Lawyers who recently won a $298 million judgment in a California court for their client by claiming that the most widely used weed killer in the world gave him cancer addressed members of the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday.
Last month's verdict was controversial because the lawyers relied mainly on the findings by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to convince the jury, despite the IARC being the only agency worldwide that has implicated glyphosate as a possible cancer-causing agent. A 2015 "risk assessment" released by the agency classified the chemical as a "possible carcinogen."
Glyphosate is the key ingredient in the worldwide best-selling herbicide Roundup, which is sold not only in home and garden retail settings, but also has large-scale agricultural applications that help increase crop yield. The product represents one of the most controversial science debates outside of climate change issues.
Before the trial, the judge in the case expressed concerns about the science, saying at one point, "The evidence that glyphosate is currently causing [non-Hodgkins lymphoma] in human beings" was "pretty sparse," according to a report from Reuters. The same judge later said the science expected to be presented at trial was "shaky" but would still allow it to be presented.
No known credible scientific agency other than IARC has found glyphosate to be a cancer-causing agent. Other agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have studied glyphosate and declared it safe for use.
"They are trying to establish legal precedents all over the world to stack the deck in their favor," said Alex Berezow, spokesman for American Council on Science and Health. "Europe is much more sympathetic to this kind of anti-corporate and anti-technology worldview, so that is an obvious place to get rulings in their favor. Then, the lawyers can return stateside with even more 'evidence' to get American juries to hand them a giant bag of money."
According to European press outlet Euractiv, the "two U.S. attorneys said they were confident they would win further legal cases against Monsanto, following a landmark San Francisco trial in August that ordered the US company to pay plaintiff Dwayne Johnson $289 million in damages."
The damages awarded by the California jury also caught the eye of the influential Wall Street Journal editorial pages which wrote:
The San Francisco Superior Court case involved Dewayne "Lee" Johnson, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2014. Working as a school groundskeeper, Mr. Johnson routinely used Roundup, and he now claims its active ingredient, glyphosate, caused his cancer. The jury examined gory photos of the lesions that covered up to 80% of his body, and in testimony Mr. Johnson described how even wearing clothing caused excruciating pain. Such emotional testimony would elicit sympathy in any jury of human beings.
But legal claims are supposed to be about the law and evidence. And the problem for Mr. Johnson is that there’s overwhelming scientific evidence that glyphosate does not cause cancer. One comprehensive study, published last November in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, investigated cancer incidence among nearly 45,000 licensed pesticide applicators who had been exposed to glyphosate.
A request for comment from one of the attorneys who appeared before the European Parliament panel was not returned.
Bayer, the parent company of Monsanto which produces Roundup, says they are now facing as many as 8,000 new lawsuits in the wake of the California verdict, and shares of the company have traded down about 15 percent since that time.
IARC has received some direct funding from U.S. taxpayers over the years, and because the agency is also member of the World Health Organization, it has received U.S. tax dollars indirectly through WHO funding as well. And the agency has been under heavy scrutiny and criticism from Republicans in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
Members of the House Appropriations Committee drafted legislation in June that threatened to reduce or remove U.S. funding of IARC unless the agency agreed to a series of reforms, some of which were aimed at transparency.