The German industrial giant Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, is currently facing thousands of lawsuits related to Roundup, the most popular weedkiller in the world. Plaintiffs are alleging – with some success – that they or their family members have suffered severe health problems, including cancer, as a result of exposure to the nearly ubiquitous Roundup.
Meanwhile, scientists around the world have been investigating glyphosate, the herbicide in Roundup. While there are still many questions to be answered regarding the specific health dangers of glyphosate and Roundup, there is growing evidence that glyphosate is linked to cancer, especially non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Despite these serious concerns, the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency released an initial finding on April 30 that Glyphosate – and thus Roundup – was safe to humans when used as directed. It was a huge victory for Bayer, whose shareholders have grown increasingly concerned about the company’s exposure to liability.
Environmental groups rushed to condemn the decision, with the non-profit Environmental Working Group saying “Today’s decision…like virtually every one…the Trump Administration makes, completely ignores science in favor of polluters like Bayer.”
The EPA’s Decision
As it so often has during the Trump Administration, the EPA attempted to frame a decision serving the needs of a massive international corporation and major polluter as driven solely by sound scientific methods. In its proposed interim registration review, the EPA said that its scientific findings “are consistent with the conclusions of science reviews by many other countries and other federal agencies.”
This latest step is consistent with the EPA’s 2017 preliminary risk assessment, which also held that glyphosate was safe if used as directed. Secretary of Agriculture Sunny Perdue applauded the decision, portraying glyphosate as indispensable in the broader project of “feed[ing] 10 billion people by 2050.”
The EPA did acknowledge that glyphosate posed a danger to mammals and local ecosystems. The agency said it would propose measures to prevent pesticide drift, protect pollinators and address the problem of weeds growing resistant to glyphosate.
An Angry Reaction
But while the EPA painted a rosy picture of glyphosate’s safety, the full picture is decidedly more complicated and worrisome.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer – a branch of the World Health Organization – released a report (linked above) evaluating the carcinogenic danger of a range of chemicals, including glyphosate. The evaluation ruled that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” This evaluation was based on exposure studies in the United States, Canada and Sweden and studies with lab animals (the report said there was “convincing evidence” that glyphosate can cause cancer in lab rats).
In addition, a paper in Environmental Sciences Europe documented how European science agencies had reached such a dramatically different conclusion on the danger of glyphosate compared to the EPA. The paper found that European agencies had relied on more studies and placed more weight on peer-reviewed studies than their American counterpart.
Finally, a report from The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an American governmental organization, said that it could not rule out a possible link between glyphosate exposure and an increased risk of certain kinds of cancer.
But in the face of what can generously be described as conflicting evidence, the EPA did the billing of Bayer and ruled that glyphosate was safe. While the decision was hardly a surprise, it was still a bitter pill for many to swallow.
Environmental groups were quick to register their disgust with the EPA’s decision. The Environmental Working Group cited studies it commissioned finding glyphosate in almost every brand of oat-based cereal and oat-based foods marketed to children. And officials from the National Resources Defense Council quoted in media reports emphasized that there was a strong link between glyphosate and cancer.
The EPA’s glyphosate decision is just the latest in a long line of rulings that favor massive polluters over the general public and ignore scientific findings that conflict with the Trump Administration’s hard-line de-regulatory agenda. Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, his EPA has consistently worked to shield large companies from regulation, even when there’s compelling evidence that such regulations are necessary.
At the very least, the existing research on glyphosate indicates that concerns over its link to human health problems are reasonable. The situation would seem to call for further research, not confident pronouncements that could mislead the general public into believing that the science is more clear than it actually is.
The EPA will issue final regulations on the use of glyphosate at the end of the year, at which point the public will have 60 days to comment.