Roundup is one of the most popular products for controlling overgrowth of weeds and other vegetation in lawns, parks, school grounds, sports fields, farms, and even underwater. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is used widely across the United States, including hundreds of millions of pounds of the substance being used to increase farm yields.
But a groundswell is building against Roundup and glyphosate in the form of the thousands of lawsuits that have been filed against Monsanto and Bayer AG, the companies that make the product, as well as two jury verdicts that already have been issued tying Roundup and glyphosate to a serious form of cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
In the jury verdicts, both out of California, two separate plaintiffs argued that their repeated used of Roundup was the cause of each man developing NHL, and their juries agreed. Both cases are under appeal, and their juries have combined to issue nearly $400 million in damages.
Those are just two of the nearly 12,000 cases that have been filed so far against St. Louis-based Monsanto and its new parent company, Bayer, the German chemical giant that last year completed a purchase of Monsanto.
What is glyphosate, what is the legal status of Roundup and the cases pending, and what are the particulars of the two cases that have already been decided by juries?
Glyphosate: Effective at Killing Weeds (and Maybe People)
Monsanto brought Roundup to the market as an all-purpose weedkiller in the early 1970s. Since then, it’s been one of the best-selling such products and has become the most used herbicide ever in agriculture.
The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, is a chemical that was first used to remove scale buildup from metal pipes. Roundup is a non-selective, broad spectrum herbicide, which means it will kill most plants it contacts. The weedkiller works by attacking a specific enzyme that’s present in plants and prevents the enzyme from carrying out its function, thereby killing the plant.
For years, Monsanto has claimed glyphosate is not harmful to humans in part because the process by which it kills plants is not a chemical process that exists in humans. The safety of glyphosate and Roundup have long been touted by Monsanto and others, and partly as a result, usage of the herbicide has skyrocketed over the past two decades.
The U.S. Geological Survey, which provides annual estimates of pesticide and herbicide usage for agriculture in the lower 48 states, reported that at least 280 million pounds of glyphosate were used by U.S. farmers in 2016. That figure represents a 1,900% increase from the usage level the USGS reported for 1992.
Glyphosate and Roundup, while effective at killing weeds, also have come under scrutiny from the medical and research community, which has connected the herbicide to multiple types of cancer but also serious health conditions like diabetes, autism spectrum disorder, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and much more.
Today, the U.S. government’s official position, thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is that glyphosate is most likely non-carcinogenic to humans, but this contention is not in line with what the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment or the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer have determined. Both of those organizations list glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
Indeed, until the early 1990s, the EPA agreed. According to unsealed court documents, Monsanto took several steps to change the EPA’s mind, an effort that eventually was successful, helping clear the way for Roundup and glyphosate to become blockbuster weedkillers.
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Lawsuits Underway
As of early April 2019, several trials are underway across multiple states. Plaintiffs include homeowners, property owners, agricultural workers and laborers, professional landscapers, and groundskeepers.
In most cases, plaintiffs claim they developed serious health problems, often including being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which is a form of blood cancer. NHL accounts for about 4% of all new cancer diagnoses, and for those whose cancer is not caught until it has spread far beyond where it started, five-year survival rates are just 63%.
Many of those who have brought lawsuits are claiming that not only does Roundup cause cancer but that Monsanto has known for years of the risks the product poses and not only has failed to properly warn consumers but has acted aggressively and inappropriately to unduly influence regulatory and scientific findings.
One financial analyst quoted by The Guardian says that Monsanto and Bayer should prepare for settlements in these cases totalling nearly $5 billion globally. Monsanto has remained steadfast in its denials that Roundup is dangerous, so for now, the lawsuits continue piling up.
Dewayne ‘Lee’ Johnson Cancer Lawsuit
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson started his job as a school groundskeeper in San Francisco in 2012. The job, he says, involved catching critters like mice and raccoons, resolving irrigation problems, even patching holes in walls. And it involved regular spraying of various areas of the school’s grounds with Roundup. Johnson would typically carry the Roundup in a backpack-type sprayer, and one day, the sprayer broke and Johnson found himself suddenly drenched with the liquid of the herbicide.
