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After hearing about related health issues for years, most would use pesticides with care and factor in all the risks. Yet, in the 1970s, Monsanto introduced Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide advertised as safe for weekly – if not daily – use. Following, the company unveiled its Roundup Ready® genetically engineered seeds in the 1990s. The seeds, immune to the herbicide’s effects, let farmers spray the surrounding grounds with Roundup to kill weeds without harming crops. Together, these factors turned Roundup into the world’s most popular herbicide.

Yet, farmers, landscapers and other workers regularly exposed to Roundup later discovered they developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the blood that frequently begins in the lymph nodes. While Monsanto and even the EPA believe glyphosate has no harmful effects, the IARC Working Group published a study in 2015 that identified a correlation between the chemical and DNA and chromosomal damage.

Background

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) is frequently associated with workplace exposure – through skin contact or inhalation – to carcinogenic chemicals, including benzene and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Annually, 70,000 Americans discover they have this condition and it’s responsible for roughly 20,000 deaths per year, according to figures from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER program. Whatever the source, NHL affects the lymphocytes (white blood cells) and can originate in nearly any location in the body. Because the lymph nodes contain tissues that store lymphocytes and eliminate harmful bacteria, the condition usually develops here.

In the IARC’s 2015 report on cancer, researchers identified glyphosate as a Group 2A agent – or a potentially carcinogenic chemical – after it caused cancer in lab animals and damaged DNA in human cells. Data linking the chemical to NHL came from studies of occupational exposure involving farmers and tree nursery workers in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Beyond direct exposure to workers, the chemical may be responsible for DNA and chromosomal damage in utero, leading to potential birth defects. As Roundup is the most widely used glyphosate-based weed killer, NHL development may be directly linked with its applicational methods.

While the IARC’s report has received the greatest amount of attention, other studies released over the past 20 years have identified a similar relationship. In 2003, a study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine found a 60-percent higher risk of developing NHL for U.S. farmworkers. In 2008, Swedish researchers published their results in the International Journal of Cancer, finding that men exposed to Roundup had double the risk of developing NHL. Three years later, a study published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers found that higher doses of Roundup correlated with greater risks of developing NHL.

In response, Monsanto claims that researchers cherry-picked their data, and that glyphosate isn’t a cancer-causing ingredient. As supporting evidence, an EPA report claiming that glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer – one that has since been taken down – is the backbone of Monsanto’s argument. The EPA, which classified glyphosate as a carcinogen up to 1991, claims exposure to the chemical via pesticide doesn’t exceed their established healthy limits, which doubled in 2013 for food and oilseed crops.

As a result, Monsanto continues to promote Roundup’s safety as a pesticide for both home and commercial uses. Thus, the chemical is applied to nearly every crop of corn, cotton and soybeans in the United States and workers aren’t given proper safety gear and precautions before its application.

As one effort to limit usage and improve safety, a California judge ruled in January 2017 that Roundup must carry a warning label about its potentially cancer-causing ingredients.

Lawsuits

Multiple plaintiffs have already started filing lawsuits against Monsanto, alleging the company falsely advertised its product and didn’t add a proper warning label. However, these claims come after Monsanto paid $46.5 million to three plaintiffs, who claimed to have developed NHL from exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) through Monsanto’s other herbicides. In this case, the plaintiffs hadn’t been spraying the chemical, but they were released into the environment and got absorbed by the food chain.

This latter point had opened up another group of lawsuits related to Roundup: Finding the chemical in food products. Quaker Oats faced a similar lawsuit after the FDA found traces of glyphosate in its food products. However, labels claimed these items were “all natural.”

In all claims, the plaintiffs allege Monsanto:

  • Knew exposure to glyphosate causes cancer and presents other health risks.
  • Failed to warn consumers about the product’s risks.
  • Misrepresented the product’s health and environmental risks, providing false information to farms, government agencies and the public.