In her famous 1970 record "Big Yellow Taxi," Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell sang "Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT now; give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees."
Pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), manufactured by companies such as Monsanto, had become well-known in the 1960s for being incredibly damaging to wildlife and in addition to causing certain cancers in humans.
Not long after the song hits the charts and the pesticide was banned for agricultural use, Monsanto began promoting Roundup (glyphosate) in its place. Now, with recent warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) that Roundup is "probably carcinogenic to humans," it may be time for an update of the song lyrics: "Hey farmers and gardeners, put away that Roundup now; leave weeds in your garden, but keep yourself cancer-free."
In this blog post, I review Monsanto's role in continuing to market Roundup as a safe substance while evidence mounts to the contrary. I outline some of the types of cancers and other illnesses it's known or suspected to cause. And, I explain why some people exposed to this chemical are considering participating in a mass tort action against the corporate giant.
The Roundup Revolution
Launched in 1974 (and brought to Canada in 1976), Roundup was promoted as broad-spectrum herbicide for use in agriculture. It is also used in forestry settings, hobby gardens, and along roadways to prevent invasive plant species.
Unlike many existing pre-emergent herbicides which created a long-lasting chemical barrier on that could seep into the surrounding watershed, Roundup worked by blocking an enzyme that is critical for plant growth before the chemical decomposed into natural by-products.
While the original Roundup was successful, in the 1990s, when Monsanto launched Roundup Ready crops that were genetically modified to resist its enzyme blocking power, use of the chemical increased dramatically. It's become one of the most popular herbicides worldwide and enjoys a substantial share of the market. With original patents now expired, other companies have also increasingly used glyphosates in their herbicide products.
Is It Safe?
Monsanto has consistently assured consumers that Roundup is a safe product, remarkably stating in some marketing materials that it is "safer than table salt." But at least two laboratories hired by Monsanto to test the product were later found to have falsified results or had owners and staff charged with fraudulent lab practices. These incidents may not have shaken Monsanto's confidence in their product, but they certainly shook public confidence in Monsanto.
Moreover, there have long-standing concerns among some independent researchers and health agencies that glyphosate is a possible or probable carcinogenic substance. Decades of independent research studies have linked Roundup with cancers or other illnesses. In 1985 the United States Environmental Protection Agency classified the substance as "possibly carcinogenic," only to reverse its decision in the early 1990s after intense lobbying by the company. Other countries, however, have begun to institute private and/or commercial bans on glyphosate products such as Roundup.
With the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer's (IARC) exhaustive review of all public data on the substance in 2015 finding probable links to cancer, there was an even stronger case to be made against Monsanto for its role in producing a hazardous product and its negligence in continuing to promote it as being safe.
Illnesses Linked to Glyphosate Exposure
Major studies included in the IARC review have found exposure to glyphosate can increase the risk a person will develop:
- non-Hodgkins lymphoma
- breast cancer
- liver cancer
- kidney cancer
- pancreatic cancer
- colon cancer
- bone cancer
- thyroid cancer
- Parkinson's disease
- and other illnesses
Researchers have discovered that while the chemical process Roundup uses to disrupt plant growth would not disrupt human cell growth in the same manner, it has a substantial effect on certain bacteria within the human digestive tract. Disturbing the balance and diversity of these bacteria can create conditions leading to chronic inflammation that cause diseases like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, colitis and Crohn's Disease, endocrine disruption, and autism.
What's Being Done?
With profits at risk and lawsuits in the offing, Monsanto and agro-chemical industry-funded organizations have launched an intense campaigns to try to cast doubt on IARC's findings. Monsanto accused the WHO's agency of "selective 'cherry picking' of data and [calling it] a clear example of agenda-driven bias."
But as the Guardian notes, IARC is "about as scientifically rigorous and independent an institution as they come." Researcher Patrick van Zwanenberg explains that "its evaluations are conducted by senior academic and regulatory scientists, drawn from around the world, and subject to a strict conflict of interest policy." IARC's only agenda appears to be ensuring scientists are held to the highest standard when conducting research on glyphosate and reporting their findings.
State of California regulators, who have said they consider IARC to be the "gold standard" in identifying carcinogens, recently began steps to put warning labels on the product noting its potential cancer risk. While Monsanto is vigorously contesting these actions, recent court rulings have supported the state's plans.
Individuals who have developed illnesses they believe are linked to exposure to Roundup and other products containing glyphosate have also used IARC's findings to help launch their own class action or mass tort lawsuits. In addition to seeking compensation for their injuries, punitive damages in successful actions will likely make Monsanto think twice before marketing a hazardous product to the public again.
People believed to be most at risk of developing illnesses from exposure to Roundup and other chemical pesticides include farmers and farm workers, garden centre/nursery workers, and landscapers, but anyone who has had repeated or long-term exposure to Roundup, including homeowners, may also be at risk.
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