With around 12,000 cases pending all across the United States, the weed killer Roundup is at the center of a legal, medical and regulatory firestorm surrounding the alleged dangers posed by the herbicide.
A California jury in the fall of 2018 issued a huge verdict in favor of man who argued that he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma on account of his use of Roundup in his job as a school groundskeeper.
Since then, thousands more cases have been filed, and interest in Roundup cancer lawsuits continues to surge. Learn more about what Roundup is, what health risks are associated with it, why the substance is currently legal to use and what the future may hold.
Roundup & Other Herbicides
Roundup is just one of many chemicals used to improve the yield of plant crops. Generally, these substances are used to destroy one of three things that could kill a healthy plant — weeds (herbicides), insects (pesticides) or fungi (fungicide).
Not all herbicides use the same application methods, and they don’t all control weeds in the same way. A few important differences should be noted:
- Pre-emergent: Prevents germination, so seeds never develop into plants.
- Contact: Kills portions of plants touched; requires repeated application to kill all parts of weed.
- Systemic: Kills entire plant over short period; some weeds require multiple applications.
- Drench: Applied to soil instead of weeds.
Roundup is a broad-spectrum, systemic herbicide, meaning that it kills all plants it comes in contact with. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, works by attacking and inhibiting an enzyme in plants that is transported throughout the plant’s system, destroying it over time. The effectiveness of Roundup and glyphosate at killing plants led Monsanto, the company that invented Roundup, to developed Roundup-Ready seeds that could survive glyphosate treatment.
Are these chemicals legal?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is the government body charged with determining which herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals are deemed safe for use, both commercially and non-commercially. According to official EPA documentation, glyphosate does not pose a threat to human health when used in accordance with the product’s label.
But this was not always the case. In fact, until 1991, the EPA listed glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, but the agency later reversed that decision, and the agency is set in 2019 to publish an updated review of the herbicide.
More than 60 pesticides are either banned outright by the EPA or severely restricted. This includes well-known cases, such as DDT, which was famously banned in the United States in the early 1970s.
The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, started its life as chelating and descaling agent used to remove mineral deposits from the pipes and boilers of hot-water systems. It was patented for such use by the Stauffer Chemical Corp. in 1961.
Nearly a decade later, a Monsanto scientist, John Franz, discovered that glyphosate could kill weeds, and Monsanto secured glyphosate’s weed-killing patent in 1970. The agrochemical giant released glyphosate to the market in 1974 as Roundup, and it became an immediate hit. By the mid-1980s, Roundup was so successful that Monsanto began working on genetically modifying seeds to tolerate the prolific plant-killer.
Today, glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in American agriculture, according to data estimates published by the U.S. Geological Survey. According to the USGS estimates for 2016, the most recent data the survey has published, more than 287 million pounds of glyphosate were used for farming operations in the United States in just that year alone. Since 1992, use of glyphosate has surged by nearly 2,000 percent.
Glyphosate is widely used in the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and other crops. Here’s a look at how the glyphosate America’s farmers used in 2016 was divided by crop group:
- Corn: 34%
- Soybeans: 40%
- Wheat: 6%
- Cotton: 6%
- Fruits & vegetables: 2%
- Rice: <1%
- Orchard & grapes: 3%
- Alfalfa: <1%
- Pasture & hay:4%
- All other crops:3%
Illinois and Iowa used by far the most glyphosate for farming in 2016, which largely tracks with the two states’ positions as leading corn and soybean producers. Here’s a look at which states led the nation in glyphosate use in 2016:
- Illinois: 24,624,655 lbs.
- Iowa: 24,036,023 lbs.
- Nebraska: 21,786,615 lbs.
- Kansas: 19,519,918 lbs.
- North Dakota: 19,064,093 lbs.
- Minnesota: 17,459,553 lbs.
- South Dakota: 16,878,452 lbs.
- Texas: 15,561,722 lbs.
- Indiana: 13,165,332 lbs.
- Missouri: 11,140,806 lbs.
Monsanto, glyphosate & the EPA
In March 1985, an EPA panel issued a ruling that determined glyphosate had “carcinogenic potential,” but by 1991, the agency had apparently changed its mind, as since then, it has listed glyphosate as probably not a carcinogen.
