In farms around the world, powerful chemical compounds are sprayed on crops in order to keep invasive plants and pests away. Some of these agrochemicals have proven to be a double-edged sword — yes, they kill unwanted bugs and weeds, but herbicides and pesticides can also be very dangerous to humans.
Glyphosate-based-herbicides (GBHs) are the most popular weed killers in the world. A new study suggests that people with high exposure to GBHs have a 41% increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), a cancer of the immune system. While the study says that the numerical risk factor should be interpreted with caution, it “supports a compelling link between exposures to GBHs and increased risk for NHL.”
These findings support the claims of thousands of farmers, agricultural workers, and others who have brought lawsuits against the makers of Roundup, a GBH they say caused their cancer. Last August, a school groundskeeper who routinely used Roundup was awarded $289 million (later reduced to $78 million) by a unanimous jury who found the weed killer likely caused his NHL.
Roundup is now owned by Bayer, which finalized its purchase of Monsanto last year. Bayer rejects these claims and maintains that their GBHs have been “extensively evaluated for human health and safety.”
The next Roundup trial is slated to begin at the end of February. Bayer has appealed the August verdict, but they are facing over 9,000 lawsuits — a number that continues to grow. Both sides say the science is on their side.
Controversy Surrounding the Glyphosate as a Carcinogen
The safety issues surrounding GBHs are highly contested. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), labeled glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.” The influence of the IARC is such that manufacturers of GBHs like Monsanto were worried that their cash-cow weed killer might be banned.
In a Roundup trial in 2017, emails came to light during the discovery phase that showed that Monsanto had intense internal debates about whether or not glyphosate caused cancer. Monsanto never publicized those concerns. Instead, they prepared articles for scientists to publish that would help the herbicide’s image, including a criticism of the IARC report.
New Roundup Research Complicates Bayer’s Claims About Safety
The authors of the new study on glyphosate are looking to move past the controversy. Three of the authors were part of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory panel on glyphosate. The EPA found that glyphosate was “not likely to cause cancer,” but several of the panel members accused the EPA of failing to follow scientific protocol to make their conclusion.
Lianne Sheppard, one of the study co-authors, said the EPA assessment was wrong. “It was pretty obvious they didn’t follow their own rules. Is there evidence that it is carcinogenic? The answer is ‘yes.’”
The new study focused on individuals with high exposure to GBHs. This way, there were fewer variables that might interfere. The thinking was: if there no real connection between glyphosate and cancer, then even people who were highly exposed should not develop cancer.
Instead, what they found was that exposure to GBHs are associated with an increased risk of NHL.
Widespread Use of GBHs Has Worldwide Health Implications
The only thing people can be sure of is that Monsanto and its parent company Bayer are going to dispute these new findings. They are a business. No matter what they claim about their desire to improve the public health, they are beholden to shareholders who want to see a profit each and every quarter.
It’s disappointing to many, but the truth is that Monsanto is going to discredit research that cuts into its profits. Consumers have a right to know the truth about what they put in their body. When it comes to the worldwide use of GBHs, which persist in food, water, and soil, the stakes could not be higher. Understanding the long-term health consequences are crucial for public health.
When massive multinational companies want to hide the truth, they have the resources to make that happen. By failing to be transparent about the risks of their products, they are sowing the seeds of public health crisis. It’s a shame the truth has to come out in court, but sometimes lies cannot be exposed any other way.