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Lawsuits Allege Link Between Roundup Weed Killer and Cancer: How Can Experts Help?

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on August 10, 2021

Lawsuits Allege Link Between Roundup Weed Killer and Cancer: How Can Experts Help?

A new toxic tort lawsuit is rapidly emerging this year and is gearing up to become the biggest mass tort action since asbestos. Roundup Weed and Grass Killer, a herbicide produced by agrichemical giant, Monsanto, has been the subject of numerous lawsuits claiming that its main chemical, glyphosate, is a carcinogenic health hazard.  Roundup is one of the most popular herbicides in the world; used by millions of homeowners, farmers, agricultural workers, and landscapers. However, a growing body of evidence has begun to emerge linking the glyphosate in Roundup to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Thus prompting plaintiff attorneys to file lawsuits throughout the country. Considering the scientific complexity and sheer size of these suits, experts will undoubtedly play a pivotal role throughout all phases of litigation.

Roundup class action

Battling Monsanto: A History of Litigation

This isn’t the first time the famed biochemical and agricultural biotechnological company has been the subject of litigation. Since its inception over a hundred years ago, Monsanto has been shrouded in controversy for its allegedly hazardous and toxic products. Monsanto’s first product was saccharin, an artificial sweetener with a history of safety concerns. In the 1920s, Monsanto began producing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a chemical used in a wide range of products such as waterproof coatings and liquid sealants. After the potent carcinogen was linked to cancer and various birth defects, PCBs were eventually banned fifty years later. In the 1980s, Monsanto commercialized another artificial sweetener, aspartame, despite the Food and Drug Administration’s research revealing its toxic effects.

By the 1990s, Monsanto developed its most profitable product – genetically modified crops (GMOs). The engineering of GMOs enable the crops to self-pollinate without the help of nature.  This renders the crops more resistant to destruction. The profitability of GMO crops is compounded by the fact that they are also resistant to the Monsanto’s very own herbicide, Roundup.

What is Roundup?

Roundup is an herbicide used to kill weeds that damage crops. Its active ingredient is glyphosate – a chemical that disrupts a specific enzyme pathway necessary for most plants to live. However, the genetically modified seeds produced by Monsanto are specifically designed to withstand products containing glyphosate. Thereby creating Monsanto’s stranglehold on both facets of the agricultural industry. Because only Monsanto crops are resistant to its own herbicide, Roundup and Monsanto’s genetically modified crops have worked hand in hand in creating a monopoly on agricultural growth. Therefore, as Monsanto’s control over the GMO market increases, so does the use of Roundup. A U.S. Geological survey on glyphosate usage estimates that 2.6 billion pounds of herbicide has been used on land over the last two decades. As a result, Roundup’s carcinogenic exposure in the United States is immeasurable.

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In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, found glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic”; as it caused cancer in lab tests on animals and damaged DNA in human cells. Notably, last September, California became the first state in the U.S. to label Roundup as carcinogenic. However, Monsanto still maintains that Roundup is safe to use.

The Lawsuits

Despite Monsanto’s efforts and the scarce mainstream media coverage on Roundup, the lawsuits keep growing. In September 2015, former field workers in California and New York both filed suits claiming that Roundup caused them to develop cancer. In October 2015, three migrant farm workers filed similar claims in Delaware Superior Court. Likewise, an agricultural worker diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and who was regularly exposed to Roundup over the past 40 years, recently filed a product liability and personal injury lawsuit against Monsanto in the United States District Court of Florida for failing to provide adequate warning of risks.

One of the most developed cases against Monsanto is in Hawaii – where the company owns or leases over 3,000 acres of land and employs over 1,000 Hawaii residents in its facilities. In February of this year, coffee farmers filed suit against Monsanto in the U.S. District Court in Honolulu, alleging that the using Roundup on a plaintiff’s commercial coffee farm caused her to develop Stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The complaint states that Monsanto should have known or had reason to know that Roundup products were defective and inherently dangerous and unsafe when used in the manner instructed. Further, the complaint alleges that Monsanto “championed falsified data and attacked legitimate studies that reveal its dangers.”

All Roundup cases in the federal court system have been recently centralized before the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation for the Northern District of California in order to more conveniently and effectively coordinate discovery and pretrial rulings.

Roundup’s Link to Cancer – How Can the Experts Weigh In?

As is the case in any toxic tort lawsuit, scientific experts will be invaluable witnesses to establish the causal link between Roundup and the development of cancer. While competing theories between experts are to be expected during litigation, Monsanto’s alleged history of protecting its products from negative scientific review and concealing its toxic effects may make the research of the plaintiffs’ experts even more daunting.

Toxicologists will most likely be the principal experts in proving the adverse effects Roundup and glyphosate has on human beings. A toxicologist’s use during litigation will be twofold. The overarching query – as the U.S. Panel for Multidistrict Litigation noted – is whether glyphosate causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in those exposed to it while using Roundup. But as with any personal injury litigation, the individualized facts of each plaintiff’s case must be analyzed to conclude whether glyphosate caused the person’s specific injuries.

An expert in epidemiology – the study of the relationship between chemical exposure and disease – could also play a key role in proving causation both on the general and individual level. An epidemiologist will be able to collect and analyze data to determine any potential causal links. Likewise, a biostatistician will be needed apply mathematics and statistics to the findings and quantify risks. Because most plaintiffs in the litigation were exposed to Roundup while working in the agricultural industry, an assessment of the workplace by an industrial hygienist is needed. Industrial hygiene experts study workplace factors and exposures that can harm employees.

Throughout all stages of litigation, however, experts will be faced with an uphill battle. For decades, Monsanto has argued that Roundup is safe to use; an assertion that has been mostly corroborated by governmental agencies. The Food and Drug Administration also maintains Roundup’s safety, and has suspended testing for glyphosate residue in food. In addition, this September, the EPA published a 227-page paper on glyphosate; stating that the chemical is not likely carcinogenic to humans. However, the paper acknowledges that some research studies link glyphosate to cancer, and notes that any specific connection to non-Hodgkin lymphoma cannot be determined based on the available data. This December, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act Scientific Panel will meet to further discuss and evaluate the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate. Therefore, plaintiff experts arguing dangers of Roundup will need to reconcile any contradictory findings with those of the FDA and EPA.

The Roundup litigation marks a turning point in the U.S. biotechnology industry. In light of the millions of people exposed to Roundup, this litigation may very well mark the beginning of the end of Monsanto.

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