Trial takes on glyphosate cancer claims
As cases in federal court and several state courts delve into whether there is evidence that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, causes cancer, a scientist with a consumer advocacy group says there is nothing to fear from the popular herbicide.
"There's no such thing as an evil chemical. There are chemicals that are useful, not so useful, both. It's all a matter of toxicity and dose. That's what determines the harm of any chemical," says Josh Bloom, the director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences for the American Council on Science and Health. "You can't even find anything safer in terms of a lethal, acute dose" than glyphosate, in terms of herbicides.
More than 300 lawsuits have been filed in federal court by farmers, landscapers and gardeners against Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, claiming that exposure to glyphosate in the product caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Those cases have been joined together and are being tried under U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco. Additional cases are filed in several state courts around the country.
The federal case is in a stage in which a judge decides what evidence will be allowed at trial. According to a Bloomberg report, Chhabria has called the testimony of the experts for the plaintiffs "shaky," though he has not yet ruled on which witnesses will be allowed to testify.
The Bloomberg report says much of the testimony and evidence revolves around a 2015 finding by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization, that ruled glyphosate was a "probable carcinogen."
Bloom says that was a problematic finding that has not been backed up by other scientific organizations, including regulatory groups like the Environmental Protection Agency and its counterparts in other countries.
IARC did not respond to a request for comment prior to Agweek's deadline.
Scott Partridge, Monsanto's vice president of global strategy, says pretrial testimony has revealed several people working on whether IARC should declare glyphosate a carcinogen were on the payroll of attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case when the IARC ruling was made.
"We had not had a single claim of injury or illness regarding Roundup until the IARC claim," Partridge says.
"You could basically spoon it down your throat — which is not recommended — and nothing will happen to you," Bloom says. "You'd have to have a truck full of the stuff run you over for it to do you any harm."
Partridge says 800 studies conducted over 40 years, only a small percentage of which were funded by Monsanto, have shown glyphosate to be safe and not carcinogenic.
A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in November 2017 confirmed there was no firm link between glyphosate use and cancer, based on a large-scale, long-term Agricultural Health Study.
"In this large, prospective cohort study, no association was apparent between glyphosate and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including (non-Hodgkin lymphoma) and its subtypes. There was some evidence of increased risk of (acute myeloid leukemia) among the highest exposed group that requires confirmation," the study said, while adding that the association with acute myeloid leukemia "was not statistically significant."
Partridge says the study followed 50,000 farm workers and their spouses from 1993 to 2013 to determine possible effects of glyphosate exposure. He calls it a "gold study in epidemiology."
Bloom classifies fears of glyphosate alongside fears of things like fluoride, aspartame and vaccines.
A former organic chemist, Bloom worked for 27 years in new drug discovery for Wyeth, a role in which he had to study toxicology of substances to determine safety of possible medications. In his role with the American Council on Science and Health, he tries to educate people on real health risks versus perceived risks.
"We try and set people straight, give them the truth," he says. "Most of them won't accept it."
In the case of glyphosate, Bloom says there are other forces behind the fears — forces that are not based on science. Part of the issue, he speculates, is that people don't understand organic foods use herbicides and pesticides and that herbicides and pesticides are necessary parts of food production.
"The organic pesticides and herbicides, as a group, are really no better or worse than the ones that are used in 'big agriculture,'" Bloom says. "The organic industry has succeeded in fooling people into thinking there are no chemicals in their organic lettuce."