I am truly sorry that DeWayne Johnson is suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), but years of scientific research has determined that it is exceedingly unlikely, despite the outrageous verdict of a California jury on Friday, that he contracted NHL from using the herbicide glyphosate. Applying the relatively low standard of proof required in California civil courts that a claim is "more likely to be true than not true," the jury awarded Johnson a $289 million judgment including $250 million in punitive damages against Monsanto, the maker of the herbicide.
This is an injustice. So far every regulatory agency that has assessed the safety of glyphosate has concluded that it is unlikely to be a human carcinogen at doses at which people encounter the herbicide. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's December, 2017, draft human health risk assessment concluded that "glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans." The agency's assessment additionally found "no other meaningful risks to human health when the product is used according to the pesticide label."
Similarly, a 2015 evaluation of the herbicide by the highly precautionary European Food Safety Authority concluded that "glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans." Another EFSA review in May covering all crops treated with glyphosate included "a risk assessment which shows that current exposure levels are not expected to pose a risk to human health."
Specifically relevant to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a long run study of more than 50,000 licensed agricultural pesticide applicators in North Carolina and Iowa published in May reported that "in this large, prospective cohort study, no association was apparent between glyphosate and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including NHL and its subtypes."
So given the reams of solid scientific evidence for the safety of glyphosate, how did the jury get their verdict so wrong? Among other things, the court allowed Environmental Defense Fund activist Christopher Portier to mislead them by permitting him to serve as an expert witness for the plaintiff Johnson.
As I reported earlier, Portier chaired the Advisory Group to Recommend Priorities for the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which recommended that the agency evaluate glyphosate. He subsequently served as an invited specialist to the IARC group that evaluated studies related to glyphosate and the risk of cancer. In 2015, the IARC issued, partly as a result of Portier's influence, a scientifically flawed monograph that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
After he retired from National Center for Environmental Health, Portier began working in 2013 as a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an activist group that has long opposed many aspects of crop biotechnology and the use of glyphosate. In a 2014 letter to the journal Environmental Health Perspectives defending a scientifically discredited study on biotech corn, Portier listed only his affiliation with the IARC. The IARC did later disclose Portier's affiliation with EDF, but the agency apparently failed to consider the possibility that his work with anti-pesticide activist group might amount to a conflict of interest.
Just after the IARC issued its glyphosate monograph, Portier signed lucrative contracts with a couple of big civil litigation law firms to work as an expert witness asserting that glyphosate likely caused specific cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. These same law firms have now lined up thousands of clients claiming that glyphosate caused their cancers.
Jurors see the sympathetic plaintiffs before them and understandably want to help them and punish those who putatively caused them harm; thus a verdict of $289 million. But the jurors do not see the substantial harms caused by the possible removal of a safe herbicide from the market including lower crop productivity, increased soil erosion, additional deforestation, lower farm incomes, increased food prices, and the deployment of more dangerous herbicides.
Given the overwhelming scientific evidence that glyphosate is not carcinogenic, it is well beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury has been badly misled into getting its verdict wrong in this case.
Disclosure: The 100 shares of Monsanto that I bought with my own money have now been sold to Bayer.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.