From vineyards to golf courses, from school grounds to home gardens, Americans take a unique pride in maintaining lush, green, weed-free landscaping. For decades, commercial weed killers like Roundup have played a major part in that process, allowing for easy application and nearly instant results.
But in the past few years, many gardeners, groundskeepers, and other agricultural employees have developed certain types of cancer at far higher rates than the general population. These cancers have been tied to glyphosate, one of the primary ingredients in Roundup weed killer.
In this article, you’ll learn more about the class action lawsuits proceeding against Roundup’s manufacturer, Monsanto, as well as how the use of glyphosate in other popular products may soon be coming to an end.
What is Roundup?
Even amid the current litigation, Roundup remains the most popular weed killer (or herbicide) in the world. Many of the insecticides and herbicides deployed after World War II, like DDT, were later banned after it was discovered they were toxic to wildlife and contaminated groundwater supplies.
But since its inception, Roundup has been marketed as the safest herbicide available for purchase. As a result, millions of homeowners, agricultural workers, and landscapers have been using it for years without so much as a pair of rubber gloves for protection.
Because most modern farms rely on machines to harvest crops, keeping weed growth down is crucial. Not only can threshing through weeds harm farm equipment, it often requires human workers to hand-sort the final product to ensure that only the edible crop is retained.
Vineyards focus on weed control for similar reasons, and for red wine producers (which use the grape skins to add color and flavor), using a herbicide marketed as ‘safe’ significantly reduces the risk that grapes will be contaminated.
Heavy use of Roundup isn’t just limited to agricultural workers. Golf courses throughout the country rely on weed killers to maintain greens. Because Roundup is better able than other herbicides to distinguish between grass and weeds, it can seem like a no-brainer for course owners who hope to avoid paying for sod. Many home gardeners also use Roundup to eliminate dandelions, keep weeds from bursting through a concrete patio or gravel driveway, or just to give their lawn a more streamlined, cleanly appearance.
Health Problems Attributed to Roundup
Scientific studies have exposed an association between the chemical glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. However, the link between glyphosate and cancer is still hotly debated and has been challenged by some federal governing bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified glyphosate as a “probable” carcinogen, the EPA claims that the typical consumer’s glyphosate exposure doesn’t exceed federal guidelines or increase the risk of contracting cancer.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a group of blood cancers that originate in the lymphatic system, is the sixth most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States each year. Although there are many treatment options for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, early diagnosis is key—and the disease’s fairly benign symptoms (like night sweats, fatigue, and weight loss) don’t always prompt a doctor’s appointment. Additionally, because non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma spreads through the lymph nodes, this cancer can metastasize or spread into other parts of the body more quickly than other types of cancers.
What Groups are Most Likely to Be Affected By Roundup?
While it’s tough to gauge just how much Roundup exposure is too much, those who have only applied Roundup a few times over the years are unlikely to develop glyphosate-related problems. However, those who work in the agricultural industry—like farmers, gardeners, day laborers, and greenskeepers—and who regularly use glyphosate-containing herbicides may be at a greater than average Roundup cancer risk.
Additionally, those who come into direct contact with Roundup by applying it without gloves, inadvertently breathing in herbicide mist, or walking through grass or crops to which Roundup has just been applied may have an even greater risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The Roundup Lawsuits
The recent revelation about glyphosate’s potential cancer-causing properties has spurred a range of litigation, from claims against Monsanto for marketing glyphosate as safe to claims against the State of California for indicating that glyphosate isn’t safe.
After the IARC issued its conclusion that there was a connection between glyphosate use and cancer diagnoses, thousands of plaintiffs throughout the U.S. who developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using Roundup filed personal injury lawsuits against Monsanto. While each claim is different, most cases levied the following accusations against Monsanto:
- Glyphosate exposure increases cancer risk;
- Monsanto knew of this increased cancer risk and failed to warn consumers; and
- Monsanto misrepresented the risks of using Roundup to consumers, the EPA, and the general public.
Currently, there are more than 11,000 Roundup-related lawsuits against Monsanto pending in state and federal courts throughout the country.
