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By Greg Barnes
Class-action lawyers have been circling on social media since a jury decided earlier this month that a California couple deserves more than $2 billion for the cancer they say was caused by using Roundup on their lawns for more than three decades.
The verdict against Monsanto, the maker of the country’s most widely used herbicide before it was bought by Bayer last year, was the third since last summer. An estimated 11,000 more cases are waiting in the wings. Judging by the number of lawyers on social media hoping to make it rain, that number seems destined to climb.
“Have you been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from Roundup?” a Charlotte law firm asks in one of scores of ads circulating on the Internet. “Roundup’s active ingredient glyphosate has been linked to an increased risk of developing … lymphatic cancers.”
The assessment that glyphosate causes cancer continues to be the subject of fierce debate among scientists, lawyers, regulators and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Lawyers for the couple who won the $2 billion verdict based their lawsuit partly on a 2015 study by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which found that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
But as recently as last month, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency announced it “continues to find that there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label and that glyphosate is not a carcinogen.”
The EPA contends that its “cancer evaluation is more robust than IARC’s evaluation,” and more transparent.
Other research, including the Agricultural Health Study, have also found no link between glyphosate and cancer, as long as the chemical is used properly.
For more than a quarter of a century, the Agricultural Health Study has tracked about 90,000 farmers and their spouses who apply pesticides in North Carolina and Iowa. The study is a collaborative project of the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the EPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Conclusions based on the study were published in 2017 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The study found that “no association was apparent between glyphosate and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including NHL (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and its subtypes. There was some evidence of increased risk of AML (acute myeloid leukemia) among the highest exposed group that requires confirmation.”
John Allran, an environmental toxicologist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, calls the Agricultural Health Study one of the world’s most “powerful epidemiology studies.”
Allran is among those who believe the risks of applying glyphosate are negligible, as long as farmers follow the labels.
“Glyphosate is probably the most scrutinized, intensively evaluated pesticide regarding cancer risk,” Allran said.
Yet Robin Tutor, director of the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute headquartered at East Carolina University, and many others believe that the research involving glyphosate remains inconclusive. The institute promotes health and safety of farmers, fisherman and foresters and their families through research, education and prevention.
Alexis Luckey, executive director of Toxic Free NC, believes the debate continues largely because of a lack of longitudinal studies.
“We may not know the full answer to that question about glyphosate’s ubiquitous presence in our lives for a few more decades, as happened with DDT,” said Luckey, whose nonprofit organization advocates for a precautionary approach to pesticides.
The insecticide DDT, which is listed by the IRAC as a possible carcinogen, was used for decades in the United States before the EPA banned it in 1972 because of its potential health risks to people and wildlife.
Luckey said the U.S. regulatory system evaluates chemical safety on a risk-assessment model, basing many of its conclusions on the toxicological evidence submitted by chemical manufacturers. Regulatory testing does not account for the toxicity of pesticides after they break down, the effects of multiple kinds of exposures over time or how non-active ingredients may impact toxicity, she said.
“Farmers, pesticide applicators, developing children, and pregnant women will pay the cost of being human guinea pigs,” Luckey said in an email. “Many people assume that because something is on the market, it has been tested for safety. There are more than 80,000 chemicals currently used in the U.S., and most of these haven’t been adequately tested for their effects on human health.”
Luckey’s organization was among those that tested for pesticides in food at the nation’s largest grocery store chains — Walmart, Costco, Kroger and Albertsons. Among the findings, released in February, were that glyphosate was detected in all samples of oat cereal and pinto beans purchased in 15 cities, including Raleigh.
The average level of glyphosate found in cereal samples was more than twice the level set by scientists at the Environmental Working Group for lifetime cancer risk for children, according to Toxic Free NC.
Clayton farmer’s cancer
Jay Vinson, a 10th-generation farmer who lives near Clayton, doesn’t know whether his testicular cancer was caused by a long exposure to pesticides.
He rattled off some of the pesticides his family uses — glyphosate, Prefix, chlorpyrifos, and many others — on farming operations that span about 1,500 acres in Johnston County.
