Company’s own records revealed damning truth of glyphosate-based herbicides’ link to cancer
This article was originally published in The Guardian.
By Carey Gillam
It was a verdict heard around the world. In a stunning blow to one of the world’s largest seed and chemical companies, jurors in San Francisco have told Monsanto it must pay $289m in damages to a man dying of cancer which he claims was caused by exposure to its herbicides.
Monsanto, which became a unit of Bayer AG in June, has spent decades convincing consumers, farmers, politicians and regulators to ignore mounting evidence linking its glyphosate-based herbicides to cancer and other health problems. The company has employed a range of tactics – some drawn from the same playbook used by the tobacco industry in defending the safety of cigarettes – to suppress and manipulate scientific literature, harass journalists and scientists who did not parrot the company’s propaganda, and arm-twist and collude with regulators. Indeed, one of Monsanto’s lead defense attorneys in the San Francisco case was George Lombardi, whose resumé boasts of his work defending big tobacco.
Now, in this one case, through the suffering of one man, Monsanto’s secretive strategies have been laid bare for the world to see. Monsanto was undone by the words of its own scientists, the damning truth illuminated through the company’s emails, internal strategy reports and other communications.
The jury’s verdict found not only that Monsanto’s Roundup and related glyphosate-based brands presented a substantial danger to people using them, but that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Monsanto’s officials acted with “malice or oppression” in failing to adequately warn of the risks.
Testimony and evidence presented at trial showed that the warning signs seen in scientific research dated back to the early 1980s and have only increased over the decades. But with each new study showing harm, Monsanto worked not to warn users or redesign its products, but to create its own science to show they were safe. The company often pushed its version of science into the public realm through ghostwritten work that was designed to appear independent and thus more credible. Evidence was also presented to jurors showing how closely the company had worked with Environmental Protection Agency officials to promote the safety message and suppress evidence of harm.
“The jury paid attention throughout this long trial and clearly understood the science and also understood Monsanto’s role in trying to hide the truth,” said Aimee Wagstaff, one of several attorneys around the US who are representing other plaintiffs making similar claims to Dewayne Johnson.
This case and the verdict specifically concern the 46-year-old father who developed a severe and fatal form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma while working as a school groundskeeper, repeatedly spraying large quantities of Monsanto’s Roundup and other glyphosate herbicide brands. Doctors have said he probably does not have long to live.
The ramifications, however, are much broader and have global implications. Another trial is set to take place in October in St Louis and roughly 4,000 plaintiffs have claims pending with the potential outcomes resulting in many more hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in damage awards. They all allege not only that their cancers were caused by exposure to Monsanto’s herbicides, but that Monsanto has long known about, and covered up, the dangers. The team of plaintiffs’ attorneys leading the litigation say they so far have brought to light only a fraction of evidence collected from Monsanto’s internal files and plan to reveal much more in future trials.
Monsanto maintains it has done nothing wrong, and that the evidence has been misrepresented. Its attorneys say they have the bulk of scientific research firmly on their side, and that they will appeal against the verdict, meaning it could be years before Johnson and his family see a dime of the damage award. In the meantime, his wife, Araceli, works two jobs to support the couple and their two young sons as Johnson prepares for another round of chemotherapy.
But as this case and others drag on, one thing is clear: this is not just about one man dying of cancer. Glyphosate-based herbicides are so widely used around the globe (roughly 826 million kg a year) that residues are commonly found in food and water supplies, and in soil and air samples. US scientists have even recorded the weed killer residues in rainfall. Exposure is ubiquitous, virtually inescapable.
Acknowledgement of risk is essential to public protection. Regulators, however, have failed to heed the warnings of independent scientists for too long, even shrugging off the findings of the World Health Organization’s top cancer scientists who classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
Now, well past time, long-held corporate secrets have been exposed.
In his closing argument, the plaintiff’s attorney, Brent Wisner, told the jury it was time for Monsanto to be held accountable. This trial, he said, was the company’s “day of reckoning”.
- Landmark Lawsuit Claims Monsanto Hid Cancer Danger of Weedkiller for Decades, by Carey Gillam in The Guardian
- First Monsanto Roundup Cancer Trial Jury Selection, Carey Gillam’s blog
By Carey Gillam
Let the battle begin. Opening statements are slated for Monday in the landmark legal case that for the first time puts Monsanto and its Roundup herbicide on trial over allegations that the company’s widely used weed killer can cause cancer.
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a San Francisco-area school groundskeeper who used a form of Roundup regularly at his job, will face off against the global seed and chemical giant in a trial expected to extend into August. Johnson hopes to persuade a jury that Monsanto, which last month became a subsidiary of Bayer AG, is to blame for the non-Hodgkin lymphoma that doctors have said leaves him only weeks or months left to live.