There’s evidence suggesting Monsanto itself was partially behind the EPA’s change of heart. As part of a release of court documents in the 2018 California case in which jury members found that Roundup had caused a school groundskeeper to develop cancer, internal Monsanto documents revealed that at least one of the company’s scientists was working to convince the EPA that Roundup and glyphosate did not cause cancer despite evidence in animal studies that suggested otherwise.
Monsanto & Roundup-Ready seed
The enormous success of its herbicide wasn’t enough for the St. Louis-based Monsanto, so by the mid-1980s, the company had begun working to develop seeds that could tolerate glyphosate.
In 1996, the company introduced Roundup-Ready soybeans, its first seed successfully genetically modified to allow farmers to spray their entire fields with glyphosate and kill only the weeds. Today, Monsanto has developed Roundup-Ready alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton and sugar beets.
Monsanto & Bayer AG
In 2018, German pharma giant Bayer AG completed a $66 billion purchase of Monsanto, and Bayer has said it will drop the name Monsanto from the products that the St. Louis-based company brought to the table, including Roundup.
Roundup & Health Risks
While it remains unclear exactly why the EPA changed its mind on whether glyphosate can cause cancer, a growing body of evidence is nevertheless bringing scientific evidence to bear on the subject.
Glyphosate and Roundup have been connected through medical research to serious health problems, including multiple types of cancer. Scientific analysis have tied glyphosate and/or Roundup to:
- Digestive disorders and gut health disruption
- Liver cell destruction
- Breast cancer growth
- Childhood brain cancer
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Thyroid cancer
- Kidney disease
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Shortened pregnancies
- Endocrine cell disruption
- Birth defects, including microcephaly
- DNA mutation
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer issued a blockbuster opinion that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. The agency classifies glyphosate as a Group 2A carcinogen, meaning evidence strongly suggests but does not necessarily prove that the substance can cause cancer in humans.
The IARC based its opinion mostly on experimental studies in animals, given that there’s little real-world evidence that glyphosate has caused cancer in humans, but this analysis was done before the 2018 California verdict.
Additionally, the state of California itself has ruled that glyphosate causes cancer, and the substance is officially listed by the state as a carcinogen. An effort to require products that contain glyphosate-grown crops to carry a warning label was challenged by several groups, and a judge issued an injunction against the state, prohibiting regulators from requiring the labels.
Suspect safety claims
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson was a 42-year-old school groundskeeper when he was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Because of the advanced state of Johnson’s disease, his case was the first Roundup cancer case to go to trial, and in issuing their verdict, the jury in Johnson’s case determined that his cancer was connected to his use of Roundup and that Monsanto knew the dangers of its product and not only hid them but actively worked to discredit those who suggested there was a connection between cancer and glyphosate.
Johnson’s jury saw evidence that pointed to a massive coverup within the company. If Monsanto truly stood behind the safety of its flagship product, why would the company need to lean on federal regulators or ghostwrite supposedly independent scientific research?
It’s worth noting that the global weed killer market is worth about $9 billion per year.
Weed Killer & the Food Supply
With mounting evidence that exposure to glyphosate can cause not only cancer but a whole host of other issues, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in the clear if you haven’t worked in farming, landscaping or professional groundskeeping. But the truth is that ubiquity of glyphosate in our entire farming infrastructure means that it’s almost impossible to avoid.
Several rounds of testing, both done by private, independent groups, and testing by the U.S. government itself have revealed varying amounts of glyphosate in food products. New testing is being done all the time, but here’s what we know so far:
- One study found high levels of glyphosate in about 70 percent of oat-based breakfast foods.
- A 2018 study showed every single popular brand of orange juice tested had glyphosate in it.
- Tests reported just this year showed glyphosate in popular breakfast cereals and pasta.
- A Canadian agency reported that it found glyphosate in 90 percent of the pizza it tested, 88 percent of the wheat flour it tested, 84 of crackers, 84 percent of fresh pasta, 83 percent of cooked pasta, 75 percent of oats and 67 percent of lentils.
- In the fall of 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released its first round of glyphosate testing results. The agency found glyphosate in 63 percent of the corn products it tested and 67 percent of the soybean samples it tested. Notably, the agency did not test any wheat- or oat-based products despite the widespread use of glyphosate on those crops.
- A 2019 study showed glyphosate in several beers and wines.
While the FDA does test for glyphosate in food products, that was not always the case. In fact, before 2016, the agency did not have a successful test for glyphosate residue. Why not? The chemical nature of the herbicide meant that the agency’s existing test for pesticides could not detect glyphosate.
