Roundup Injustice | The Triumph of Unscience
The verdict in the Roundup Injustice trial on Friday is a victory for unscience, defined by Merriam-Webster as “not scientific : not based on or exhibiting scientific knowledge or scientific methodology : not in accord with the principles and methods of science.” I think it’s finally time to do away with the notion of a “jury of your peers” and begin looking at the concept of professional juries.
A jury of laypeople awarded DeWayne Johnson, a man dying of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages in his lawsuit against Monsanto, the manufacturers of Roundup brand herbicide. According to the dozen or so reports I’ve read, Mr. Johnson testified that during his work as a groundskeeper he was frequently exposed to Roundup vapor, inhaling some of it and once he was “soaked” in it when a hose came loose. Mr. Johnson, 46 years old, applied Roundup weedkiller 20 to 30 times per year while working as a groundskeeper for a school district near San Francisco, his attorneys said. He testified that during his work, he had two accidents in which he was soaked with the product. The first accident happened in 2012.
The argument comes down to the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate when combined with one of the inert surfactant ingredients polyethoxylated tallowamine (POEA). Glyphosate has been the constant in the Roundup equation for a very long time – for over 40 years, every formulation of the herbicide product has contained varying levels of the synthetic phosphonate organophosphorous chemical since its discovery in 1970 by scientists at Monsanto. In 2007, glyphosate was the most used herbicide in the United States’ agricultural sector and the second-most used in home and garden, government and industry, and commerce. 2,4-D (the active ingredient in Agent Orange) is the most common – that should tell you something about the relative safety of glyphosate.
Just about EVERYONE agrees that glyphosate is safe to humans when used as directed.
Europe: In 2013, after an exhaustive review of over 1000 epidemiological, animal and in vitro studies, the German Institute for Risk Assessment found “no classification and labeling for carcinogenicity is warranted.” In November 2015, the European Food Safety Authority published its conclusion in the Renewal Assessment Report (RAR), stating it (glyphosate) was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.” In March 2017 the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) announced recommendations proceeding from a risk assessment of glyphosate performed by ECHA’s Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC). The RAC did not find evidence implicating glyphosate to be a carcinogen, a mutagen, as toxic to reproduction, nor as toxic to specific organs.
US: In 1993 the Environmental Protection Agency considered glyphosate to be safe and noncarcinogenic. Moreover, the EPA developed a “worse-case scenario” model of an individual eating a lifetime of food derived entirely from glyphosate-sprayed fields with maximum residue levels and determined there to be “no adverse health effects expected under such conditions.” In 2016 the EPA looked specifically at the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate and concluded that it is likely NOT carcinogenic (i.e., it doesn’t cause cancer).
The International Agency for Research on Cancer: Here is where we get to some of the scientific flim-flammery. In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic in humans” (category 2A) based on epidemiological studies, animal studies, and in vitro studies. It noted that there was “limited evidence” of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which if you remember, is the specific type of cancer that Mr. Johnson is suffering from. The IARC monograph on glyphosate was bitterly criticized for sloppy science and ignoring many contradictory and exculpatory research.
Based on the IARC report, many regulatory agencies including the EPA withdrew their earlier recommendations and conclusions in order to re-evaluate them in light of the IARC recommendations. This opened the floodgates for every slip-and-fall trial lawyer to start trolling the aisles of Home Depot looking for potential litigants in their naked money-grab assault on Monsanto.
Which leads us to yesterday’s verdict. Mr. Johnson’s lawyers were able to throw enough shade on what science is actually known to bamboozle a dozen Californians. It is impossible to prove Roundup caused Johnson’s terminal illness, it’s also impossible for Monsanto to prove Roundup did not cause his cancer. Monsanto was not required to prove anything. The burden of proof was the plaintiff. Mr. Johnson’s lawyers didn’t have to prove Roundup was the sole cause of his cancer. All they had to prove was whether Roundup was a “substantial contributing factor” to his illness. Under California law, that means Mr. Johnson’s cancer would not have occurred but for his exposure to Roundup. That’s is actually impossible to prove – Mr. Johnson’s lymphoma is probably totally unrelated to whatever exposure he may or may not have had to the herbicide. According to the American Cancer Society, the majority of lymphoma cases are idiopathic — meaning the cause is unknown.
Johnson’s lawyers didn’t present any science or demonstrable evidence of cause-and-effect because there isn’t any. They do what trial layers do – make tenuous associations, wild accusations, obfuscate and misrepresent the truth and play on the jury’s fears and manipulate their emotions.
Which is why we need to scrap the notion of a jury of our peers. We need a pool of professional jurors that have some basic understanding of the law, are paid well (as professionals) and are trained to resist the tricks and machinations of trial lawyers. Otherwise, we will not have a country of citizens but of litigants.