EPA relationship with Monsanto under scrutiny in Roundup trial

In new court filings, plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that claims Roundup causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers are alleging that there has been collusion between the EPA and Monsanto, the maker of the weedkiller. The plaintiffs have petitioned to depose Jess Rowland, the EPA’s recently retired deputy division director.

The allegation is based on a letter dated March 4, 2013, written by the late EPA senior toxicologist Marion Copley, in which she concludes that, “It is essentially certain that glyphosate causes cancer,” directly contradicting the agency’s 1991 ruling that glyphosate is not carcinogenic to humans.

In the letter, Copley accuses Rowland of behaving unethically, intimidating staff, and changing reports to favor industry. “For once in your life, listen to me and don’t play your political conniving games with the science to favor the registrants,” she wrote. “For once do the right thing and don’t make decisions based on how it affects your bonus.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are heralding the letter as a “potentially explosive new development.”

Two years after Copley wrote the letter, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Monsanto, the world’s leading producer of glyphosate-based herbicides, has aggressively challenged that ruling. On its website, the company states: “Based on the overwhelming weight of evidence, Monsanto strongly disagrees with IARC’s classification of glyphosate. Importantly, IARC overlooked decades of thorough and science-based analysis by regulatory agencies around the world and selectively interpreted data to arrive at its classification of glyphosate. No regulatory agency in the world considers glyphosate to be a carcinogen.”

Several countries, including Colombia, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Bermuda, and the Netherlands have responded to the IARC cancer listing by banning the sale of Roundup and other herbicides that contain glyphosate. Argentina, Brazil, and Germany are considering bans, and France banned their use in home gardens.

Monsanto has consistently pointed to the EPA’s determination that glyphosate is not carcinogenic to refute studies suggesting otherwise. However, the Copley letter could undercut the legitimacy of reports published by the agency. And in a move that further raised suspicions, the EPA in May 2016 released a new report that concluded glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans, but then retracted the document only days later. Rowland, a lead author of that report, simultaneously retired. The agency initially said it would republish its findings on glyphosate in late 2016, but now forecasts the release for later in 2017. Still, Monsanto touts the findings from the leaked report as further evidence that its product is safe.

In addition to the petition to depose Rowland, plaintiffs also have called for testimony from a number of toxicologists who currently or previously worked for Monsanto. They include Mark Martens, a former employee based in Europe who now helps produce webinars that advocate the company’s position on Roundup and cancer. The filings express that Martens also advocates for Monsanto at hearings in front of European Regulatory bodies currently assessing the carcinogenicity of glyphosate. “Dr. Martens, in addition to his essential historical knowledge about glyphosate, also has up-to-date knowledge about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate,” the plaintiffs assert. Monsanto counters that neither Martens’ deposition nor documents in his possession will offer anything new on the dispute over Roundup.

To further support the relevance of Martens’ testimony, the plaintiffs report that he has unique knowledge of the “potential toxicity of the surfactants used in Roundup.” Surfactants are agents that help the herbicide penetrate plants, and this knowledge is relevant because while glyphosate is the key ingredient in the product, it is not the only chemical in the mix. While many scientific studies on rats and mice have tested the toxicity of glyphosate, only a few have considered the product’s full formula. In the weeks ahead, plaintiffs will likely argue that those limited studies provide evidence that the full formula of Roundup is in fact many times more toxic than glyphosate alone.

Rene Ebersole writes and edits articles about science, health, and the environment for such publications as Outside, Modern Farmer, Popular Science, and Audubon.