Hints of the courtroom drama to come unfolded over the last week of June as jury selection dragged on for days, with Monsanto claiming widespread bias among prospective jurors. A number of the members of the jury pool, Monsanto’s attorney said, revealed in jury questionnaires that they view Monsanto as “evil.” Some even said they believe the company has “killed people,” a Monsanto attorney lawyer told San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos.
Monsanto’s attorneys cited similar issues in seeking to quell media coverage of the trial, telling the judge that she should not allow news cameras to televise the events because the publicity would “create a significant safety risk” for Monsanto’s employees and attorneys who have been targeted with “multiple threats and disturbing communications,” related to the litigation. Monsanto said employees have received threatening phone calls as well as ominous postcards sent to their homes. One postcard displayed a skull and crossbones along with a photo of the recipient, Monsanto said in a court filing.
Judge Bolanos ruled that some parts of the trial will be allowed to be broadcast, including opening statements, closing arguments and the announcement of a verdict. The trial is expected to be closely followed by people around the world; the French news outlet Agence France Presse is among the contingent of media who sought permission to cover the case.
Heated debates over the safety of Roundup and the active ingredient glyphosate have spanned the globe for years. Concerns mounted after internal Monsanto documents came to light through court-ordered discovery, showing conversations among Monsanto employees about “ghost” writing certain scientific papers to help influence regulatory and public opinion about Monsanto products.
Many of those internal corporate records are expected to be a key part of Johnson’s case. Johnson’s attorneys say they have evidence that Monsanto has long known that glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup are carcinogenic and have hidden that information from consumers and regulators. They allege Monsanto has manipulated the scientific record and regulatory assessments of glyphosate in order to protect corporate glyphosate-related revenues. Monsanto knew of the dangers and “made conscious decisions not to redesign, warn or inform the unsuspecting public,” the Johnson lawsuit claims.
If they can convince a jury of the allegations, the lawyers say they plan to ask for potentially “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Johnson’s lawsuit against Monsanto makes him one of roughly 4,000 plaintiffs who sued the company after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. The IARC classification was based on a review of more than a decade of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies analyzing glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides. Johnson’s case is the first to go to trial. Another is scheduled for trial in October in St. Louis, Missouri.
Monsanto argues there is no justification for any of the claims, and asserts it has decades of regulatory findings of safety and hundreds of research studies to back its defense. “Glyphosate is the most tested herbicide in history,” Monsanto stated in its trial brief.
The company says it plans to introduce expert testimony demonstrating that the science is firmly on its side—”the entire body of epidemiology literature shows no causal association” between its glyphosate-based herbicides and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the company states. As well, the animal testing database “is most consistent with glyphosate not being a human carcinogen,” according to Monsanto.
The company’s attorneys also plan to show that Johnson’s exposure was minimal, and notably, that development of his type of cancer—a disease called mycosis fungoides that causes lesions on the skin—takes many years to form and could not have developed in the short period between Johnson’s exposure and his diagnosis.
Monsanto’s attorneys argue in court filings that Johnson’s claims are so weak the judge should instruct the jury to provide a directed verdict in Monsanto’s favor.
But Johnson’s attorneys plan to tell jury members that Johnson began to experience a skin rash not long after being accidentally doused in a Monsanto glyphosate-based herbicide called Ranger Pro. He saw the rash—which turned to lesions and then invaded lymph nodes—worsen after he would use the chemical, which was frequently as he treated school grounds. Johnson’s attorneys plan to tell jurors that Johnson was so worried that the herbicide was to blame that he called Monsanto’s offices as well as a poison hotline number listed on the herbicide label. Monsanto employees recorded his outreach and his concerns, internal Monsanto documents show. But even after the IARC classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, Monsanto did not inform him of any risk, according to evidence to be presented at the trial.
As part of their case, Johnson’s attorneys intend to present video depositions of 10 former or current Monsanto employees, and of former Environmental Protection Agency official Jess Rowland, whose relationship with Monsanto has sparked allegations of collusion and an inquiry from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General. They also will call to the stand Johnson himself, his wife, his doctors, and several scientists as expert witnesses.
The Monsanto witness list includes 11 expert witnesses who will testify both about the necessity of herbicides, including glyphosate-based herbicides; certain scientific literature; the plaintiff’s type of cancer and potential causes; and other evidence that Monsanto says discredits Johnson’s claims.
Johnson’s attorneys will start the opening statements on Monday, and have projected that initial explanation of their case to the jury will take roughly 1-1/2 hours. Monsanto’s attorneys have told the court they expect their opening statements to take roughly 1-1/4 hours.
This story originally appeared in EcoWatch.
