As Roundup cancer lawsuits surge, Monsanto fights to keep PR work secret

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As Monsanto continues to battle legal claims over alleged dangers of its widely used Roundup herbicides, the company is trying to block orders to turn over internal records about its work with public relations and strategic consulting contractors.

In a series of filings in St. Louis Circuit Court, Monsanto argues that it should not have to comply with discovery requests involving certain dealings between it and the global public relations firm FleishmanHillard, despite the fact that a special master has found Monsanto should hand those documents over. Monsanto is asserting that its communications with FleishmanHillard should be considered “privileged,” similar to attorney-client communications, and that Monsanto should not have to produce them as part of discovery to the lawyers representing the cancer patients suing Monsanto.

FleishmanHillard became the agency of record for Monsanto’s “corporate reputation work” in 2013, and its employees became deeply involved with the company, working “at Monsanto’s offices nearly every day” and gaining “access to online repositories of non-public confidential information,”  the company said. “The fact that some of these communications involve the creation of public messaging does not strip them of privilege,” Monsanto said in its court filing.

FleishmanHillard worked on two projects for Monsanto in Europe regarding re-registration of
glyphosate and worked with Monsanto lawyers on a “specific project for jury research.” The nature of the work done by the public relations firm “required privileged communications” with Monsanto’s legal counsel, the company said.

Earlier this year Monsanto owner Bayer AG said it was ending Monsanto’s relationship with FleishmanHillard after news broke that the public relations firm engaged in a Europe-wide data collection scheme for Monsanto, targeting journalists, politicians and other stakeholders to try to influence pesticide policy.

Monsanto has taken a similar position with respect to communications involving its work with corporate image management company FTI Consulting, which Monsanto hired in June 2016. “The absence of an attorney on a privileged document also does not automatically render that document susceptible to a privilege challenge,” Monsanto said in its filing.

Earlier this year, an FTI employee was caught impersonating a journalist at one of the Roundup cancer trials, trying to suggest story lines for other reporters to pursue that favored Monsanto.

The company also wants to avoid handing over documents involving its relationship with Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, which has been marketing and selling Monsanto’s Roundup lawn and garden products since 1998.

More than 40,000 cancer victims or their family members are now suing Monsanto blaming exposure to the company’s line of Roundup herbicides for their diseases, according to Bayer. The lawsuits allege that exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides caused the plaintiffs to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that though Monsanto knew about the cancer risks, it intentionally did not warn consumers.

Bayer held a conference call with investors Wednesday to discuss its third quarter results and to update shareholders on the Roundup litigation.  Striking a reassuring tone, Bayer CEO Werner Baumann said that while investors might be surprised at the high number of lawsuits, it is “actually not that surprising.” He said plaintiffs’ attorneys in the United States have been spending tens of millions of dollars advertising for clients.

“This increase in the number of lawsuits does not change our conviction of the safety profile of glyphosate and is by no means a reflection of the merits of this litigation,” Baumann said. Appeals are underway after the company lost the first three trials, and the company is “constructively” engaging in mediation, according to Baumann. Bayer will only agree to a settlement that is “financially reasonable” and will bring “reasonable closure to the overall litigation,” he said.

Though the company refers to it as “glyphosate” litigation, the plaintiffs allege that their cancers were not caused by exposure to glyphosate alone, but by exposure to glyphosate-based formulated products made by Monsanto.

Many scientific studies have shown that the formulations are much more toxic than glyphosate by itself. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not required long-term safety studies on Roundup formulations throughout the 40-plus years the products have been on the market, and internal company  communications between Monsanto scientists have been obtained by plaintiffs’ attorneys in which the scientists discuss the lack of carcinogenicity testing for Roundup products.

Multiple trials that were scheduled for this fall in the St. Louis, Missouri area have been delayed until next year.

NYC Leaders Join Calls for Ban on Monsanto Herbicide

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This article was originally published in Environmental Health News.

“Parks should be for playing not pesticides”

By Carey Gillam

Two New York City council members introduced legislation today that would ban city agencies from spraying glyphosate-based herbicides and other toxic pesticides in parks and other public spaces.

The move is the latest in a groundswell of concern over pesticide use, particularly exposures to weed killing products developed by Monsanto, which is now a unit of Bayer AG. Cities, school districts and suppliers across the U.S. are increasingly halting use of the pesticides.

It is also a further sign that a growing number of people – consumers, educators, business leaders and others – are rejecting assurances from Monsanto and Bayer that glyphosate herbicides such as Roundup are safe for widespread use.

