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Time to Ban Monsanto's Roundup Weedkiller—But Will the EPA Act?

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Photo credit: Mike Mozart

Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is the most-used agricultural chemical ever. Mounting scientific evidence of its human health impacts indicates that it may also be the most devastating.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been conducting its required 15-year re-registration review of glyphosate since 2009. The agency was supposed to reapprove or ban the chemical by the end of 2015. We assumed that glyphosate would get the stamp of approval for another 15 years while President Obama was still in office.  

Then, in March 2015, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) panel of cancer experts, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), did its own review of the latest science on glyphosate. The IARC panel of 17 scientists unanimously agreed to reclassify  the chemical as a probable human carcinogen.

The IARC cancer finding forced the EPA to take its glyphosate review more seriously. That slowed down the process. Now, the decision is in the hands of the Trump administration’s EPA.

Campaign to ban glyphosate alive and well, despite pro-chemical EPA

Under Trump, the EPA is controlled by the notorious Scott Pruitt who has a cozy relationship with Monsanto, one of his former campaign funders.

We probably have a better chance of getting Pruitt fired than we have of getting him to ban glyphosate.

That said, the campaign to ban Monsanto’s Roundup is winning around the globe. And here in the U.S., despite a pro-chemical EPA, there’s plenty of activity around opposition to glyphosate.

Non-Toxic Neighborhoods campaigners are getting localities to stop using glyphosate on parks and playgrounds.

Testing that revealed glyphosate in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and other so-called “natural” foods has spurred a movement to get these products out of grocery stores—which would mean getting glyphosate out of the U.S. food supply chain.

Even local hardware stores are dropping Roundup and going organic.

Cancer victims take Monsanto to court

Meanwhile, farmers, farm workers, landscapers and gardeners who used Roundup and developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) are suing Monsanto in courts across the country.

Earlier this year, in a federal court in California where 380 of these lawsuits have been combined into a single case, scientists educated the court on glyphosate-cancer science. The judge must review scientific experts’ methodologies for analyzing the scientific evidence to make sure they are valid. Ultimately jurors will decide whether the scientific evidence shows that Roundup causes NHL. The judge will determine which experts may testify at trial after a hearing set for May 10.

According to Carey Gillam, reporting for U.S. Right to Know, and the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the following experts testified for the plaintiffs.

Beate Ritz, M.D., Ph.D., Chair of the Epidemiology Department at UCLA, walked the judge through a series of epidemiology studies conducted over the years that show statistically significant risk factors linking glyphosate to cancer. The literature shows that the risk to individuals considered “routine users” of glyphosate was significant, she testified. When asked if the studies she evaluated show that glyphosate has caused NHL in people, her reply: “Yes, I think they do.”

Dennis Weisenburger, M.D., Chair of the Pathology Department of the City of Hope Medical Center where he specializes in the study of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, described a series of studies that show DNA damage in people exposed to glyphosate, including through aerial spraying. Research shows that both glyphosate and formulations like Roundup cause genetic damage that leads to NHL, he said. In one study, the North American Pooled Project the risk for NHL increased almost twofold for people who used glyphosate more than two days per year.

Alfred Neugut, M.D., Ph.D., a practicing medical oncologist and professor of cancer research, medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University, began his testimony by saying research shows a connection between glyphosate and NHL with great specificity. The consistency in study findings is something that cannot be ignored, he said, as scientists have seen repeated evidence linking glyphosate to NHL. “Every time you look what comes up? Glyphosate and NHL,” said Dr. Neugut.

Charles Jameson, Ph.D., who served as program leader for the National Toxicology Program at NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for 12 years and was a member of the IARC working group that concluded glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, detailed the body of research that led him to conclude that glyphosate and Roundup can cause NHL at real-world exposure levels that farmers, farm workers and others face when spraying the herbicide. The science showing that glyphosate-based herbicides cause oxidative stress is important, as is the known link to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, he explained

Christopher Portier, Ph.D., who over the course of a lengthy career, has held prominent leadership positions with the U.S. government, including, Associate Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences National Toxicology Program, Director of the National Center for Environmental Health, Center for Disease and Prevention, and Director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, was also an “invited specialist” to the IARC review on glyphosate. “To a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, given the human, animal, and mechanistic evidence, glyphosate probably causes NHL, and the probability that glyphosate causes NHL is high,” he said.

Aaron Blair, Ph.D., the Overall Chair of the IARC glyphosate review, explained how he weighed the totality of the epidemiology studies to support his opinion that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen.

Matthew Ross, Ph.D., part of the mechanism section of the IARC glyphosate review, explained why the strong evidence that glyphosate is genotoxic and causes oxidative stress are relevant to carcinogenicity in humans.

Chadi Nabhan, M.D., F.A.C.P, a board-certified clinical medical oncologist who, until last year, treated approximately 30 lymphoma patients per week, currently serves as Medical Director of Cardinal Health. In his testimony, Dr. Nabhan discussed the process by which IARC determines whether chemicals and substances are carcinogens. The agency has a high bar in consideration for what chemicals or substances it will review, he said. Exposures must be high and the animal data must be strong. Since 1965, IARC has reviewed over 1000 agents and found around 20 percent to be carcinogens. “In my opinion, the [NHL] risk [of exposure to glyphosate] is clinically significant enough that patients should be aware of it,” said Dr. Nabhan. “The IARC report is very convincing.”