By Stacy Malkan
For anyone who wonders why consumers aren’t inspired to trust the GMO industry, consider this bizarre rant from Impossible Foods Chief Communications Officer Rachel Konrad in defense of the Impossible Burger, a veggie burger made more meat-like via genetically engineered yeast. Konrad was upset that a story in Bloomberg raised concerns about the insufficient research, lack of regulation and poor transparency for genetically engineered food technologies.
So Konrad took to Medium, blasting critics of the Impossible Burger as “anti-science fundamentalists” and “setting the record straight” with information she sourced from chemical industry front groups and other unreliable anti-consumer messengers who regularly communicate inaccurate information about science.
Bloomberg is not a trusted source of reporting on science, according to Konrad, because the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) says so. The ACSH is a corporate front group that solicits money from tobacco, chemical and pharmaceutical companies to defend pesticides, e-cigs, cosmetics and other toxic products that aren’t likely to win over the vegan crowd.
Instead of enduring the bias of Bloomberg, Konrad tells us, we should take heart in the rise of Mark Lynas, a promoter of GMOs and pesticides who communicates inaccurate information about science, according to scientists and food experts.
Konrad’s article also links to a column by Ted Nordhaus, who sits on the board of the parent organization of Genetic Literacy Project, a chemical industry propaganda group that attacks cancer scientists as part of its role as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations strategy to protect Roundup weed killer from cancer concerns.
The false and inflammatory messaging these front groups use to promote genetically engineered foods, defend pesticides, ignore health and environmental risks and silence consumer and environmental advocates goes a long way toward explaining why the GMO industry isn’t winning consumer trust.
Impossible Foods had a chance to turn a new leaf. Up to now, most GMO foods have been engineered to survive the spraying of weed-killing chemicals: glyphosate, now also dicamba, and soon also 2,4-D, in what environmental groups call the GMO pesticide treadmill. But the GMO industry is changing with the emergence of new techniques such as CRISPR and synthetic biology.
As one of the first food companies out with a GM food product that may actually offer consumer benefits (if one likes “bleeding” veggie burgers), Impossible Foods had the opportunity to write a new story, and build trust with an open, transparent process that respects consumer concerns. They blew it.
We are supposed to trust the manufacturer to vouch for the safety of Impossible Burger’s new genetically engineered protein, which is new to the human food supply. But the company’s process hasn’t inspired trust.
Their GMO “heme” ingredient is “super safe,” according to the Impossible Foods website. Konrad explains in Medium, “An objective, third-party team of the nation’s top food researchers unanimously concluded in 2014 that the Impossible Burger’s key ingredient, soy leghemoglobin (produced by a genetically engineered yeast), is ‘generally recognized as safe.’ The panel made this conclusion in 2014, well before we began selling the Impossible Burger on the market in 2016.”
She left out some important facts. As the New York Times reported last August, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raised concerns that the studies Impossible Foods presented in its GRAS notification were inadequate to establish safety, the company withdrew its petition but put the burger on the market anyway.
That was within their rights, but not a way to establish confidence in their product.
“These are standing panels of industry hired guns.”
Another flag: The three food researchers who wrote the expert panel report that Impossible Foods submitted to the FDA—Joseph Borzelleca, Michael Pariza and Steve Taylor—are on a short list of scientists the “food industry turns to over and over again” to obtain GRAS status, and all three served on the Phillip Morris Scientific Advisory Board, according to a 2015 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, “The Misinformation Industry: Food safety scientists have ties to Big Tobacco.”
Borzelleca, the Center for Public Investigation reported, was the most active of the go-to scientists, having served on 41 percent of 379 panels convened in the last 17 years to review the safety of new food ingredients.
“Despite his decades of experience and praise heaped upon him by colleagues—one called him a ‘wonder’—critics of the GRAS system say Borzelleca is emblematic of a system that is rife with conflicts of interest,” CPI reported. “If scientists depend on the food industry for income, they may be less likely to contest the safety of ingredients companies hope to market, critics say.”
“These are standing panels of industry hired guns,” Laura MacCleery, an attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told CPI. “It is funding bias on steroids.”
But the views of critics with legitimate concerns are not welcome in the world of the Impossible Burger, according to Rachel Konrad.
Rather than blazing a new path of integrity with its new food technology, Impossible Foods has decided to follow a path well worn by many other purveyors of food additives and genetically engineered foods: rush new products to market without a transparent process or comprehensive safety reviews, then shout down anyone who raises concerns. Across our nation, people who want to know what’s in their food find such arrogance distasteful.
This article originally appeared in EcoWatch.