What that means is that during the years when glyphosate use was exploding across the nation, which is most of the period between 1992 and 2016, Americans were undoubtedly being exposed to glyphosate without their knowledge.
It’s important to point out that the FDA reported glyphosate in amounts below what the EPA considers safe, but since it’s not really possible to fully trust the EPA on this matter, it’s probably wise to assume glyphosate is unsafe in any level.
Lawsuits & Legal Claims
The eye-popping $289 million verdict Lee Johnson was awarded was later reduced by a judge to $78 million, and because the case is currently under appeal and Johnson’s health situation is precarious, it’s unclear whether he’ll ever be able to claim any of that money.
But Johnson’s case was just the first of thousands filed against Monsanto, Bayer and their products. In fact, nearly 12,000 cases are currently pending in which individuals became seriously ill, including several who developed cancers similar to Johnson’s, after using Roundup or one of Monsanto’s other glyphosate-based weed killers.
A second California trial is currently ongoing. In that trial, plaintiff Edwin Hardeman has alleged that he developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after regularly using Roundup for decades to control weeds around his property. Hardeman’s case is considered a so-called bellwether case, meaning it could help determine standards for some of the thousands of other cases pending against Bayer and Monsanto. Hardeman’s case has been divided into two phases, with the second phase contingent upon the jury deciding that Roundup was a significant contributor or cause of Hardeman’s cancer.
A third case is likely to get underway in late March; in this particularly heartbreaking case, a husband-and-wife duo say they both developed cancer as a result of regular use of Roundup. The California cases are all the furthest along, but cases are pending around the country, including in Missouri, Monsanto’s home state, and elsewhere.
Monsanto, Bayer & other companies
While Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer, have pledged to do whatever it takes to beat back these legal challenges, the cases have taken their toll. After the Johnson verdict, Bayer’s stock took a tumble, though it’s since rebounded. No doubt, a second verdict against Bayer would send the stock falling again.
Monsanto and Bayer are not the only companies that have faced legal action over glyphosate. After all, Monsanto doesn’t actually make any food, and we know glyphosate exists in the food supply. General Mills was sued in 2018 and as a result dropped some misleading wording from some product labeling, and a similar case was later brought against Quaker Oats, though that suit was dismissed.
More awareness, more cases?
New cases are being filed seemingly every day. Late last year, Bayer said it was facing about 8,000 cases, and the company now acknowledges nearly 12,000. As people learn more and more about the alleged dangers Roundup and glyphosate pose, they are asking serious questions about their exposure and their health status.
Search interest in the term “Roundup cancer lawsuit” has surged by more than 600 percent in less than a year.
For those who are simply observing the cases surrounding Roundup, glyphosate, Monsanto and Bayer, the developments are fascinating and interesting. But for those whose lives have been ruined — even shortened — by their use of a product they believed would not harm them, the outcome of these cases is true matter of life and death.
We all want to believe the truth will win out in the end. The evidence increasingly suggests that not only is glyphosate harmful but that Monsanto knew as much all along and strong-armed federal regulators into changing their position as well as essentially doctoring scientific evidence. One can only hope that the continued chipping away at this corporate conspiracy will bring about a “Silent Spring” moment in which the public’s safety is put ahead of corporate profits.
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- The Guardian, Weedkiller products more toxic than their active ingredient, tests show. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/08/weedkiller-tests-monsanto-health-dangers-active-ingredient
- Study finds direct evidence of exposure of pregnant women to herbicide ingredient. (2018.) Retrieved from https://news.iu.edu/stories/2018/03/iupui/releases/22-study-pregnant-women-exposure-herbicide.html
- Google Trends, “Roundup cancer lawsuit”. (2019.) Retrieved from https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?geo=US&q=roundup%20cancer%20lawsuit
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- International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC Monograph on Glyphosate. (2015.) Retrieved from https://www.iarc.fr/featured-news/media-centre-iarc-news-glyphosate/
- U.S. Right to Know, Monsanto Trial Tracker: New Developments. (2019.) Retrieved from https://usrtk.org/pesticides/monsanto-roundup-trial-tracker/
- Environmental Working Group, Glyphosate Contamination in Food Goes Far Beyond Oat Products. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/news-and-analysis/2019/02/glyphosate-contamination-food-goes-far-beyond-oat-products
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Questions and Answers on Glyphosate. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/foodborneillnesscontaminants/pesticides/ucm583713.htm