A Matter of Fact – Professor Refuses to Correct Errors in New Scientific Paper Finding Problems with Glyphosate

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(UPDATED June 5 with comment from Scientific Reports)

The authors of a newly published paper examining the impacts of exposure to the world’s most widely used herbicide declared some shocking news.

The team from Washington State University found that descendants of rats exposed to the chemical glyphosate developed prostate, kidney and ovarian diseases, obesity and birth abnormalities. The findings, published in April in the scientific journal Scientific Reports, added to the global debate about the safety of glyphosate and Monsanto’s Roundup and other glyphosate-based weed killers.

But perhaps more stunning than that news, the research team also stated in their paper that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a specialist scientific arm of the World Health Organization, had “retracted” its finding that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen.

The error is one of many in the paper reported to the authors over a month ago that has yet to be corrected. But none, perhaps, is more glaring than the one about IARC.

IARC had issued a lengthy paper in 2015 that concluded by classifying glyphosate as a 2A human carcinogen. That IARC classification sparked thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto, the longtime purveyor of Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides and fueled debate around the globe. The IARC classification also helped prompt many European countries to start moving to limit or ban glyphosate use. Cities, school districts and retailers across the United States have also stopped using or selling glyphosate products. Monsanto’s German owner Bayer AG has lost 40 percent of its shareholder value due to the persistent concerns about Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicides.

But according to the WSU team, the IARC classification that triggered it all was retracted in 2016. They wrote:

“In March 2015 the International Agency of Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a Grade 2a carcinogen based on prevalence of liver and kidney tumors in chronic feeding studies. Shortly after, this statement was retracted in 2016.”

A retraction by IARC of its finding would be highly significant. Indeed, Monsanto in 2015 did seek a retraction but IARC has defended its work, as have numerous independent scientists from multiple countries. And notably, IARC has never retracted its finding of glyphosate as a 2A probable carcinogen.

“The classification has not been changed and is still valid,” said IARC spokeswoman Veronique Terrasse.

The Washington State research team was led by Michael Skinner, professor of the WSU School of Biological Sciences. Seemingly the error would be easy to correct. But when contacted about the error, Skinner said he had no intention of correcting the statement because no correction was needed. He said that he has told scientists who have raised the issue with him to write a letter to the editor of the journal.

“The Definition of Retract includes to “Draw or be drawn back or back in” or “withdraw or go back” or “reconsider or drawn back”, so this is why the word was used in this context,” Skinner said in an emailed response.

Scientific Reports is part of Nature, a weekly international journal that bills itself as “publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology…”

A spokesperson for Scientific Reports, said: “When any issues are raised with Scientific Reports about papers we have published, we investigate them carefully and we will take action where appropriate.”

He pointed out that Scientific Reports is an online, open-access journal in the “Nature Research family of journals” but is editorially independent of Nature.

Several outside scientists have identified other factual errors in the paper, and said they threaten to undermine the credibility of the findings overall.

“This is supposed to be picked up by the peer review,” said Chuck Benbrook, an agricultural economist and glyphosate expert whose own scientific research was cited incorrectly by the Skinner team in their paper. Benbrook contacted Skinner in April immediately after the paper was published laying out several errors that need correcting. Benbrook noted that all of the problems he is aware of were in the introduction to the paper and had nothing to do with the scientific conclusions.

“Why he didn’t quickly correct the factual errors… is hard to understand,” said Benbrook.

Among the other factual errors:

*The paper stated that glyphosate accounts for nearly 72 percent of global pesticide usage, citing Benbrook’s research. Benbrook’s research does not say that, but says that 72 percent of glyphosate sprayed globally has been applied in the last decade.

* The Skinner paper states that IARC’s classification of glyphosate was based on the prevalence of liver and kidney tumors in chronic feeding studies. In fact, the IARC classification, as detailed in IARC’s paper, states the classification was based on data from animal studies, epidemiology studies, and “strong evidence” of genotoxic mechanisms of action.

* As well, the paper cited in a footnote a paper that contradicted IARC’s finding of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen that was exposed nearly two years ago as the ghost-written work of Monsanto scientists. Skinner’s paper did not note that this paper, titled  “Genotoxicity Expert Panel review: weight of evidence evaluation of the genotoxicity of glyphosate, glyphosate-based formulations, and aminomethylphosphonic acid,” was so problematic for its lack of disclosure of Monsanto’s involvement that the journal that published it – Critical Reviews in Toxicology – issued an “expression of concern” and a correction statement.

Skinner’s research was supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. He and his colleagues exposed pregnant rats to glyphosate between their eighth and 14th days of gestation. The dose, which they said was half the amount expected to show no adverse effect, produced no apparent ill effects on either the parents or the first generation of offspring. But the researchers saw dramatic increases in “several pathologies affecting the second and third generations,” according to a press release promoting the study.

The study has garnered quite a bit of attention. Several news outlets have reported on the study, quoting Skinner. Bayer AG, the German company that bought Monsanto last year, has said Skinner’s study is not credible. But Skinner has defended the accuracy of the study, citing the fact it was peer-reviewed and published in an accredited scientific journal.

(Article first appeared on EcoWatch.)

Carey Gillam is a journalist and author, and a public interest researcher for US Right to Know, a not-for-profit food industry research group. Follow her on Twitter at @careygillam.

Up Next – Trial In Monsanto’s Hometown Set for August After $2 Billion Roundup Cancer Verdict

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After three stunning courtroom losses in California, the legal battle over the safety of Monsanto’s top-selling Roundup herbicide is headed for the company’s hometown, where corporate officials can be forced to appear on the witness stand, and legal precedence shows a history of anti-corporate judgments.

