Ties between Monsanto and EPA raise questions about safety and regulation

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RoundUp is the most popular weed killer in the world and one of the most controversial. Millions of gallons of it are sprayed on playgrounds, farms and backyards all over California. But does it cause cancer?

John Barton, a Bakersfield cotton grower has been diagnosed with cancer. “I probably sprayed more RoundUp than most people would do in 10 lifetimes because that’s what we did. When you’re a family farmer you do that.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Since it hit shelves in 1970, at least 700 individuals have filed lawsuits alleging the herbicide caused non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. The litigation has produced over a million pages of internal documents and provided a glimpse into Monsanto’s strategy to defend RoundUp and keep it on the market.

Roundup is one of Monsanto’s biggest brands and best sellers, reportedly bringing in $4 billion in revenue in 2015. The use of glyphosate, its key ingredient increased by two-thirds in California over the past decade, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. Nationally, nearly 290 million pounds of glyphosate was used in 2014, compared to 40 million pounds in 1995.

The chemical has also has been the subject of numerous scientific studies looking at its potential for causing cancer. The results have been mixed. In 2015, the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization found the chemical to be a probable carcinogen to humans.

Monsanto denies that there’s a link between its product and cancer. In one of their informational videos, Monsanto points out, “in addition to the EPA, regulatory agencies in more than 160 countries have approved glyphosate based products.”

There’s also little international consensus on how to regulate RoundUp. The Netherlands banned home use of the herbicide. Brazil is considering a ban, while other countries like Japan and New Zealand have found it is not a carcinogen. Here in the US, the EPA has not found the chemical to be a known carcinogen.

A complete human health risk assessment of glyphosate is to be completed by the EPA this year. However, questions about the EPA’s role in assessing glyphosate’s safety have increased after emails between a former agency official and Monsanto executives were unsealed by a federal judge overseeing a recent lawsuit. The emails paint a picture of a close relationship between the EPA and Monsanto.

In a 2015 email a Monsanto executive wrote that that then EPA official Jess Rowland was discussing another government agency’s plan to review the glyphosate when she claimed “If I can kill this, I should get a medal.” In another exchange, Monsanto executives said Rowland could be “useful” after his retirement. Rowland retired in May 2016, shortly after a report by the EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee was leaked to the press. The report stated the committee could not find evidence of glyphosate causing cancer. Rowland was the lead author on that report. He is scheduled to be deposed by plaintiffs attorneys on April 24th.