Collusion or Coincidence? Records Show EPA Slowed Glyphosate Review in Coordination With Monsanto
By Carey Gillam
Newly released government email communications show a persistent effort by multiple officials within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to slow a separate federal agency's safety review of Monsanto's top-selling herbicide. Notably, the records demonstrate that the EPA efforts came at the behest of Monsanto, and that EPA officials were helpful enough to keep the chemical giant updated on their progress.
The communications, most of which were obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, show that it was early 2015 when the EPA and Monsanto began working in concert to stall a toxicology review that a unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was conducting on glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's branded Roundup herbicide products. The details revealed in the documents come as Monsanto is defending itself against allegations that it has tried to cover up evidence of harm with its herbicides.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a federal public health agency within the CDC that is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is charged with evaluating the potential adverse human health effects from exposures to hazardous substances in the environment. So it made sense for the ATSDR to take a look at glyphosate, which is widely used on U.S. farms, residential lawns and gardens, school playgrounds and golf courses. Glyphosate is widely used in food production and glyphosate residues have been found in testing of human urine.
The ATSDR announced in February 2015 that it planned to publish a toxicological profile of glyphosate by October of that year. But by October, that review was on hold, and to this date no such review has yet been published.
The documents reveal this was no accident, no bureaucratic delay, but rather was the result of a collaborative effort between Monsanto and a group of high-ranking EPA officials.
"These new documents are particularly alarming because they prove that Monsanto's efforts to capture EPA and subvert it's mission to safeguard public-health were largely successful," said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an environmental lawyer who is representing plaintiffs pursuing claims against Monsanto.
"Those schemes allowed the company to pull puppet strings and exercise pervasive control at the supervisory level across several agency branches."
For Monsanto, the timing of the ATSDR review was worrisome. In March 2015, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had declared glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen, and Monsanto feared ATSDR might have similar concerns about the chemical. Previous reports have described how one EPA official, Jess Rowland, communicated to Monsanto in April 2015 his willingness to try to kill the ATSDR review. Rowland, who retired in 2016, was the deputy division director within the health effects division of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs. Allegations of collusion between Rowland and Monsanto have prompted a probe by the EPA's Office of Inspector General.
But the trove of documents newly obtained from within EPA and HHS demonstrate that the assistance to Monsanto came not only from Rowland but also from even higher-level EPA officials. Rather than encourage and assist the toxicology review of glyphosate, Monsanto and EPA officials repeatedly complained to ATSDR and HHS that such a review was unnecessarily "duplicative" and should take a back seat to an EPA review also underway.
The following timeline shows how the events unfolded:
May 19, 2015: Michael Dykes, who at that time was Monsanto's long-time vice president of government affairs, wrote directly to the EPA's Jim Jones, the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety & Pollution Prevention. Jones had oversight of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs and was a presidential appointee who carried significant clout. The afternoon was waning when the email came in at 3:28 p.m. Dykes reminded Jones that they had recently discussed the HHS' ATSDR glyphosate review at a meeting. "You were not aware of their review. Did you learn anything more about their efforts?" Dykes asked.
Jones did not waste time. Roughly an hour later he forwarded the message to his second in command, Office of Pesticide Programs Director Jack Housenger, writing "Monsanto thinks atsdr is doing a glyphosate Assessment. Could you guys run that down?" Housenger responds quickly: "Yes. Jess checked with them ... It has been difficult to get information."
Within an hour Jones instructed a member of his staff to get him contact information for the head person responsible for ATSDR. She replied the next morning that Dr. Patrick Breysse was the point person. Breysse joined the CDC in 2014 as director of its National Center for Environmental Health, overseeing the NCEH's ATSDR.
May 20, 2015: It was only a little after 8:30 a.m. but Jones told the staff member to instruct Housenger to get in touch with Breysse, and within two hours Housenger had penned an email to Breysse explaining that an EPA's own re-evaluation/risk assessment of glyphosate was nearing completion, and asking Breysse if "you would still feel the need to do your assessment." Housenger told Breysse that he already had reached the individual assigned to the ATSDR assessment and she had indicated she would "coordinate" with EPA, but that was not sufficient. Housenger did not mention Monsanto's outreach to EPA on the issue, but instead questioned "whether this is a good use of government resources" for ATSDR to continue with its review. Breysse responded that he would "look into this" and Housenger thanked him for his quick response. Breysse then reached out to an ATSDR division director named James Stephens to arrange a discussion about the EPA request.
May 21, 2015: James Stephens wrote back to Patrick Breysse that the ATSDR team thought the EPA work "overlaps but isn't totally duplicative…" and stated that the ASTDR team has not been able to see draft copies of the EPA's work. "I think we would all welcome further discussion with EPA but would hope to use it to help us find out more about what they are doing, " he told Breysse. After hearing from Stephens, Breysse wrote back to Housenger saying ATSDR staff would be in touch to discuss. Housenger replied with his reiteration that the ATSDR review would be a "duplicative government effort" and that the EPA draft would be out in July of 2015. (As of this writing, that EPA preliminary risk assessment still has not been released, though in 2016 the EPA did release a cancer assessment report that declared glyphosate was not likely to cause cancer.)