Mark Lynas is a former journalist turned promotional advocate for genetically engineered foods and pesticides who makes inaccurate claims about those products from his perch at the Cornell Alliance for Science, a public relations campaign to promote GMOs funded by the Gates Foundation and based at Cornell University. Lynas has been called out repeatedly by scientists, farmers and food experts for spreading misinformation and using manipulative tactics to promote a pro-biotech agenda.
Scientists, food experts say Lynas is wrong on science
Scientists and food policy experts have sharply criticized Lynas for his inaccurate and unscientific promotional efforts for GMOs and pesticides. See articles by (emphases ours):
- David Schubert, PhD, Head, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory & Professor at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies (San Diego Union Tribune letter): “I can unequivocally state that there is no scientific consensus about GMO safety and that most of his statements are false.”
- Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, former senior scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists: “Here are some of the incorrect or misleading points that Lynas makes about the science or development of GE.” “Instead of debating or discussing the actual science, Lynas casts aspersions and resorts to relying on authority rather than data or research.”
- Belinda Martineau, PhD, genetic engineer who helped develop the first GMO food (NYT letter and Biotech Salon): Lynas’ claim about the certainty of GMO safety is “unscientific, illogical and absurd.”
- Glenn Davis Stone, Professor of Anthropologist and Environmental Studies at Washington University, review of Lynas book Seeds of Science: “amateurish rehash of common industry talking points”
- Eric Holt-Giménez, PhD, Director Food First/Inst. of Food Policy and Development (Huffington Post): “The laundry list of what Mark Lynas got wrong about both GMOs and science is extensive, and has been refuted point by point by some of the world’s leading agroecologists and biologists.”
- Timothy A. Wise, Director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University (Food Tank): Mark Lynas has “made a career out of … demonization“
- Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (2018 statement): “The fly-in pundit’s contempt for African people, custom and tradition is unmistakeable.”
- African Centre for Biodiversity (2018 press release): “Lynas’ narrative is demonstrably false.”
- Pete Myers, PhD, founder and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of EHN.org (on Twitter): “The peer reviewed scientific literature is replete with documentation that glyphosate does more than affect plants. Mark Lynas’ claims display deep scientific ignorance, or an active effort to manufacture doubt. You should ignore him.”
‘Manipulative, misleading and unethical’
African farmers say Lynas and the Cornell Alliance for Science used their images on the internet without their knowledge and consent and are demanding the images be removed, according to a December 2018 report published by the African Centre for Biodiversity. The report describes evidence of what the authors described as manipulative, misleading and unethical tactics Lynas used to promote a political agenda to push GMOs in Tanzania. “Mr Lynas’ manipulative communication tactics and attempts to discredit anybody who holds different views than his on GMOs and hybrid seeds have crossed an ethical red line and must cease,” the report said.
See also, “Mark Lynas slammed for exploiting African farmers’ images to promote GMOs,” African Centre for Biodiversity press release (12.7.2018)
Pesticide messaging based on industry talking points, not science
An example of how Mark Lynas promotes agrichemical industry talking points rather than honest science reporting is his article attacking the scientists of the World Health Organization’s prestigious cancer research agency after they designated glyphosate a probable human carcinogen. A Monsanto public relations document reveals the corporation’s plan to discredit the cancer scientists by engaging “industry partners” to “orchestrate outcry” about the cancer report. Lynas’ messaging follows right along: he described the expert panel’s cancer report as a “witch hunt” orchestrated by people overcome with “hysteria and emotion,” and claimed that glyphosate is the “most benign chemical in world farming.”
In reality, the WHO cancer panels are comprised of leading experts from multiple fields in cancer research who conduct comprehensive science reviews to identify cancer hazards to inform global policies to prevent cancer – a role that has made IARC a target of food and chemical industry propaganda campaigns. In pushing his case that “activist groups abused science and sidelined evidence-based policy in the glyphosate saga,” Lynas ignored substantial evidence, widely reported throughout the world, that Monsanto manipulated the science and regulatory reviews on glyphosate for decades using covert tactics including ghostwriting studies and articles, killing studies, pushing dubious science, attacking scientists and strong-arming regulatory agencies.
Promoted by, tied to pesticide industry propaganda network
Agrichemical companies and their public relations operatives frequently promote Mark Lynas and his work. See for example Monsanto’s website, many promotional tweets by pesticide industry trade groups, lobby groups, pro-industry academics and writers, and various Monsanto employees, and the dozens of Lynas’ articles promoted by Genetic Literacy Project, a propaganda group that partners with Monsanto.
Lynas and Cornell Alliance for Science also collaborate with other key players in the agrichemical industry’s lobbying and propaganda network.