Lawsuits reveal Monsanto-EPA collusion

If these experts are all permitted to testify without restriction, the court’s glyphosate-cancer review will be far more rigorous than the EPA’s. This is especially true given what we know now (from evidence uncovered in the lawsuit) about how the EPA’s review has been corrupted by Monsanto.

It all started when EPA scientists saw that a 1983 mouse study provided evidence that glyphosate was carcinogenic. Monsanto managed to convince EPA political appointees to overrule the scientists and declare that the study proved that glyphosate was not carcinogenic. This Orwellian misstatement of the facts continues to be repeated as a mantra by EPA decision-makers still under Monsanto’s sway.

Congress weighs in, attempts to discredit IARC

In February, the U.S. Congress weighed in on the glyphosate-cancer connection. The House Science Committee held a hearing, “In Defense of Scientific Integrity: Examining the IARC Monograph Programme and Glyphosate Review.” For the Republican leaders of the committee, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Vice Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the purpose of the hearing was to attempt to discredit WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The strategy backfired, as the hearing only stirred public concern over Roundup’s carcinogenicity and Monsanto’s undue influence over EPA decision makers. Chairman Smith’s witnesses were not credible. In fact, they are among the chemical industry’s most notorious shills:

Dr. Timothy Pastoor was identified as “CEO, Pastoor Science Communications.” Until 2015, he worked for Syngenta as Principal Scientist. At Syngenta, he spent his time menacing independent scientists like Dr. Tyrone Hayes, who he threatened to have lynched and even threatened Dr. Hayes’ wife and daughter with sexual violence.

Dr. Robert Tarone was listed a “(retired) mathematical statistician, U.S. National Cancer Institute and Biostatistics Director, International Epidemiology Institute.” In fact, in his “retirement,” Tarone was paid by Monsanto as a consultant to one of the company’s lawyers.

Dr. Anna Lowit was truthfully presented as a senior science adviser at the EPA. What wasn’t mentioned is that documents uncovered in the lawsuits filed by Roundup-exposed cancer victims put Dr. Lowit at the center of EPA-Monsanto collusion. A 2013 letter from EPA toxicologist Marion Copley to Jess Rowlands, the former deputy director in the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) who is currently the subject of an Office of Inspector General investigation, says Dr. Lowit:

. . . intimidated staff on CARC [Cancer Assessment Review Committee] and changed HIARC [Hazard Identification Assessment Review Committee] and HASPOC [Hazard and Science Policy Committee] final reports to favor industry. ... Just promise me to never let Anna on the CARC committee, her decisions don't make rational sense. If anyone at OPP is taking bribes it is her.

Calling a carcinogen a carcinogen

The testimony provided by Drs. Pastoor, Tarone and Lowit’s was particularly untrustworthy compared with the testimony of Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson’s only witness, Jennifer Sass, Ph.D., senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, who said in her testimony:

“This hearing is about the ability of a public health agency to call a carcinogen a carcinogen, even if it makes a huge amount of money for a powerful corporation,” Dr. Sass testified. “Are we willing to sell out the public’s right to know about harmful chemicals in the places we work live, and play, just so that Monsanto Co. can sell more glyphosate?”

The committee’s Democratic members produced a scathing minority report,  “Spinning Science & Silencing Scientists: A Case Study in How the Chemical Industry Attempts to Influence Science.” The report outlined the tactics Monsanto has used to suppress scientific evidence that Roundup causes cancer and evade regulation, including secretly ghostwriting scientific journal articles on glyphosate, discrediting critical independent scientists, and discretely paying scientists, journalists and journal editors to do this dirty work.

The most egregious example the report cites is that of A. Wallace (“Wally”) Hayes: Former Editor-in-Chief for Vision and Strategy at Food and Chemical Toxicology. Monsanto paid him $16,000 to retract a study he published by Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini that found that Roundup and genetically modified glyphosate-resistant corn caused tumors in rats—in levels below regulatory limits for food and drinking water. Not only did he do this, he lied about it. According to the report:

Hayes told the New York Times that he had not been under contract with Monsanto at the time of the retraction and was paid by the company only after he left the journal. “Monsanto played no role whatsoever in the decision that was made to retract,” he told the newspaper.

This lie would never have been uncovered if it weren’t for the lawsuits filed on behalf of Roundup-exposed cancer victims that, as the report states, have “revealed hundreds of pages of internal Monsanto e-mails, memorandums, and other records that clearly show Monsanto engaged in a decades-long concerted effort to fend off any evidence suggesting potential adverse human health effects from glyphosate and more recently to undermine IARC’s findings.”

The results of ongoing investigations and court testimony will likely undermine the legitimacy of the EPA’s decision, should it approve glyphosate. As consumers whose food supply is contaminated with glyphosate, we need to keep up the pressure on the EPA, regardless of Pruitt’s ties to Monsanto.

TAKE ACTION! Tell the EPA: Ban Monsanto’s carcinogenic glyphosate-based Roundup weedkiller! Please add your own comments, especially if you or your loved-ones have been sickened by exposure to glyphosate.

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Sign up here for news and alerts from OCA.

 

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