Bayer has recently taken out large advertisements in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and has been running television and Internet ad campaigns to defend the safety of its weed killing products. But concerns continue to mount.

“Parks should be for playing not pesticides,” said New York City council member Ben Kallos, a co-sponsor of the measure. “All families should be able to enjoy our city parks without having to worry that they are being exposed to toxic pesticides that could give them and their families cancer.”

The New York City measure would prohibit the application of synthetic pesticides within 75 feet of a natural body of water. And it would encourage city agencies to move to the use of biological pesticides, which are derived from naturally occurring substances rather than synthetic substances.

Glyphosate is commonly used in New York City, sprayed hundreds of times a year onto public greenspaces to treat weeds and overgrowth. Kallos told EHN he fears letting his young daughter play in famed Central Park because of the dangers of pesticide exposure.

Science, public awareness grow

Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide and is the active ingredient in not only Roundup brands but also hundreds of others sold around the world.

Since patenting glyphosate as a weed killer in 1974, Monsanto has always asserted it does not cause cancer and is much safer for people and the environment than other pesticides.

But scientific research developed over the last several decades has contradicted those corporate claims. Concerns escalated after the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.

More than 11,000 cancer victims are suing Monsanto alleging exposure to Roundup and other glyphosate products the company sells caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The lawsuits also claim the company has long known about the cancer risks but has worked to keep that information from the public, in part by manipulating scientific data relied on by regulators.

The first two trials have ended in unanimous jury verdicts in favor of plaintiffs. A third trial is underway in California now.

Kallos is hoping that public awareness generated by the trials will drive support for his bill. A similar measure introduced in 2015 failed to gather enough support to pass.

“The science gets stronger and stronger every day, and public interest around the issue is getting stronger,” said Kallos.

Latest effort to limit or ban

The effort in New York is just one of many around the United States to ban or limit applications of glyphosate products and other pesticides.

City commissioners in Miami voted in favor of a ban on glyphosate herbicides in February. In March, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors issued a moratorium on glyphosate applications on county property to allow for a safety evaluation by public health and environmental experts.

The list of school districts, cities and home owners groups that have banned or limited the use of glyphosate and other similarly hazardous pesticides includes many in California where the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) lists glyphosate as a known carcinogen.

This week, a group of Leesburg, Virginia, residents called on the town’s officials to stop using glyphosate along area stream banks.

Some large suppliers have also started backing away from glyphosate products. Harrell’s, a Florida-based turf, golf course and agricultural product supplier, stopped offering glyphosate products as of March 1.

Harrel’s CEO Jack Harrell Jr. said the company’s insurance provider was no longer willing to provide coverage for claims related to glyphosate, and the company was unable to secure adequate coverage from other insurers.

Costco has stopped selling Roundup—a corporate spokesperson says that they’ve removed the product from inventory for 2019. Salespeople at various stores contacted confirmed that they no longer offer the products.

And large independent garden center company Pike Nurseries in Georgia said earlier this month it is not restocking Roundup supplies due to declining sales.

On trial

The shunning of Monsanto’s products has not been helped by global publicity surrounding the first three Roundup cancer trials, which have placed internal Monsanto emails and strategic planning reports into the public spotlight and elicited testimony about the company’s handling of sensitive scientific concerns about perceived hazards of its herbicides.

In the trial currently underway, a case brought by a husband and wife who both have non-Hodgkin lymphoma they blame on their use of Roundup, evidence was introduced last week about the ease with which the weed killer can absorb into human skin.

Evidence was also laid out showing that Monsanto worked closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to block a toxicity review of glyphosate by a separate government agency.

The current trial, and the two previous trials, have all included evidence that Monsanto engaged in ghostwriting certain scientific papers that concluded glyphosate products were safe; and that Monsanto spent millions of dollars on projects aimed at countering the conclusions of the international cancer scientists who classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.

Bayer’s annual shareholders meeting is set for April 26 and angry investors are calling for answers from Bayer CEO Werner Baumann who drove the acquisition of Monsanto, closing the $63 billion deal just before the first Roundup cancer trial started last June.

The company maintains glyphosate herbicides are not carcinogenic and it will ultimately prevail.

But Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Tom Claps has warned shareholders to brace for a global settlement of between $2.5 billion and $4.5 billion. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ Bayer will reach a global Roundup settlement, it is a matter of ‘when,'” Claps told investors in a recent report.

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria has ordered Bayer to enter into mediation, to discuss just such a potential settlement of the Roundup litigation.