The verdict was awaited with interest by thousands of other people who in recent years have reported that they have fallen ill with cancer as a result of the use of herbicides containing glyphosate. Now, the news has arrived: the court of justice of the city of San Francisco has ruled, after three days of meetings that the glyphosate present in Monsanto products called “Roundup” and “Ranger Pro” was the cause of Dewayne Johnson’s disease. We talked about it with Dr. Maria Chiara Tronconi, oncologist at Humanitas.
The Monsanto Company, a multinational agrochemical company, was forced to pay compensation to the gardener Dewayne Johnson, a terminally ill person who brought the company to trial and condemned it, for a sum of 289 million dollars. The man, who for over thirty years worked as a gardener in various public schools in California, had fallen ill with cancer of the lymphatic system. Johnson’s attorneys claimed that he had fallen ill with cancer because of the glyphosate contained in the herbicides used by the gardener in the course of his work. In the past, Johnson had shown signs of damage to his back and arms after using herbicides that were sprayed at least thirty times a year in the gardens where he was employed. Now Monsanto will have to pay $39 million in compensation and another $250 million in collateral damage to the former gardener who, according to doctors, may not survive beyond 2020.
A controversial judgment
However, this ruling does not answer a question, namely whether Roundup and Ranger Pro can actually be the cause of cancer and, if that is the case, Monsanto would deliberately omit such product information. In March 2015, the World Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (IARC) stated that the key element in the chemical composition of the Roundup is probably carcinogenic to humans. Monsanto, for its part, responded by stating that, according to studies conducted by the company, glyphosate is safe. The impossibility of proving this, however, cost Monsanto the company compensation to the worker. The ruling in Johnson’s favour now opens the door to thousands more similar cases brought by people who have fallen ill with cancer as a result of the use of Monsanto products, owned by the German company Bayer. Herbicides with glyphosate Roundup and Ranger Pro are the main suspects of the diseases. According to the Californian jury, Monsanto “acted maliciously, threatening scientists who proclaimed the possible damage caused by glyphosate. He also never revealed to buyers the risks of using these herbicides. Monsanto’s lawyers have instead announced that they will appeal against the verdict. Meanwhile, at least another five thousand cases of victims are being examined by the courts.
The opinion of Humanitas
“Although apparently under accusation is the direct use of the powerful herbicide – specified Tronconi – what remains even more open is the question about the spread of the substance in the food chain and its real impact on the health of the general population. In the laboratory glyphosate causes genetic damage and oxidative stress, but in human studies carcinogenicity has not yet been demonstrated with absolute certainty.
“A study carried out with glyphosate administered to rats seemed to have demonstrated its carcinogenicity – continued the specialist -. However, the article published in 2012 was later withdrawn due to method problems. After careful analysis of the available evidence, the IARC Lyon has classified glyphosate in group 2 A, among the likely carcinogens. In the same category there are substances such as DDT and anabolic steroids, but also emissions from frying in high temperature oils, red meat, very hot drinks and emissions from the fire of domestic fireplaces fed by wood or biomass. In practice, these are substances for which there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans, but more significant evidence in tests with animals.
In particular, epidemiological studies on the possible activity of glyphosate in humans have indicated a possible slight increase in the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas among farmers exposed to this substance for work. In conclusion, the substance is suspected to be carcinogenic, but still requires controlled assessments and that they are conducted in a methodologically flawless manner in order to obtain clear and conclusive results, compared to what happened in the recent past.
The precautionary principle
“In Italy the so-called precautionary principle applies – concluded Tronconi -: not having definitive answers on the dangerousness or otherwise of this chemical product is severely restricted its use, with the withdrawal from the market of those products containing amine of tallow polietoxylate coupled with glyphosate (a combination that according to the EFSA report could be responsible for the toxic effects on humans). The success of glyphosate since the 1970s is due to a number of factors, including lower toxicity to humans than the herbicides in use at the time of its introduction: the product has very low soil penetration, is easily degraded, and there is very little likelihood that its residues will reach the aquifer. This is confirmed by its greater presence in surface waters and the low frequency of detection in wells.
Over time, however, there have been several risk assessments of glyphosate by government agencies; according to a 2017 Le Monde investigation, Monsanto attempted to influence many of these assessments.
The Californian ruling could lead to a faster and clearer statement of position, which could lead in a reasonably short time to a total and definitive ban on the use of this dangerous herbicide.