Vinson graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree in business in 2004. He worked for a year in the banking industry before he decided that his real love was farming.
About eight years after returning to the fields, Vinson was diagnosed with cancer, undergoing surgery and weeks of painful chemotherapy. His doctor said Vinson is in remission now, at age 38. He returns to the doctor every three months for a checkup.
A study published in 2011 found that British pesticide users may have an increased risk of non-melanoma skin cancer, testicular cancer and multiple myeloma. Vinson said his father suffered from skin cancer, and a neighboring farmer has testicular cancer.
Although there is no proof that pesticides caused Vinson’s cancer, there is ample evidence that some pesticides are so dangerous to human health that they have been banned or restricted to narrow uses.
Vinson has used one of those pesticides — chlorpyrifos — for years. The EPA banned chlorpyrifos in 2015. The Trump administration lifted the ban, only to see a federal appeals court rule against that decision last month. Research shows the chemical has the potential to damage brain development in children. Earlier this month, California banned the use of chlorpyrifos.
Vinson said he still uses the pesticide because it is so effective in killing fire ants and other pests.
He said he has been much more careful in handling pesticides since his cancer diagnosis, but he admits that there is no way to prevent himself from coming into contact with the chemicals, especially when he is in a hurry.
“There is no safe way to use chemicals,” Vinson said.
It’s not for lack of trying. Workers at the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and countless other agencies across the country devote their lives to keeping people safe from pesticides.
That in itself illustrates the health dangers many of these chemicals pose.
Farmers are healthier
The Agricultural Health Study has found that the 90,000 participants in its study are, overall, healthier than the general population, at least partly because they smoke less and are more physically active.
The study says participants are less likely to die from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and lung and liver diseases.
That said, the study did point to pesticides that are known to cause disease. It found that farmers who used the pesticides rotenone or paraquat developed Parkinson’s disease about 2.5 times more often than those who never used either pesticide. Both chemicals have been banned in other countries, but not in the U.S.[sponsor]
The study also found that farmers have a higher risk for developing prostate cancer and that the risk of diabetes and thyroid disease may increase for users of some organochlorine chemicals, which “are known for their high toxicity, slow degradation and bioaccumulation,” according to a report published in 2017 in Interdisciplinary Toxicology.
Another study, Preventing Agricultural Chemical Exposure in North Carolina, or PACE, has been researching the effects of pesticides on farmworkers since 1997. The study has found consistently higher lifetime and residential pesticide exposure among Latino farmworkers, compared with nonfarm workers.
And a study published last month in Scientific Reports found negligible effects of glyphosate exposure on gestating rats, but it reported “dramatic increases” to their future generations, including “prostate disease, obesity, kidney disease, ovarian disease, and parturition (birth) abnormalities.”
With more research into the effects of pesticides on humans and the environment comes more opposition to their use from environmental groups. The Natural Resources Defense Council is calling for a ban of “all unsafe pesticide uses,” citing the glyphosate and chlorpyrifos issues, as well what it says is the loss of more than 40 percent of honeybee colonies since 2017.
Luckey, the director of Toxic Free NC, said the issue of pesticide misuse worsens as farmers use ever more chemicals to combat the growing problem of weed and insect resistance.
Luckey sees a huge economic opportunity in expanding organic farming. She believes such a shift away from pesticides would be scalable, pointing to successes in eastern North Carolina.
But while opportunities exist in growing more organic food in North Carolina, ridding the state of pesticide use seems little more than a pipe dream today. North Carolina has an estimated 48,000 farms, all of which use pesticides. In 2015, those farms contributed $12.6 billion to the state’s economy.
Besides killing weeds, harmful insects and plant diseases, pesticides substantially increase farmers’ yields. Without pesticides, more than half of the world’s crops would be lost to pests and diseases, according to CropLife International.
Vinson said he likes the idea of organic farming, he just doesn’t see it as feasible on his farm. For one thing, he said, he’d have to take his fields out of production until the pesticide residue is gone. That could take years.
“I know we need pesticides, and I know we need safe restrictions, and I think we are getting there,” he said.