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Cancer Lawsuits Allege EPA-Monsanto Collusion

By Carey Gillam

A new court filing made on behalf of dozens of people claiming Monsanto's Roundup herbicide gave them cancer includes information about alleged efforts within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect Monsanto's interests and unfairly aid the agrichemical industry.

The filing, made late Friday by plaintiff's attorneys, includes what the attorneys represent to be correspondence from a 30-year career EPA scientist accusing top-ranking EPA official Jess Rowland of playing "your political conniving games with the science" to favor pesticide manufacturers such as Monsanto. Rowland oversaw the EPA's cancer assessment for glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's weed-killing products, and was a key author of a report finding glyphosate was not likely to be carcinogenic. But in the correspondence, longtime EPA toxicologist Marion Copley cites evidence from animal studies and writes: "It is essentially certain that glyphosate causes cancer."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs declined to say how they obtained the correspondence, which is dated March 4, 2013. The date of the letter comes after Copley left the EPA in 2012 and shortly before she died from breast cancer at the age of 66 in January 2014. She accuses Rowland of having "intimidated staff" to change reports to favor industry, and writes that research on glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup, shows the pesticide should be categorized as a "probable human carcinogen." The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, declared as much—that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen—in March 2015 after reviewing multiple scientific studies. Monsanto has rejected that classification and has mounted a campaign to discredit IARC scientists.

The communication, if authentic, could be an explosive development in the snowballing multi-district litigation that now includes more than 60 plaintiffs from around the United States accusing Monsanto of covering up evidence that Roundup herbicide could cause cancer. The plaintiffs, all of whom are suffering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) or lost a loved one to NHL, have asserted in recent court filings that Monsanto wielded significant influence within the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP), and had close ties specifically to Rowland, who until last year was deputy division director within the health effects division of the OPP. Rowland managed the work of scientists who assessed human health effects of exposures to pesticides like glyphosate and he chaired the EPA's Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC) that determined glyphosate was "not likely to be carcinogenic to humans." Rowland left the EPA in 2016, shortly after a copy of the CARC report was leaked and cited by Monsanto as evidence that the IARC classification was flawed.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs want the federal judge in the case to lift a seal on documents that detail Monsanto's interactions with Rowland regarding the EPA's safety assessment of glyphosate. Monsanto turned the documents over in discovery but marked them "confidential," a designation plaintiffs' attorneys say is improper. They also want to depose Rowland. But Monsanto and the EPA object to the requests, court documents show. Rowland could not be reached for comment, and the EPA declined to comment about the court matters.

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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.

The decision comes less than a year after a jury awarded $289 million to Bay-area groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson over similar claims. The amount was later reduced to $78 million.

"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.