Unsealed Documents Cast Doubt on Safety of Monsanto Weed Killer Roundup

Research funded by the industry has found it to be safe, but the main ingredient may cause cancer

Unsealed Documents Cast Doubt on Safety of Monsanto Weed Killer Roundup
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March 16, 2017

Giant chemical company Monsanto is facing doubts regarding flagship product Roundup, whose active ingredient is the most widely used weed killer in the world but may also cause cancer. It is also being questioned about its research practices.

Questionable Findings

Products like Roundup are used on plants everywhere from row crops to small home gardens. Research funded by the industry has maintained for years that it is relatively safe, but a federal court case is questioning that finding. The case builds on conclusions reached by an international panel claiming that the product's main ingredient may cause cancer.

Court documents—which included Monsanto's internal emails as well as emails between it and federal regulators—suggest that it ghostwrote research later attributed to academics. The records also indicate that a senior official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to squash a review of glyphosate, Roundup's main ingredient, that was to be made by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

The documents also show a certain level of disagreement within the EPA itself about its own safety assessment.

Judge Vince Chhabria unsealed the documents. He is also presiding over litigation brought by consumers claiming that they developed a type of cancer called non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after they were exposed to glyphosate. This litigation was sparked two years ago when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—one of the branches of the World Health Organization—determined that glyphosate was a likely carcinogen, a product or substance that causes cancer. In this case, the agency concluded from research that the type of cancer connected to the weed-killing ingredient was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Tipped Off

The court records indicate that Jess Rowland, a deputy division director at the EPA, tipped Monsanto off months before the IARC published its findings. This resulted in Monsanto preparing a public relations attack on the conclusions long before they were even published. In internal emails, company executives said that Rowland had promised to fight off an attempt by the DHHS to do its own review.

Monsanto executive Dan Jenkins wrote in a 2015 email that Rowland, talking about the DHHS's possible review, had said to him, "If I can kill this, I should get a medal." The review never happened.

Jenkins noted in another email to a co-worker that Rowland was planning to retire and said that he "could be useful as we move forward with ongoing glyphosate defense."

The safety of glyphosate, a chemical compound, is a question that has not been settled. Several agencies—including the EPA and the European Food Safety Agency—have disagreed with the IARC, downplaying concerns about its link to cancer. Monsanto has defended the compound very strongly.

The records also show a certain amount of debate within the EPA. Its Office of Research and Development (ORD)—the office dedicated to scientific research—raised concerns regarding the strength of an assessment performed by another agency office, the Office of Pesticide Programs, had been. Rowland was a senior official in the latter office at that time.

In December 2015, the Office of Research and Development recommended that Rowland's office act to make its "human health assessment" stronger.

In a statement, Monsanto denied that glyphosate is a carcinogen. It added that such claims are "inconsistent with decades of comprehensive safety reviews by the leading regulatory authorities around the world."

Compromised Research?

It also denied suggestions that the disclosures raised concerns that the academic research it underwrites is compromised. It often cites such research to bolster its claims that Roundup and pesticides are safe.

In one unsealed email, company executive William F. Heydens wrote other Monsanto officials that they could ghostwrite glyphosate research by paying academics to put their names on papers that Monstanto had written. He cited a prior instance in which he claimed that Monsanto had done this.

"We would be keeping the cost down by us doing the writing and they would just edit & sign their names so to speak," he wrote.

Glyphosate's safety is an important issue for American consumers. The company has genetically altered corn, soybeans, and cotton over the past 20 years to make it easier to spray them with Roundup. In 2015, 220 million pounds of glyphosate were used in the U.S.

"People should know that there are superb scientists in the world who would disagree with Monsanto and some of the regulatory agencies' evaluations, and even E.P.A. has disagreement within the agency," said Robin Greenwald, a lawyer at Weitz & Luxembourg, which is involved in the litigation. "Even in the E.U., there's been a lot of disagreement among the countries. It's not so simple as Monsanto makes it out to be."