Even with proper precautions taken, glyphosate has serious health effects on users. Photo by Getty Images/Mihajlo Maricic.
Monsanto, owned by Bayer AG, made headlines recently — and not in a good way.
Monsanto’s Roundup contains the active ingredient glyphosate, which acts as a non-selective herbicide. Monsanto defends the safety of their product with a December 2017 memo in which the Environmental Protection Agency claims that “glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” However, the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization rules that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” to humans.
To date, there are more than 5,000 open civil suits against Monsanto based on allegations of a strong link between glyphosate exposure and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The first of these suits went to trial in the summer of 2018.
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014, and his doctors have said that it isn’t likely the 46-year-old father of three will live to see 2020. As a groundskeeper for a school district in the suburbs of San Francisco, he came into contact with glyphosate up to 30 times a year. While he was diligent about safety and wore protective gear, accidents and leaks happened.
After two years of using glyphosate-based products, symptoms appeared, and he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After his diagnosis, Johnson found studies that linked glyphosate exposure to cancer and decided to bring a lawsuit against Monsanto.
The first phase of the trial ended on August 10, 2018, with the California Superior Court finding Monsanto guilty of “negligent failure,” or neglecting to warn consumers about possible dangers associated with using their products. The company was ruled liable for compensatory and punitive damages totaling $289 million, to be awarded to the Johnson family. The jurors were shown internal Monsanto documents “proving that Monsanto has known for decades that glyphosate and specifically Roundup could cause cancer,” Brent Wisner, a lawyer for Johnson, says.
Monsanto Vice President Scott Partridge released a statement after the ruling, saying, “We will appeal this decision and continue to vigorously defend this product, which has a 40-year history of safe use and continues to be a vital, effective, and safe tool for farmers and others.” On October 10, 2018, stating that Johnson’s legal team failed to provide “clear and convincing evidence of malice or oppression” on the part of Monsanto, a judge initially granted the request to overrule all punitive damages, but later simply reduced the punitive damages owed. A couple of weeks later, Johnson accepted a $78.6 million award “to avoid the further burden of a new trial or appeal.” Monsanto’s payment for punitive damages was reduced from $250 million to around $39 million.
This trial was a landmark victory for the other complainants, showing that Bayer AG and Monsanto can be taken on, but a Bayer spokesperson said that the company will still be filing an appeal to the ruling.