June 4, 2015: Pressing the issue, EPA's Housenger wrote again to Breysee to say he had not heard from anyone yet. The ATSDR's Stephens wrote back promising to make sure "someone gives you a ring." Internal Monsanto emails show that at the same time, Monsanto was also pushing the "duplicative" narrative with HHS, meeting on June 4 with HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Global Health Mitchel Wolfe to ask him to help repudiate the IARC classification and to recognize that a review of glyphosate was "not the primary role" for his agency. "Dr. Wolfe said he would follow up on what was going on with ATSDR and he was encouraged to have discussions with EPA staff, as well," a Monsanto memo detailing the meeting states.
June 9, 2015: Henry Abadin, an ATSDR supervisory scientist, reported to Stephens that he had talked with Housenger and explained that the agency did not believe it was "duplicating efforts." Nevertheless, he said he told EPA, "we did not have a problem with putting the glyphosate profile on hold, pending the OPP [Office of Pesticide Programs] final report."
June 19, 2015: To further ensure the ATSDR review didn't move forward, Monsanto's Dykes talked again with HHS's Wolfe, asking for an update on ATSDR. "I explained… our question was about the purpose and scope of such a duplicative review by ATSDR. I also told him that we were concerned that ATSDR may come out any day with a report. I again stressed that we were concerned that they were even reviewing glyphosate as were the people we talked with at EPA," Dykes wrote to colleagues.
June 21, 2015: It was a Sunday, but Monsanto's Dykes was still concerned enough about the ATSDR review to copy multiple colleagues on a late night email to report that he had continued to press the "duplicative" point with ATSDR but was concerned about a "glyphosate review coming any day." In a text message sent that same day, Monsanto Eric Sachs reached out to a former EPA toxicologist named Mary Manibusan asking for contacts at ATSDR. "We're trying to do everything we can to keep from having a domestic IARC occur w this group. may need your help," Sachs wrote. The text messages were among certain internal Monsanto records obtained by cancer victims who are suing Monsanto alleging Roundup caused their diseases.
June 23, 2015: By Tuesday, Monsanto's Jenkins had good news: He had heard from Housenger that the EPA official had been successful in garnering a promise from ATSDR to put its report "on hold." The review was not dead, however, he wrote: ATSDR argues "that their process is distinguishable and not duplicative. They look at different endpoints and told EPA they don't "make a call on cancer", but I think we should continue to be cautious."
On June 24, 2015: Monsanto's chief scientist William Heydens responded: "'Distinguishable and not duplicative'? Seriously? And I will believe the not 'making a call on cancer' part when I see it. Anyway, at least they know they are being watched, and hopefully that keeps them from doing anything too stupid..." Jenkins wrote back, acknowledging that Monsanto had much more to fear from ATSDR than EPA as the two agencies had arrived at "different conclusions" on other issues. He reported he had been told ATSDR was "VERY conservative and IARC like…"
By October 23, 2015: EPA and Monsanto had the ATSDR review fully on hold. EPA's Housenger wrote to update Monsanto's Jenkins: "They are waiting for our glyphosate RA. And they agreed to share what they do."
That same month, the EPA's Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC), which was chaired by Rowland, issued an internal report stating that contrary to IARC, the EPA's review of glyphosate found it "not likely to be carcinogenic to humans."
The EPA still has yet to issue the overall new risk assessment it said would be out in 2015. The agency has offered ever-changing timelines for the assessment, but now says it intends to release a draft risk assessment sometime this year. That will be followed by a 60-day public comment period. After the public comment period, the EPA will determine whether any risk management is needed. In the meantime, Monsanto has cited the EPA's backing of glyphosate safety as repudiation of the IARC finding both in court and with regulators in Europe who are also looking at glyphosate safety issues.
The EPA did not respond to a request for comment about its efforts to delay the ATSDR report or communications with Monsanto regarding that effort.
But Brent Wisner, a lawyer representing many of the cancer victims who are suing Monsanto, said the documents offer damning evidence of close ties between the EPA and the chemical company.
"I think it's very clear… that EPA officials and Monsanto employees worked together to accomplish a goal of stopping that analysis at ATSDR. That is collusion. I don't know what else you'd call that," said Wisner.
For its part, the ATSDR said this week that the review it started in 2015 "is not complete," but that it anticipates a draft glyphosate toxicological profile to be issued for public comment by the end of this year. A spokesperson for the agency declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding the delay in the review.
And Jones, whose EPA job ended when the Trump administration took over, defended his responsiveness to Monsanto's concern about the ATSDR review, saying it had only to do with the "efficient use of government resources."
"Had any party contacted me and informed me that another agency within the administration was simultaneously assessing a chemical as my organization, I would have intervened," Jones said. "There is no value to the same government investing limited resources to work on the same issue. As you know resources at the federal level were and are scarce which made duplication even more problematic."
Jones said additionally that "when two organizations assess the same chemical, it is very likely there will be differences in their assessments. Even when these differences don't matter from a public health perspective, an enormous amount of energy is spent attempting to resolve these differences" and that is not ultimately in the "public interest."