Monday, August 13, 2018

Jury awards school groundskeeper $289 million for exposure to Roundup

A California jury on Friday found Monsanto liable in a lawsuit filed by a school groundskeeper who said the company’s weedkillers, including Roundup, caused his cancer. The company was ordered pay $289 million in damages. 
The case of the groundskeeper, Dewayne Johnson, 46, was the first lawsuit to go to trial alleging that Roundup and other glyphosate-based weedkillers cause cancer. Monsanto, a unit of the German conglomerate Bayer following a $62.5 billion acquisition, faces more than 5,000 similar lawsuits across the United States. 
Mr. Johnson’s lawyers said he developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using Roundup and Ranger Pro, another Monsanto glyphosate herbicide, as part of his job as a pest control manager for a California county school system. 
The jury in Superior Court of California in San Francisco deliberated for three days before finding that Monsanto had failed to warn Mr. Johnson and other consumers of the cancer risks posed by its weedkillers. 
It awarded $39 million in compensatory and $250 million in punitive damages...
As one might imagine, I'm pretty skeptical about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate. Nevertheless, I think that most typical people feel very much otherwise.

A very long time ago, I got into an online argument (always a great use of time) about the toxicity of Roundup. The original post said something like "I cannot believe something as toxic as Roundup is out on the market" - trying to convince the fellow "actually, it's not very toxic" was a tough thing to do. As you might imagine, I had no success.

Here's my theory as to why this is true: if you get out a bottle of Roundup and you spray it on plants, they die in a particularly visible way. Even if people understand the concepts behind amino acid synthesis and enzyme inhibition, they're just never really going to not believe their eyes, and make the conclusion that, if it kills plants, it won't kill people.

All of this to say: I have a feeling that Monsanto/Bayer is going to be in trouble, if these jury trials continue. 

14 comments:

  1. I don't know - I suspect the jury awards won't hold up on appeal, but IANAL (not even close).

    How do you prove (or even conclude) that a particular compound causes a given cancer? With smoking and lung cancer, it takes a lot of cases, and even then, I don't think you can prove a particular case but simply show that it's a likely cause (85% or so for smoking to cancer). One of my professors was trying to determine what the mutations commonly formed by particular carcinogens were, but I don't know how good that is. For glyphosate...if it's forming formaldehyde, there are a lot of sources of formaldehyde, and if it's binding to something else to trigger cancer, I don't know at all how you'd prove that. Even the general connection between glyphosate and cancer is not uniformly held (only IARC?).

    I suspect this is more a measure of how low Monsanto is held in public esteem than anything else. Which may not help them in the long run.

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    1. I've wondered how much of this outcome is about the location of the lawsuit. The sentiment of a jury in SF is probably more extreme than elsewhere. I assume this will be appealed and go up the ladder, but California in general is probably not a great locale for Monsanto/Bayer in this case.

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    2. glyphosate is known by the state of California to be a carcinogen.

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    3. via IARC, but none of the other relevant agencies seem to agree. Sort of makes one think CA cherry-picked what it liked for glyphosate, which doesn't help the strength of the evidence.

      If CA tested it independently, I would change my opinion some, but I don't think they did.

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    4. New Food Economy has an analysis of the court finding, which addresses this point about the connection between a specific compound and a specific cancer:
      In other words, this charge didn’t require the jury to decide whether Roundup—the product—causes cancer, but instead whether the product was a substantial contributor to “harm.” More critically, however, it asked the jury a bigger question: whether or not Monsanto knew about the product’s potential risks and whether the company failed to properly warn its users of them—indicating that Monsanto’s failure was somehow deliberate.

      Maybe there's some cherry picking of data... but absence of other agencies statements doesn't mean absence of risk. In fact, it seems there was a fair bit of debate in the EPA, with questions raised by communications between a senior EPA official and a Monsanto executive. Plus some indications that Monsanto had ghostwritten positive reviews. Though it also seems some of the data (unpublished but known to the chair at the time) showing absence of evidence for a link wasn't considered in the IARC review.

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  2. I'm gonna assume that Bayer did thorough risk assessment before merging with Monsanto and that they have a general idea about how bad things could get. But, then again, who knows. Companies seem to think more in the short-term nowadays. If mergers make certain individuals (executives, shareholders, etc.) money in the short-term, who cares about the long-term.

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  3. Yeah, another chemophobia lawsuit. What's new under the sun? As much as I loathe Big Ag, glyphosate is a miracle, not a problem.

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  4. I tend to eyeroll at this stuff. People are more worried about glyphosphates, phthalates, APEO surfactants, PFOA, etc than they are about things that might actually kill them. Anything all-natural is A-OK (conveniently forgetting that cobra venom is all-natural)!

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  5. Do beer/wine/liquor labels have a Prop-65 warning in California?

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    1. Yup.
      http://www.beerinstitute.org/beer-policy/legislative-policy/proposition-65/

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    2. and coffee

      https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/california-judge-rules-coffee-requires-cancer-warning-n861401

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    3. The coffee thing is interesting because it was successfully "squashed" in CA. See OEHHA Press release where they back-tracked on the labeling.
      https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/press-release/press-release-proposition-65/proposed-oehha-regulation-clarifies-cancer
      In a single statement they claim there are carcinogens and cancer fighting antioxidants. It just shows that no matter what the industry a lobby can control the message. Now I personally think the lawsuit is unwarranted and agree with previous commenter that location and poor company perception played a lot into the verdict.

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  6. The IARC classification was in the news last year.

    https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/who-iarc-glyphosate/

    Reuters is one of the few news outlets I consider to be neutral.

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  7. Unfortunately the public will take this verdict at face value, and draw the conclusion that Roundup must therefore be a cause of cancer. They will not consider the unprecedented time of exposure to diagnosis that was presented as evidence, or the substantial scientific evidence to suggest Roundup is not a likely cause of cancer. After all, a jury *must* have come to the right conclusion. Any successful appeal in the future by the defense will be viewed as evidence of a corrupt system ruled by money, while this success for the plaintiff(s) will be held in the purest of light, a triumph for mankind, and nothing to do with potentially billions of dollars at the end of a few more lawsuits like this one.

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