Johnson, now 46, later developed a mild rash that worsened and worsened to the point that it covered his arms and legs and he had multiple lesions on his face. In 2017, a doctor diagnosed him with non-Hodgkin lymphoma that was likely terminal.
The case was expedited because of Johnson’s medical state, and jury members were persuaded by the testimony and evidence in the case that not only had Johnson’s cancer come as a direct result of his contact with Roundup but that Monsanto failed to warn the public of the risks posed by the product. Jury members initially awarded a $289 million sum, but that was later cut by a judge to $78 million. At one time Johnson had agreed to accept that amount, but the company has since appealed the jury’s verdict, so it’s unknown whether that agreement will go forward.
Edwin Hardeman has owned a 56-acre property in Sonoma County, California for decades. He used Roundup to control vegetation and overgrowth of weeds throughout his property for more than 20 years. Hardeman testified in his trial, the first Roundup case to proceed in federal court, that he sprayed his property with Roundup about once a month for several hours at a time and that he would often feel the chemical’s mist blowing onto his skin. Like Johnson, Hardeman, now 70, was later diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Unlike Johnson’s case, the Hardeman trial was divided into two phases, a decision that was initially seen as a blow to Hardeman’s case. The first phase would focus solely on the question of whether Roundup caused his NHL and no evidence about Monsanto’s role in influencing the scientific or regulatory communities could be presented. If the jury agreed Roundup had caused Hardeman’s cancer, then, the case would proceed to a second phase, which would determine what, if any, penalty the company would face. That second phase, the judge determined, could include testimony and evidence about the business conduct of Monsanto.
In the end, the six-person jury ruled unanimously that Hardeman’s cancer was significantly influenced by his use of Roundup and that the company should have to pay him $80 million in total damages. Monsanto is expected to appeal the verdict.
Bayer’s stock has tumbled after each verdict in favor of plaintiffs in these cases. The losses are enough to push the company’s overall value to about $58 billion, which is less than the value Bayer paid to acquire Monsanto in the first place.
A third California case is currently underway in which a husband-and-wife pair claim their exposure to Roundup caused them both to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Alva and Alberta Pilliod are both in their 70s. Alberta suffers from brain cancer, while Alva’s cancer is encroaching on his spine and pelvis. Both Pilliods say they used Roundup regularly and believed the product was safe for them and the wildlife that foraged on their property.
From a regulatory standpoint, glyphosate is currently in the middle of the EPA’s regular once-a-decade review period, but it’s not expected that the agency will reverse its position despite recent developments.
- U.S. Geological Survey, National Pesticide Program, Low Estimate Agricultural Pesticide Use by Crop Group 1992 to 2016. (2018.) Retrieved from https://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/pnsp/usage/maps/county-level/StateLevel/LowEstimate_AgPestUsebyCropGroup92to16.txt
- Environmental Working Group, Monsanto Bullies EPA on Glyphosate Ruling. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/news-and-analysis/2018/04/monsanto-bullies-epa-glyphosate-ruling
- Reuters, Bayer shares sag after U.S. jury verdict in Roundup cancer trial. (2019.) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bayer-glyphosate-lawsuit/bayer-shares-sag-after-us-jury-verdict-in-roundup-cancer-trial-idUSKCN1R917E
- The Guardian Opinion, Who is paying for Monsanto’s crimes? We are. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/30/who-is-paying-for-monsantos-crimes-we-are
- U.S. Right to Know, Monsanto Roundup Trial Tracker. (2019.) Retrieved from https://usrtk.org/monsanto-roundup-trial-tracker-index/
- Time.com, I Won a Historic Lawsuit, But May Not Live to Get the Money. (2018.) Retrieved from http://time.com/5460793/dewayne-lee-johnson-monsanto-lawsuit/