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Judge Blocks Monsanto's Bid to Stop California From Listing Glyphosate as Carcinogenic
California could become the first state to require Monsanto to label its glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup, as a possible carcinogen following Fresno County Superior Court Judge Kristi Kapetan's tentative ruling on Friday.
Monsanto's best-selling Roundup herbicide.Flickr
The tentative ruling regards the agrochemical giant's Jan. 2016 lawsuit against California's Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). In Sept. 2015, the OEHHA issued plans to list glyphosate as a possible cancer threat under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, commonly known as Proposition 65. The OEHHA made the decision following the France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) findings that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A)" in March 2015.
In its lawsuit, Monsanto claimed that the listing was unconstitutional because the OEHHA delegated law-making authority "to an unelected and non-transparent foreign body that is not under the oversight or control of any federal or state government entity."
However, California lawyers argued in its motion to dismiss the lawsuit that the IARC's scientific determinations are "the gold standard in carcinogen identification."
According to the Associated Press, Judge Kapetan will issue a formal decision soon. OEHHA spokesman Sam Delson told the AP that state regulators are waiting for the judge's formal decision before moving forward with the warning labels. Once a chemical is listed a as probable carcinogens, the manufacturer has a year before it must attach the label, Delson added.
Monsanto attorney Trenton Norris argued that consumers would stop buying Roundup after seeing the labels and cause immediate financial consequences for the company.
"It will absolutely be used in ways that will harm Monsanto," he said.
The company plans to challenge the ruling and insists on the safety of glyphosate, which is the most widely applied agricultural chemical in the world. Glyphosate is sprayed onto "Roundup Ready" crops that are genetically modified to resist applications of the spray.
"The agency's flawed and baseless proposal to list glyphosate under Proposition 65 not only contradicts California's own scientific assessment, but it also violates the California and U.S. constitutions," said Samuel Murphey, a Monsanto spokesman. "Monsanto will continue to challenge this unfounded proposed ruling on the basis of science and the law."
On the same day of the hearing, environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and the law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman held a press conference outside of the Fresno courthouse in support of the OEHHA.
"This listing is not going to put them out of business. It's just going to warn people before they use their product that this product might cause cancer, and you better limit your use to protect yourself and to protect your families," Kennedy said at the press conference. "It's called a precautionary principal. Who wouldn't want to know that?"
"Why does this company not want these farm workers to know that this chemical may endanger them and may endanger their families," Kennedy continued. "Why did [Monsanto] hire these great lawyers to come here to shut California up and to stop California from protecting these people?"
"My husband Jack was very conscious of the dangers of chemicals and his misfortune was taking Monsanto's word that Roundup was safe," said Teri McCall, who believes that a warning label would have saved her husband Jack's life.
Teri McCall claims Roundup caused her husband of 40-years to develop terminal cancer after he used the herbicide on his 20-acre fruit and vegetable farm for more than 30 years.
"I don't want to see any more unsuspecting people die from cancer because they didn't know of the danger to their health from exposure to Roundup," she added. "Glyphosate in Roundup needs to be on the list of Prop 65 chemicals that are dangerous to our health so that people can make informed decisions for themselves about the risks they are willing to take. I don't believe my husband would have been willing to take that risk."
Dr. Nathan Donley, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity and a former cancer researcher, praised the judge's tentative ruling.
"California's wise decision to require labeling of the controversial pesticide Roundup to clearly state that it may cause cancer is based on the world's most reliable, transparent and science-based assessment of its active ingredient, glyphosate," he said in a statement provided to EcoWatch.
"We are pleased that the court is upholding consumers' right to make well-informed, fact-based choices about the known risks of a product before purchasing it and support California in its commitment to protecting people and the environment from dangerous toxins."
The Fresno judge's tentative ruling was not the only blow to Monsanto in court. The company's years-long efforts to introduce commercial GMO (genetically modified) corn was blocked by a Mexican court last week.
According to Reuters, the court upheld a late 2013 ruling that temporarily halted even pilot plots of GMO corn following a legal challenge over its effects on the environment.
As Reuters explained, "Critics say genetically modified corn plantings will contaminate age-old native varieties and that toxins designed to protect the GMO grain against pests may be linked to elevated insect mortality."
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The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.