0.032mg in a 28g serving. This means that, according to some reports, an adult could eat 1,270 servings of Cheerios every day. However, according to other standards, it would be far less than this. See also Roundup Lawsuit Settlements Update (2018)
Then, there is the fact that how someone is exposed to makes a difference as well. The main exposure route, according to the WHO, is through food rather than pesticides. However, this is because of the way in which the chemical behaves when added to liquids and solids. So yes, it is present in food but unlikely to cause a cancer risk, whereas it seems that the presence in pesticides is perhaps less likely to happen, it is also more likely to cause cancer.
What about Monsanto’s Opinion?
Monsanto has claimed throughout that their product is completely safe. They say that, over the past four decades, they have completed numerous environmental and toxicological studies and each of these have demonstrated the “strong safety profile” of Roundup and glyphosate in particular. They state that toxicity levels to humans and to non-plants are incredibly low, even with long term exposure. They also state that it is not an endocrine disruptor and does hence not cause cancer. See also Examples of Monsanto Lawsuits & Litigation
However, Monsanto also produced the so-called “Agent Orange”, used in the Vietnam War, which is now known to have been a significant carcinogenic. They also manufactured DDT, which is now also classified as a carcinogenic.
- 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.
- Cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence (June 14, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/glyphosate-cancer-data/.
- Agricultural Health Study (n.d.). Retrieved from https://aghealth.nih.gov/about/.
- Glyphosate not classified as a carcinogen by ECHA (March 15, 2017). Retrieved from https://echa.europa.eu/-/glyphosate-not-classified-as-a-carcinogen-by-echa.