The weed killer RoundUp, used to keep lawns weed-free and picture perfect, may be responsible for causing serious illness and death in people. Studies have found that one of its ingredients, glyphosate, increases the risk of certain types of cancer.
In 2018, for the first time, a lawsuit about the connection between RoundUp and cancer went to trial. While the research on the causal link between RoundUp and cancer continues, more governments and nonprofits are labeling the chemical as a probable cause of cancer.
What is Glyphosate?
A pesticide, glyphosate first came into use in the 1970s. It helps control weeds and has proven useful in agriculture. In the intervening decades, scientists and consumers have raised concerns about the safety of long-term exposure to the chemical. While the EPA, as of 2020, still lists glyphosate as safe, California includes it on the Proposition 65 list as a carcinogen.
One warning the EPA does include for the pesticide is that it has a negative impact on animals and insects. The EPA is currently working to limit spray drift and protect certain species, such as the monarch butterfly, from exposure.
The extent to which glyphosate and RoundUp, in general, are a danger remains open to debate. One of the difficulties of establishing such causal links is that, in modern life, people are exposed to dozens of chemicals daily. Moreover, not everyone exposed to a certain chemical will face a cancer diagnosis or reduced life expectancy.
Monsanto has since sold the rights to RoundUp to Bayer. Bayer, like Monsanto, maintains that the chemical is safe and necessary for agriculture and outdoor maintenance.
Johnson v. Monsanto
Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto and now Bayer regarding the safety of glyphosate and its link to cancer. The first of these lawsuits to proceed to trial was Johnson v. Monsanto in California.
Dewayne Johnson had been a school groundskeeper for two years when he was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2014. A married father of three, accidents at work resulted in Johnson's body and clothes being soaked in RoundUp. After one event, he developed a rash that evolved into lesions all over his body. He twice contacted Monsanto to ask if his skin condition could be related to his use of the weed killer. The company never replied.
In June 2016, Johnson filed the lawsuit against Monsanto. Over two years later, the case went to trial in June 2018.
During the trial, internal documents from Monsanto indicated the company believed there to be a “probable link” between RoundUp and cancer. However, Monsanto continued to maintain the product was safe for the public.
Other evidence at trial indicated that Monsanto had considered ghostwriting scientific papers that stated glyphosate was safe. The company had also contemplated ways to discredit agencies that declared the weed killer a probable human carcinogen.
The trial court initially awarded Johnson $289 million in damages. After appeals, the amount was eventually reduced to $21 million.
The appeals court agreed with the trial court that Monsanto was liable for failure to warn but disagreed on awarding future noneconomic damages.
What's a Safe Level of Exposure?
While people regularly exposed to the chemical, such as groundskeepers and gardeners, are more likely to contract cancer or suffer other health issues, research indicates most people consume trace amounts of the weed killer in food. The EPA states that the exposure amount is low enough to be safe for human consumption. However, an environmental group raised concern in 2019 over the amount of glyphosate in processed foods.
The Environmental Working Group issued a report that says the amount of glyphosate in some products exceeds what they believe is healthy for children. The study found that of 21 cereals sampled, all contained glyphosate and four in amounts that exceeded the EWG's safe for children.
The EWG sets a significantly lower dietary exposure limit for glyphosate than either the EPA or proposed California standards. Although significantly lower than either government amount, the EWG recommendation would still allow the equivalent of consuming two cups of cereal without concern. Most cereals have a serving size of around one cup.
In Spring 2022, a Canadian filmmaker released a documentary about Johnson's lawsuit and subsequent victory. Research about glyphosate continues to evolve as scientists conduct more research.
In California, plaintiffs have two advantages when filing a lawsuit regarding exposure to RoundUp. One, the state considers it a chemical under Proposition 65. Two, the Johnson v. Monsanto decision created a legal precedent for these lawsuits.