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Does glyphosate, a main ingredient in Roundup, cause cancer?

To the many people who have developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after exposure to glyphosate, the answer is yes. This type of cancer that starts in the lymphatic system has been on the increase. The International Agency for Research on Cancer listed the main ingredient in Roundup a “probable carcinogen” two years ago after research supported a link with the cancer.

On the other side is Monsanto, who defends its flagship product as completely safe, stating “Glyphosate is not a carcinogen.” The scale of use in the U.S. makes this an important debate – more than 220 million pounds of glyphosate were applied to genetically modified Roundup-ready soybean, corn and cotton crops in 2015.

What was in unsealed court records?

Recently, the judge overseeing 55 federal lawsuits against Monsanto unsealed many of the documents in the case. Some indicate disagreement within the Environmental Protection Agency about safety assessments. An agency deputy division director tipped off the company and apparently worked to kill agency review stating, “If I can kill this, I should get a medal” in an email exchange with a Monsanto executive.

Internal emails discussed ghostwriting research and included debates about which scientists to consider for glyphosate-related projects. The New York Times shared these examples:

  • A Monsanto executive emailed, “We would be keeping costs down by us doing the writing and they would just edit & sign their names so to speak.”
  • One glyphosate paper published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology financed by Monsanto used a consulting firm to recruit panel members. Internal emails included discussion over which scientists to consider.

In defending against the lawsuit, Monsanto has argued that the alleged link runs counter to decades of safety reviews conducted by regulatory authorities. They claim that the plaintiffs were trying to take isolated document out of context. And the EPA is not the only organization to disagree with the international cancer agency, the European Food Safety Agency also downplays any potential danger.

The judge in the case has been critical of Monsanto's efforts to keep discovery under seal. The main questions in these cases are causation (i.e., did Roundup cause cancer) and whether Monsanto sought to ignore or wrongfully cover up the risks.

Continuing uncertainty

The unsatisfying answer in this debate seems to be that no one knows for certain whether Roundup exposure can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Manufacturers are held to a high safety standard when developing and selling products. In this case, the evidence that seemed to indicate Monsanto tried to shape studies and quash regulatory review is troubling.

While Monsanto tries to brush aside any concerns and launches media campaigns to bolster its product, it’s not so simple. There are still many scientists who disagree over the safety of Roundup. If diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, discuss any concerns about glyphosate exposure with an experienced attorney.

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