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Published: 26 October 2018
Author: Creon Coolahan

Is Glyphosate the new asbestos?

In August this year a San Francisco Court awarded a terminally-ill former groundskeeper US$289 million dollars in compensation from Monsanto, maker of the ubiquitous Roundup weedkiller.

Dewayne Johnson was the first person to take Monsanto to trial and was able to obtain a finding from a jury that Roundup caused his cancer, but also that Monsanto failed to warn him of the health hazards from exposure to Roundup and “acted with malice and oppression”. According to Mr Johnson’s lawyers, there are about 4000 similar lawsuits against Monsanto that are pending in America. Mr Johnson’s lawyers issued a triumphant statement at the conclusion of the case in the following terms:

“We were finally able to show the jury the secret, internal Monsanto documents proving that Monsanto has known for decades that ... Roundup could cause cancer...”.

The verdict sent a “message to Monsanto that its years of deception regarding Roundup is over and that they should put consumer safety first over profits.”

The active ingredient in Roundup (and indeed many other brands of herbicide) is Glyphosate. In 2015 the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that Glyphosate “was probably carcinogenic to humans”. The IARC gave evidence in Mr Johnson’s jury trial and scientific evidence was put before the jury.

Continued use of Glyphosate questioned

Despite the opinion expressed by the IARC, Glyphosate continues to be used around the world except in Brazil, where a Court ordered a ban.

In Australia, the Cancer Council of Australia has this month called for an independent review to be undertaken into the safety of using Glyphosate. The Cancer Council noted that there had not been an independent review undertaken in Australia in over 20 years, and quoted the IARC’s opinion which the Cancer Council lauded as “independent”.

More locally The Warrnambool Standard ran an article on 22 August 2018 titled "Glyphosate ban ‘disastrous'." The Chairman of Grain Producers Australia, Mr Andrew Weidemann, was quoted as saying: “From my perspective you’ve got strong science-based regulatory system[s] in place that have all concluded glyphosate can be safely used but there is the problem with legal systems ruling on product safety, which is not their remit.”

In our view, Mr Weidemann’s statement misstates the role of legal systems. Legal systems have for a long time made rulings on product safety. Coroner’s Courts across the world embark on investigations of product safety and use forensic medicine to ascertain the causes of death every day. Indeed Mr Johnson’s jury trial involved a very close examination of the science linking Glyphosate to Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Tort law (the laws pertaining to civil wrongs such as those used by Mr Johnson) often leads the way in reforming corporate and government attitudes to product safety regulation.

In light of Warrnambool City Council’s recent decision to suspend the use of Roundup pending an investigation into the use of alternative means of weed control and the safety of Roundup, we echo the Cancer Council of Australia’s call for an independent review into the risks posed by the use of Glyphosate so as to provide clear guidance to the community and regulators alike.