The first bellwether Roundup lawsuit was resolved in the plaintiff’s favor in August 2018, when a San Francisco jury returned a $289 million verdict (which was later reduced to $78 million) for a former school groundskeeper who regularly used Roundup on the job. In 2014, this groundskeeper suffered the second of two accidents that left him covered in liquid Roundup; it was only two years later that he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
A second bellwether lawsuit concluded in late March 2019, when a jury awarded the plaintiff $5 million in compensatory damages and another $75 million in punitive damages. Because punitive damages are usually capped at no more than 10 times the amount of compensatory damages, it seems likely that this punitive damages verdict (like the first bellwether verdict) will be reduced to $50 million or less on appeal.
The third bellwether lawsuit against Monsanto is still pending in a California state court. It involves two married plaintiffs who were both diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using Roundup for decades.
Even more trials against Monsanto are scheduled to proceed later in 2019, with two Missouri state lawsuits slated for the last half of the year. Because many of these lawsuits are in state courts, not federal courts, the potential range of damage verdicts can vary widely, making it tough for both plaintiffs and Monsanto to determine how much each claim is “worth.”
These bellwether lawsuits are designed to test the validity of the claims against Monsanto and make it easier to determine a range of appropriate damages. Many plaintiffs’ claims are similar, even though they’re being litigated in different courts. Choosing a few representative lawsuits and trying these cases first can give the parties an indication of how the other cases are likely to be decided without requiring them to litigate all 11,000+ Roundup cases individually.
Since the Roundup lawsuits have all been decided in the plaintiffs’ favor so far, it seems likely that Monsanto may decide to settle the rest of the lawsuits in lieu of defending against each of them.
Monsanto’s Lawsuit Against California
In an effort to defend against its use of glyphosate, Monsanto went on the offensive in California by filing a lawsuit against the state for including glyphosate in its Proposition 65 list of carcinogens. Monsanto continues to claim, in both this lawsuit and the Roundup litigation, that there is no causal connection between glyphosate and cancer. While the first two bellwether juries unanimously disagreed with this assertion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (as the below section discusses further) may be on Monsanto’s side here. However, California prevailed when this lawsuit was dismissed in 2018.
Allegations Against the EPA
The Roundup lawsuits have roundly criticized Monsanto’s use of glyphosate and its marketing of its product as “safe.” Also included in these allegations are claims against the U.S. government.
Six years ago, the EPA doubled the maximum “safe” glyphosate levels for food and oilseed crops (like soybeans and corn). But in the Roundup lawsuits, injured plaintiffs allege that EPA officials deliberately altered their research to favor Monsanto and make it easier for this global conglomerate to tout Roundup as a safe herbicide.
Between 2013 and 2016, the EPA issued a report in which it roundly declared that glyphosate wasn’t a carcinogen—shortly thereafter, this report was removed with a statement that the research wasn’t complete. And a court filing in 2018 alleges that some EPA scientists intimidated other EPA staff to edit or redact reports that would warn the public of glyphosate risks. So far, the EPA has denied these allegations.
Other Glyphosate Lawsuits Coming Down the Pike
The Roundup lawsuits may be the first step toward a wholesale attack against the use of glyphosate in a wide range of consumer products. Recently, Quaker Oats was sued for deceptive labeling when its oatmeal was revealed to contain traces of glyphosate. Although it’s unclear whether anyone has developed lymphoma as a result of this contamination, the brand’s claim that its oats are “all natural” seems to run counter to the use of a chemical herbicide like glyphosate.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began testing food products for glyphosate residue in February 2016, shortly after the IARC issued its study. In addition to its presence in Quaker Oats, glyphosate has been found in wine (including organic wine), baby food, honey, and other food products. But unless consumers can prove they were injured by consuming glyphosate, it seems likely that any legal claims will relate to marketing and labeling violations rather than personal injury.
Because Roundup continues to remain on the market, it’s tough to see an end to Roundup-related litigation in the near future. However, some cities and counties have already banned the use of glyphosate on public property, and a formula change (or a wide-ranging boycott) is probably not far behind.
Those who have regularly used Roundup over the last few years and who experience symptoms like fatigue, weight loss, sore lymph nodes, or unexplained lumps or bumps on the body should see a doctor to rule out a possible lymphoma diagnosis—and if non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is diagnosed, it may pay to consult with an attorney.