Just a Weed Killer?

Earlier this month, a federal court ruled on whether Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide is capable of causing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma must be first determined before proceeding in a personal injury suit (Giglio v. Monsanto Co., 2016 BL 251362, S.D. Cal., No. 15-cv-2279, 8/2/16). The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California bifurcated the trial and limited the first round of pre-trial discovery to whether Roundup can cause harm, such as cancer. If causation can be shown, then the court will weigh specific injury to plaintiff. The plaintiff, Emanuel Richard Giglio, owned and operated a turf installation business and used Roundup on a regular basis in his work. Giglio alleges that his exposure to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, caused him to develop stage three non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Glyphosate is an active substance used for the production of pesticides and is the most frequently used herbicide worldwide. The term “pesticides” refers to a broad class of crop-protection chemicals: insecticides, which are used to control insects; rodenticides, which are used to control rodents; herbicides, which are used to control weeds; and fungicides, which are used to control fungi, mold and mildew. Glyphosate-based pesticides (i.e. formulations containing glyphosate and other chemicals) are used in agriculture and horticulture, primarily to combat weeds that compete with cultivated crops.

However, the United States is not the only country considering the health effects of the commonly used weed killer. Glyphosate has been thrust into the middle of a heated dispute between EU and US politicians, industry leaders, regulators, and activists. In 2015, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was in the process of reviewing glyphosate, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—which independently gathers health data for the World Health Organization—declared glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen.”  Then in May 2016, U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) stated glyphosate was unlikely to pose a risk to people exposed to it through food.

The contradictory findings have spurred debate and have delayed the license for glyphosate, which expired June 30, 2016. EU member states failed to reach agreement on the renewal of the herbicide, and the European Commission were forced to temporarily grant an 18-month extension to glyphosate’s authorization in the EU.  Furthermore, new rules which restrict the conditions around the use of glyphosate in the European Union are to come into effect. These new restrictions around the use of the herbicide will apply for the duration of the 18-month extension until the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) issues its opinion on the herbicide.

Glyphosate will continue to be at the center of debate for the next couple of years, as the EU and US await further studies on its likely impact on human and environmental health.