Sharlean Gordon, an cancer-stricken woman in her 50s, is the next plaintiff currently set for trial.  Gordon v. Monsanto starts Aug. 19 in St. Louis County Circuit Court, located just a few miles from the St. Louis, Missouri-area campus that was the company’s longtime world headquarters until Bayer bought Monsanto last June. The case was filed in July 2017 on behalf of more than 75 plaintiffs and Gordon is the first of that group to go to trial.

According to the complaint, Gordon purchased and used Roundup for at least 15 continuous years through approximately 2017 and was diagnosed with a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2006. Gordon has gone through two stem cell transplants and spent a year in a nursing home at one point in her treatment. She is so debilitated that it is difficult for her to be mobile.

Her case, like that of the thousands of others filed around the United States, alleges use of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides caused her to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“She’s been through hell,” said St. Louis attorney Eric Holland, one of the legal team members representing Gordon.  “She’s horribly injured. The human toll here is tremendous. I think Sharlean is really going to put a face on what Monsanto’s done to people.”

Gordon said the hardest part about preparing for trial is determining what evidence to present to the jury within the three-week time span that the judge has set for the trial.

“This evidence against them, their conduct, is the most outrageous I’ve seen in my 30 years of doing this,” Holland said.  “The things that have gone on here, I want St. Louis juries to hear this stuff.”

That Gordon trial will be followed by a September 9 trial also in St. Louis County in a case brought by plaintiffs Maurice Cohen and Burrell Lamb.

Monsanto’s deep roots in the community, including a large employment base and generous charitable donations throughout the area, could favor its chances with local jurors. But on the flip side, St. Louis is regarded in legal circles as one the most favorable places for plaintiffs to bring lawsuits against corporations and there is a long history of large verdicts against major companies. St. Louis City Court is generally considered the most favorable but St. Louis County is also desired by plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The approach of the August and September trials comes on the heels of a stunning $2 billion verdict issued against Monsanto May 13.  In that case, a jury in Oakland, California awarded married couple Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who both suffer from cancer, $55 million in compensatory damages and $1 billion each in punitive damages. The jury found that Monsanto has spent years covering up evidence that its herbicide causes cancer.

That verdict came only a little more than a month after a San Francisco jury ordered Monsanto to pay $80 million in damages to Edwin Hardeman, who also developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup.  And last summer, a jury ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million to groundskeeper Dewayne “Lee” Johnson who received a terminal cancer diagnosis after using Monsanto herbicides in his job.

Aimee Wagstaff, who was co-lead counsel for Hardeman, is set to try the Gordon case in St. Louis with Holland. Wagstaff said she plans to subpoena several Monsanto scientists to appear on the witness stand to answer questions directly in front of a jury. She and the other attorneys trying the California cases were not able to force Monsanto employees to testify live because of the distance.

MEDIATION MEETING MAY 22

The trial losses have left Monsanto and its German owner Bayer AG under siege. Angry investors have pushed share prices to the lowest levels in roughly seven years,  erasing more than 40 percent of Bayer’s market value. And some investors are calling for Bayer CEO Werner Baumann to be ousted for championing the Monsanto acquisition, which closed in June of last year just as the first trial was getting underway.

Bayer maintains that there is no valid evidence of cancer causation associated with Monsanto’s herbicides, and says it believes it will win on appeal.  But U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria has ordered Bayer to begin mediation talks aimed at potentially settling the sprawling mass of lawsuits that includes roughly 13,400 plaintiffs in the United States alone. All the plaintiffs are cancer victims or their family members and all allege Monsanto engaged in a range of deceptive tactics to hide the risks of its herbicides, including manipulating the scientific record with ghostwritten studies, colluding with regulators, and using outside individuals and organizations to promote the safety of its products while making sure they falsely appeared to be acting independently of the company.

A May 22 hearing is being held in part to define details of the mediation process. Bayer has indicated that it will comply with the order, but may not yet be ready to consider settling the litigation despite the courtroom losses.

Meanwhile, the litigation that originated in the United States has crossed the border into Canada where a Saskatchewan farmer is leading a class action lawsuit against Bayer and Monsanto making allegations that mirror those in the U.S. lawsuits.

“THE QUEEN OF ROUNDUP”

Elaine Stevick of Petaluma, California was supposed to be the next in line to take on Monsanto at trial. But in his order of mediation, Judge Chhabria also vacated her May 20 trial date. A new trial date is to be discussed at the hearing on Wednesday.

Stevick and her husband Christopher Stevick sued Monsanto in April of 2016 and said in an interview that they are eager to get their chance to confront the company over the devastating damage they say Elaine’s use of Roundup has done to her health. She was diagnosed in December 2014 at the age of 63 with multiple brain tumors due to a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called central nervous system lymphoma (CNSL).  Alberta Pilliod, who just won the most recent trial, also had a CNSL brain tumor.

The couple purchased an old Victorian home and overgrown property in 1990 and while Christopher worked on renovating the interior of the house, Elaine’s job was to spray weed killer over the weeds and wild onions that the couple said took over a good portion of the property. She sprayed multiple times a year until she was diagnosed with cancer. She never wore gloves or other protective clothing because believed it to be as safe as advertised, she said.

Stevick is currently in remission but nearly died at one point in her treatment, Christopher Stevick said.

“I called her the ‘queen of Roundup’ because she was always walking around spraying the stuff,” he said.

The couple attended parts of both the Pilliod and Hardeman trials, and said they are grateful the truth about Monsanto’s actions to hide the risks are coming into the public spotlight. And they want to see Bayer and Monsanto start warning users about the cancer risks of Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides.

“We want the companies to take responsibility for warning people -even if there is a chance that something would be harmful or hazardous for them, people should be warned,” Elaine Stevick said.

(Published first in Environmental Health News)

Follow @Careygillam on Twitter