Advises Monsanto partner group Sense About Science
A confidential Monsanto PR plan dated February 2015 suggested Sense About Science as a group that could help lead the industry’s response in the media to discredit the WHO cancer report about glyphosate. Lynas serves on the advisory council of Sense About Science. The group’s co-founder (and current “patron”) is Lord Dick Taverne, an English politician whose PR firm promoted and defended the tobacco industry in the 1990s, according to The Intercept and documents from theUCSF Tobacco Industry Archive.
Sense About Science also partners with the Cornell Alliance for Science to offer “statistical consultation for journalists” via the group’s director Trevor Butterworth, who built his career defending toxic products for the chemical, soda and drug industries.
Aligned with climate science skeptic to launch pro-fracking, pro-nuke, GMO “movement”
Lynas calls himself a co-founder of the “movement” of “ecomodernism,” a corporate-aligned strain of “environmentalism” that writer George Monbiot describes as “take no political action to protect the natural world.” The group promotes fracking, nuclear power, and agrichemical products as ecological solutions.According to its leaders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, energy technologies favored by the oil billionaire Koch brothers “are doing far more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the ones favored by the climate-apocalyptic Left.” Nordhaus is also a board member (along with Jon Entine and Drew Kershen) of the Science Literacy Project, the parent organization of Genetic Literacy Project, a propaganda group that partners with Monsanto.
At a failed launch event for ecomodernism in September 2015, Lynas aligned himself with Owen Paterson, a prominent climate science denialist whoslashed funding for efforts to prepare the UK for global warming during his stint as environment secretary there.That same month, Paterson spoke at Cornell Alliance for Science, where he promoted GMOs in a hyperbolic speech filled with unsupportable claims, and accused environmentalists of allowing children to die in Africa. Paterson’s speech at Cornell won praise from the industry-funded front group American Council on Science and Health in a blog titled “Billion dollar green campaigns kill poor children,” written by ACSH’s former acting director Gil Ross, a physician who went to jail for Medicaid fraud.
Mark Lynas background
Lynas authored several books on climate change (one of which was recognized by the Royal Society) before he attracted worldwide attention with his “conversion” from an anti-GMO activist to a promoter of the technology with a widely-promoted 2013 speech at Oxford that critics have described as misleading. Later that year Lynas became a fellow at Cornell University Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and began working for the Cornell Alliance for Science, a communications campaign developed in 2014 to promote GMOs with funding from the Gates Foundation.
Lynas identified himself as the “political director” for Cornell Alliance for Science in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. The Cornell Alliance for Science does not explain what its political agenda is, but the group’s messaging and goals closely track the agrichemical industry’s commercial agenda: to increase acceptance of genetically engineered crops and pesticides around the world, particularly in Africa.
Mysterious Lynas PR push, and leaked EuropaBio memo
The massive media coverage of Lynas’ pro-GMO conversion in 2013 raised suspicions that an industry PR campaign was helping to elevate him behind the scenes. A leaked 2011 memo from an industry PR firm — describing plans to recruit high profile “ambassadors” to lobby for GMO acceptance – heightened suspicions of industry backing because the document specifically named Lynas. Lynas has said the industry group never approached him.
According to a Guardian report, EuropaBio, a trade group whose members include Monsanto and Bayer, planned to recruit PR ambassadors to help decision makers “rethink Europe’s position on GM crops.” The ambassadors would not be paid directly but would receive travel expenses and “dedicated communications support” from industry funding. The PR firm’s operative rep claimed to “have interest from” Lynas, among others, in the ambassador role. Lynas denied having any contact with them. “I have not been asked to be an ambassador, nor would I accept such a request if asked,” he told the Guardian.
Gates Foundation, GMOs & Monsanto
The Gates Foundation– the principal funder for the Cornell Alliance for Science –has been sharply criticized for its agricultural development funding strategies, specifically for spending most of its funds “to feed the poor in Africa” on scientists in wealthy nations (see 2014 GRAIN analysis), and for colonialist strategies that are “exacerbating global inequality and entrenching corporate power globally” (see 2016 report by Global Justice Now).The Gates Foundation massively expanded its funding for agricultural projects about a decade ago, after Monsanto’s former head of international development, Rob Horsch, joined the foundation’s agricultural development leadership team. Lynas’ new book “Seeds of Science” spends a chapter (“The True History of Monsanto”) trying to explain some of the corporation’s past sins and lauding Rob Horsch at length. It spends another chapter (“Africa: Let Them Eat Organic Baby Corn”) arguing that Africans need agrichemical industry products to feed themselves.
Criticisms of the Gates Foundation’s colonialist approach to Africa
- Seeds of Neo-Colonialism: Why the GMO Promoters Get it So Wrong About Africa, statement by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, 5/7/2018
- Are Gates and Rockefeller using their influence to set agenda in poor states?“Study identifies Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations among rich donors that are close to government and may be skewing priorities,” by John Vidal, The Guardian, 1/15/2016
- Philanthropic Power and Development. Who shapes the agenda? by Jens Martens and Karolin Seitz, 2015 report (page 48).
