Serious scrutiny needed as EPA seeks input on cancer ties to Monsanto herbicide

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By Carey Gillam

The glyphosate geeks are gathering in Washington this week. After a two-month delay, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is holding four days of meetings aimed at examining the evidence that does or does not tie the world’s most widely used herbicide — glyphosate — to cancer.

Scientists, activists and agricultural industry leaders are all expected to show up to either defend or attack the chemical that is currently at the center of international controversy. More than 250,000 public comments have been filed with the EPA ahead of the Dec. 13-16 meetings, and the agency is girding for more than 10 hours of personally delivered public comments before a specially appointed scientific advisory panel gets down to work.

The panel assignment: To offer advice on how the EPA should evaluate and interpret relevant data and how it all should translate into a EPA “carcinogen risk” classification for glyphosate.

The exercise is academic by design, but powerful economic forces are hard at work hoping to influence the outcome. Glyphosate is the billion-dollar-baby, the chief ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup herbicide as well as in hundreds of other herbicides sold around the world. It’s also the lynchpin to Monsanto’s top-selling, glyphosate-tolerant, genetically engineered crops.

An official regulatory nod to cancer concerns could be devastating to Monsanto’s bottom line, not to mention it’s planned $66 billion mergerwith Bayer AG, as well as to other agrichemical companies that sell glyphosate products. Monsanto is also facing more than three dozen lawsuits over glyphosate cancer concerns and needs EPA backing to defend against the court actions.

The questions about glyphosate and health issues are not new. Numerous scientific studies over multiple decades have raised concerns about harmful glyphosate impacts. Monsanto has always countered with its own studies and league of supportive scientists who say glyphosate is not carcinogenic and is one of the safest pesticides ever brought to market.

Last year the argument got more heated after a team of international cancer scientists working with the World Health Organization (WHO) said that there was sufficient evidence in the body of research to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. That news was particularly worrisome to consumers because glyphosate use is so pervasive that government researchers have documented the chemical as “widespread in the environment,”  found even in common foods like honey and oatmeal. It’s even found in urine samples of farmers and city dwellers alike.

The controversy has delayed re-authorization decisions not only in the United States, but also in Europe. Several European countries, including Italy and France, have called for an outright ban on glyphosate after glyphosate residues have been found in numerous foods there. Residues found in bread products prompted a “Not in Our Bread” campaign in Britain.

Numerous scientific studies over multiple decades have raised concerns about harmful glyphosate impacts.

But despite the consumer angst on both sides of the Atlantic, the EPA has already made it clear it largely agrees with Monsanto’s message that the international cancer scientists are wrong. The agency issued a report in September laying out the reasons it proposes to classify glyphosate as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

To get to that finding, the agency had to inappropriately discount the results of numerous human and animal studies showing evidence of ties to cancer, according to many scientists who are asking the EPA to reconsider its position.

“There are strong arguments for a classification of “Likely to be carcinogenic to humans” because there are multiple positive results in animals…  and positive epidemiologic studies strengthened by other lines of evidence (DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells and possibly exposed humans),” Maarten Bosland, professor of pathology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote in comments submitted to the agency.

Bosland is one of more than 90 scientists who issued a detailed report identifying the research that ties glyphosate to cancer. They say available human evidence shows an association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma; while significant carcinogenic effects are seen in laboratory animals for rare kidney and other types of tumors.

History has given us numerous examples of chemicals that are declared safe for decades only to be proven dangerous after extended arguments like the one we’re now seeing over glyphosate. It’s been common practice for the corporate players who profit off chemical agents to fight tooth and nail for their continued use even as study after study builds a case of sometimes devastating environmental and human health costs. And it’s been equally common for weak-kneed regulators to do as industry bids.

That appears to be the path EPA has followed with glyphosate. Ever since the agency announced last July that it would hold these meetings, the agrichemical industry’s trade group CropLife America has been working to make sure that the EPA repudiates the cancer concerns. CropLife first suggested the EPA scrap the meetings altogether, arguing there was no “scientific justification” for a review. The association then outlined criteria for the EPA to use in selecting scientists who might serve on the panel. And then after the panel was in place, CropLife told the EPA it should remove epidemiologist Dr. Peter Infante. CropLife considered him biased against the industry. The EPA responded by removing Infante as CropLife asked, and then refusing to explain its decision to the public, issuing a ‘no comment” to those who inquired about Infante’s removal.

Infante, who has served as an expert consultant in epidemiology for the EPA and several world bodies, says allegations of bias are invalid, and he still plans to attend but in a different capacity. After the EPA kicked him off the advisory panel, the agency agreed to grant him a few minutes to address the panel during the public comment part of the agenda. He is slated to speak Thursday morning.

In another hint at industry favoritism, earlier this year, the EPA “inadvertently” publicly posted an internal glyphosate assessment on its website that made a case for the safety of glyphosate. The document was up long enough for Monsanto to issue a press release gleefully tout the documents’ findings and providing a link to a copy of the document before the agency pulled it down, explaining it wasn’t final.

The agency’s actions have left environmental and consumer activists disheartened and doubtful the EPA will listen to any serious independent scrutiny of glyphosate’s safety.

“Their track record is awful,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. “We don’t want to throw in the towel entirely. We want to try to hold them to their mission. But there is clearly evidence of industry influence. They aren’t doing anything to inspire confidence that they’re taking a serious look at this.”

Consumers rely on the EPA to prioritize their interests over corporate interests, and the EPA should not forget that, according to the public comment filed by Pamela Koch, executive director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“We urge the EPA to apply the precautionary principle in this review…” Koch wrote. “We believe that caring for the public health is of the upmost importance and need regulations that protect farm workers, workers who apply glyphosate in non-agricultural settings, as well as the general public.”

This article originally appeared in The Hill

Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist, formerly with Reuters, who directs research for U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer education group focused on food safety and policy matters. Follow @CareyGillam on Twitter