- Philanthrocapitalism: The Gates Foundation’s African programmes are not charity, by Philip L Bereano, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Third World Resurgence, 2017
- How Bill Gates is Helping KFC Take Over Africa, by Alex Park, Mother Jones, 1/10/2014
- Gates Foundation’s Seed Agenda in Africa ‘Another Form of Colonialism,’ Warns Protesters, by Lauren McCauley, Common Dreams, 3/23/2015
- Gates Foundation is spearheading neoliberal plunder of African agriculture, by Colin Todhunter, The Ecologist, 1/21/2016
- How does the Gates Foundation spend its money to feed the world?GRAIN report, 2014
- Bill Gates is on a mission to sell GMOs to Africa, but he’s not telling the whole truth, by Stacy Malkan, Alternet, 3/24/2016
By Carey Gillam
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson has led what many might call an unremarkable life. The 46-year-old father and husband spent several years working as a school groundskeeper and spending free time teaching his two young sons to play football. But this week he takes center stage in a global debate over the safety of one of the world’s most widely used pesticides as he takes Monsanto to court on claims that repeated exposure to the company’s popular Roundup herbicide left him with terminal cancer.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos was assigned Monday to oversee the trial, and jury selection is tentatively expected to begin Thursday, June 21, with opening statements possible by June 27. The courtroom showdown could last three to four weeks, lawyers involved estimate, and will shine a spotlight on decades of scientific research and internal Monsanto documents that relate to the testing and marketing of Monsanto’s flagship herbicide and the active ingredient, a chemical called glyphosate.
Though Johnson is the lone plaintiff in the lawsuit, his case is considered a bellwether for roughly 4,000 other plaintiffs also suing Monsanto over allegations that exposure to Roundup caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Another case is scheduled to go to trial in October in St. Louis, Missouri.
Johnson worked as a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District for many years.
The lawsuits, which have been piling up in court dockets around the U.S., not only challenge Monsanto’s position that its widely used herbicides are proven safe, but they also assert that the company has intentionally suppressed evidence of the risks of its weed killing products, misleading both regulators and consumers in a dangerous deception.
The litigation, proceeding both in federal and state courts, began after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate—the active ingredient in Roundup—as a probable human carcinogen in March 2015. The IARC classification was based on years of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies analyzing glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides.
Monsanto and allies in the agrochemical industry have blasted the litigation and the IARC classification as lacking in validity, countering that decades of safety studies prove that glyphosate does not cause cancer when used as designed. Monsanto has cited findings by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory authorities as backing its defense. The company can also point to an EPA draft risk assessment of glyphosate on its side, which concluded that glyphosate is not likely carcinogenic.
“Glyphosate-based herbicides are supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health and environmental effects databases ever compiled for a pesticide product,” Monsanto states on its website. “Comprehensive toxicological and environmental fate studies conducted over the last 40 years have time and again demonstrated the strong safety profile of this widely used herbicide.”
Glyphosate represents billions of dollars in annual revenues for Monsanto, which became a subsidiary of German-based Bayer AG on June 8, and several other companies selling glyphosate-based herbicides. Monsanto brought the pesticide to market in 1974 and the weed killer has been used prominently for decades by farmers in food production and by municipalities to eradicate weeds in public parks and playgrounds, and by homeowners on residential lawns.
Monsanto had sought to delay the Johnson case, just as it has sought to delay and/or dismiss the others brought against it. But the trial was expedited because he is not expected to live much longer after being diagnosed in 2014 with a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called mycosis fungoides.
A Death Sentence
According to court records, Johnson worked as a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District for many years and applied multiple treatments of Monsanto’s herbicides to the San Francisco-area school properties from 2012 until at least late 2015, including after he was diagnosed with cancer in August 2014. His job entailed mixing and spraying hundreds of gallons of glyphosate-based herbicides around school properties. He used various Roundup products, but mostly Roundup PRO, a highly concentrated version of the weed killer. After developing a skin rash in the summer of 2014 he reported to doctors that it seemed to worsen after he sprayed the herbicide. In August of that year he was diagnosed with a type of lymphoma but continued his work until 2015 when he underwent several rounds of chemotherapy only to learn in September 2015 that he likely had but 18 months to live.
In a deposition taken in January, Johnson’s treating physician testified that more than 80 percent of his body was covered by lesions and his diagnosis continued to be terminal. Still, Johnson has improved since starting a new drug treatment and plans to attend some of the trial if possible, his attorneys said.
Johnson has not led an unblemished life; Monsanto uncovered an aggravated assault charge against him from the early 1990s, along with a misdemeanor weapons charge and a domestic abuse complaint against the mother of his oldest child. The company elicited deposition testimony from Johnson that he failed tests for pesticide applicators three times, and sprayed the pesticide without a certified applicator license. Johnson wore proper protective gear over his clothing but was accidentally drenched in the pesticide at least once when mixing it.
Monsanto’s lawyers will argue other factors could be to blame for Johnson’s cancer, and that its weed killer played no role.
Johnson’s attorneys have shrugged off any issues regarding Johnson’s personal behavior or other potential causes for his disease, and say in court filings they will offer evidence at trial that Monsanto “for decades, engaged in a shocking degree of scientific fraud and manipulation of the scientific literature with respect to Roundup” to cover up the evidence that it does cause cancer.
The trial evidence will include information that Monsanto ghostwrote articles relied on by the EPA, IARC and California’s environmental regulators; rewarded employees for ghostwriting; and actively suppressed the publication of information that revealed the harm associated with glyphosate and Roundup. Johnson’s attorneys say internal Monsanto documents show extensive “manipulation” of the scientific record, and clearly improper and fraudulent interactions with regulators.
Johnson’s attorneys intend to call 10 current and former Monsanto employees to the stand.
“We’re going to get them here. We have the goods,” said Brent Wisner, who is one of three attorneys representing Johnson at trial. “If the evidence we have is allowed in, Monsanto is in trouble.”
Lead Lawyer Out
Wisner was only brought in to help try to case within the last few weeks after lead attorney Mike Miller suffered a near-fatal accident while kite surfing and remains too severely injured to try the case. Wisner’s role is key as he is set to deliver both the opening and closing statements for Johnson’s case in Miller’s absence.
Monsanto filed a motion on June 18 seeking to exclude Wisner from trying the case, however, claiming he has been acting as a “PR man,” and lobbyist against glyphosate, particularly in Europe, where glyphosate has been under intense regulatory scrutiny. Monsanto also cited Wisner’s release in August 2017 of hundreds of pages of internal Monsanto documents turned over in discovery that the company had wanted to keep sealed, a tactic that earned Wisner a rebuke from the judge in the federal multidistrict litigation pending against Monsanto. Monsanto’s lawyers argue that the internal corporate communications have been intentionally presented out of context by Wisner and other plaintiff’s attorneys to make it appear as though the company engaged in deceptive practices when it did not.
Wisner’s activities put him in violation of a California “advocate-witness” rule, Monsanto contended in its filing.
In addition to trying to exclude the lawyer, Monsanto is seeking to exclude reams of evidence, including internal emails written by its scientists, arguments that it deceived the EPA, evidence of fraud committed by laboratories, and testimony from Johnson’s expert witnesses.
Judge Bolanos will hear arguments on Wednesday regarding that motion and more than a dozen others regarding what evidence will and will not be allowed at trial.
Both sides say the case and the outcome are important in a larger sense. If the jury finds in favor of Johnson it could encourage additional litigation and damage claims some of the lawyers involved estimate could run into hundreds of millions of dollars. If the jury sides with Monsanto, other cases could be in jeopardy. Additionally, a victory for Monsanto in this first case could ease regulatory questions dogging the company.
As for Johnson, he will try to attend some of the trial, and will testify, but will not likely be there for it all, said Wisner. Johnson’s wife, Araceli Johnson, will be called to testify, as will two of his co-workers and his doctors.
“Right now he’s on borrowed time. He’s not going to come to most of the trial,” said Wisner. “The guy is going to die and there is nothing he can do about it. It’s unbelievably horrible.”
After more than 40 years of widespread use, new scientific tests show formulated weedkillers have higher rates of toxicity to human cells
This article was originally published in The Guardian.
By Carey Gillam
US government researchers have uncovered evidence that some popular weedkilling products, like Monsanto’s widely-used Roundup, are potentially more toxic to human cells than their active ingredient is by itself.
These “formulated” weedkillers are commonly used in agriculture, leaving residues in food and water, as well as public spaces such as golf courses, parks and children’s playgrounds.
The tests are part of the US National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) first-ever examination of herbicide formulations made with the active ingredient glyphosate, but that also include other chemicals. While regulators have previously required extensive testing of glyphosate in isolation, government scientists have not fully examined the toxicity of the more complex products sold to consumers, farmers and others.
Monsanto introduced its glyphosate-based Roundup brand in 1974. But it is only now, after more than 40 years of widespread use, that the government is investigating the toxicity of “glyphosate-based herbicides” on human cells.
The NTP tests were requested by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015 classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. The IARC also highlighted concerns about formulations which combine glyphosate with other ingredients to enhance weed killing effectiveness. Monsanto and rivals sell hundreds of these products around the world in a market valued at roughly $9bn.
Mike DeVito, acting chief of the National Toxicology Program Laboratory, told the Guardian the agency’s work is ongoing but its early findings are clear on one key point. “We see the formulations are much more toxic. The formulations were killing the cells. The glyphosate really didn’t do it,” DeVito said.
A summary of the NTP work stated that glyphosate formulations decreased human cell “viability”, disrupting cell membranes. Cell viability was “significantly altered” by the formulations, it stated.
DeVito said the NTP first-phase results do not mean the formulations are causing cancer or any other disease. While the work does show enhanced toxicity from the formulations, and show they kill human cells, the NTP appears to contradict an IARC finding that glyphosate and/or its formulations induce oxidative stress, one potential pathway toward cancer. The government still must do other testing, including examining any toxic impact on a cell’s genetic material, to help add to the understanding of risks, according to DeVito.
The NTP work informs a global debate over whether or not these glyphosate-based weedkilling chemical combinations are endangering people who are exposed. More than 4,000 people are currently suing Monsanto alleging they developed cancer from using Roundup, and several European countries are moving to limit the use of these herbicides.
“This testing is important, because the EPA has only been looking at the active ingredient. But it’s the formulations that people are exposed to on their lawns and gardens, where they play and in their food,” said Jennifer Sass, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
One problem government scientists have run into is corporate secrecy about the ingredients mixed with glyphosate in their products. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show uncertainty within the EPA over Roundup formulations and how those formulations have changed over the last three decades.
That confusion has continued with the NTP testing.
“We don’t know what the formulation is. That is confidential business information,” DeVito said. NTP scientists sourced some samples from store shelves, picking up products the EPA told them were the top sellers, he said.
It is not clear how much Monsanto itself knows about the toxicity of the full formulations it sells. But internal company emails dating back 16 years, which emerged in a court case last year, offer a glimpse into the company’s view. In one 2003 internal company email, a Monsanto scientist stated: “You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen … we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. The testing on the formulations are not anywhere near the level of the active ingredient.” Another internal email, written in 2010, said: “With regards to the carcinogenicity of our formulations we don’t have such testing on them directly.” And an internal Monsanto email from 2002 stated: “Glyphosate is OK but the formulated product … does the damage.”
Monsanto did not respond to a request for comment. But in a 43-page report, the company says the safety of its herbicides is supported by “one of the most extensive worldwide human health and environmental databases ever compiled for a pesticide product”.
As researchers we often look to documents to shed new light on issues important to food policy. Sometimes, they simply reflect what we already know.
That’s the case with one new communication string that adds to evidence of a far-reaching strategy by food industry players to discredit and diminish the world’s leading cancer research agency. We’ve already seen documents from Monsanto and other chemical industry interests laying out plans to tear apart the credibility of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) because of its classification of Monsanto’s weed killer glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
Now we see evidence that other food industry players are part of the scheme; working to head off potentially damaging IARC scrutiny of food additives such as aspartame, sucralose, and more.
The email of intrigue was obtained through a state open records request. It shows communication between James Coughlin, a one-time scientist for Kraft General Foods Inc. who operates a food and “nutritional” consulting business, and Timothy Pastoor, a retired toxicologist with the agrochemical giant Syngenta AG who now runs his own “science communications” business. Also included on a portion of the email string is Monsanto PR man Jay Byrne, who runs a “reputation management” and public relations business, and Douglas Wolf, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist now with Syngenta.
In the October 2016 email, Coughlin tells Pastoor how he’s been “fighting IARC forever!!” dating back to his time at Kraft. He relates the time he spent criticizing the international cancer agency to a U.S. House of Representatives staffer who was coordinating an effort to strip U.S. funding from IARC.
And then, articulating the deep fear the food industry holds for the cancer agency, he gets to the meat of the matter: “IARC is killing us!” he writes. The 2-page string can be found here. An excerpt is below:
For anyone interested in commenting on the EPA’s latest safety review of the weed killing chemical glyphosate:
- Docket ID:EPA-HQ-OPP-2009-0361
- Abstract:Federal Register for Tuesday, February 27, 2018 (83 FR 8476) (FRL–9973–07) EPA–HQ–OPP–2017–0720; Registration Review; Draft Human Health and/or Ecological Risk Assessments for Several Pesticides; Notice of Availability
- Document Type:Notice
- Received Date:Feb 27, 2018
- FR Citation:83
- Start-End Page:8476 – 8478
- Comment Start Date:Feb 27, 2018
- Comment Due Date:Apr 30, 2018
Glyphosate Case 0178 EPA-HQ-OPP-2009-0361 glyphosateRegReview@epa.gov (703) 347-0292.
See all details here: https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=EPA-HQ-OPP-2009-0361