The debate around whether glyphosate causes lymphoma is raging on many fronts since the landmark decision by a California court found in favour of the plaintiff in the case of Dewayne Johnson vs Monsanto. The question of whether glyphosate (or glycophosphate), the active ingredient in the well-known herbicide Roundup®, causes lymphoma, has been the subject of public discourse and discussion forums. These issues need a thoughtful, common sense, honest and public response, which highlights the company as being ethical and transparent in their promotion of this vital product to farmers worldwide. By ethical we mean an adoption of standards and advice that go beyond the mere assertion of legal or scientific criteria that define ‘safe’, to common sense, man-on-the-land advice. This would clearly identify manufacturers who have the moral courage to do the right thing in terms of the needs and well-being of their customers.
Regarding the science behind the claims, the most comprehensive evidence synthesis done to date was published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015. The IARC report concluded that there was ‘limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate”. This is the basis for their position statement “Glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans”. Subsequently the IARC came under attack for their evaluation of glyphosate, to which they stood their ground and responded earlier this year in an open and transparent manner.
“The epidemiological evidence that glycophosphates are associated with an increased risk of lymphoma is very weak. This is why IARC class them as possibly carcinogenic. Furthermore if there were a risk it is modest and would not be big enough to conclude that it is more likely than not that in any given individual with lymphoma who was exposed to glycophosphates that the exposure was cause of their cancer.” (Paul Pharoah, Professor of cancer epidemiology, University of Cambridge)
Several studies on glyphosate and lymphoma can be accessed on PubMed, including four systematic reviews relevant to lymphoma and glyphosate, one of which also reviewed the IARC study. Overwhelmingly, these studies reported that the overall body of literature was “limited”, “inconsistent”, “associations were weak”, and therefore a causal link between exposure to glyphosate and lymphoma could not be established.
While opinions on the science abounds, what concerns me is the extrapolation that the ‘limited evidence’ is taken to mean that the chemical is safe. This is the classic fallacy upon which alternative remedies are promoted as efficacious―that of placing the burden of proof on the ‘no’ camp rather than where it belongs―on those promoting the product. One article published by the Conversation touted its safety, stating “Establishing whether a chemical can cause cancer in humans involves demonstrating a mechanism in which it can do so.” Respectfully I disagree. We do not need to demonstrate a mechanism before we established causality. We can hypothesize about the mechanism, and this helps to strengthen the argument, but it is not a necessary requirement to establish causality. A well-known example of this was the thalidomide disaster that shocked the world in the 1960s. Did we know what the mechanism of action of thalidomide was that led to birth defects before we acknowledged that it caused birth defects? No! In fact all we had was a very high degree of specificity between thalidomide and some very rare birth defects, and that was enough to establish causality and withdraw the drug from further use.
So what does the science tell us about glyphosate? Without a doubt the scientific evidence to support an association between lymphoma and glyphosate is suggestive but weak. Those who state that the California ruling shows ignorance of the science clearly do not understand that the ‘science’ on its own is inconclusive, and the legal ruling was evidently based on more than just the science.
This leads to my next concern; why did evidence surface that the company took steps to systematically attack any science or scientist that suggested their product was not safe. If it was “as safe as table salt”, then claims that they were trying to cover up evidence to the contrary should have had no bearing on the case. Lack of transparency and attempts to cover up information is generally a rather telling indicator of company ethical standards. Another concern I have is, can a chemical designed to kill something actually be considered to be less dangerous to humans than table salt???
I have worked with companies to help them understand the science behind the adverse events associated with drugs that led to litigation, and have reviewed published literature for scientific evidence to support expert testimony by those hired to front up in court. I have also reviewed company documents confiscated by the law firms involved in the litigation. There were instances where the scientific evidence from the published literature overwhelmingly supported a causal link between the drug and the adverse event in question. One of the cases that I worked on produced minimal evidence from the scientific literature to support the claim brought by the plaintiff, although I was expected to literally go through thousands of published articles. (Needless to say I could not in good faith continue this because this is not how evidence for causality works!!). However there was evidence in company documents that revealed an internal culture of covering up adverse event reports, and that regulatory authorities had levied fines for failure to report adverse events, which tends to raise red flags. In that particular case, although the scientific evidence was lacking, the jury found in favour of the plaintiff because the evidence of failure to be transparent about adverse events took centre stage in court proceedings.
Jurors are typically not scientists. They are down to earth common sense folk like you and I. Efforts to give the impression, if not an outright preparedness, of a willingness to blatantly deceive the public for their profit, as we recently witnessed in the Australian Banking inquiry, will inevitably come with a hefty price tag.
As with any product, regulatory authorities need to weigh up the benefits against the risks and state this in relative terms rather than definitive terms like ‘safe’ or ‘harmless’ because the public hears this and takes little or no precaution. The ultimate responsibility, however, resides with the manufacturer who would know their product better than any independent scientist.
It is critical that business giants, whether it is the financial, pharmaceutical, or agricultural sectors, recognize that they stand to lose more if they lack the moral courage to do the right thing by customers.
As individuals we need to take personal responsibility and assess potential long term health risks, because when it comes to our health, we are in control; to not do so can have grave consequences not only for ourselves but those we love. If the risk is 1 in 10,000, that ‘one’ may be you, and the probability of a bad outcome is no longer 0.01% but 100%. As consumers, we need to be aware that the use of chemicals on crops are a fact of life and observe the ‘all things in moderation’ approach. Foods we consume may be ‘safe’, but there are elements in anything that, if consumed in large enough quantities, will render them ‘unsafe’—not necessarily in and of themselves, but potentially in combination with genetic and environmental factors that may interact to trigger a disease or health condition.
Safe and effective weed control has huge benefits to the global agricultural industry, but along with the many occupational hazards associated with this industry, farmers using these products in large quantities and with long term exposure have the most to lose in terms of adverse health outcomes and loss of income from failed crops. If you are a farmer using glyphosate or any other chemical, it would be wise to take all possible precautions and suit up if necessary, wear masks and gloves to minimise physical contact with chemicals.
Those with the task of reviewing the science need to take a responsible balanced approach and realize that the ‘stop worrying and trust the evidence’ advice is naïve and simplistic. Frankly the research to date on glyphosate is saying only one thing – THE SCIENCE IS INCONCLUSIVE, but we cannot claim it is universally safe. We also don’t know if individual factors like genetic mutations combined with the cumulative effects of long-term exposure to glyphosate can trigger cancer. So until there are known markers that allow genetic testing for susceptibility, a common sense measure is to take all available precaution to ensure minimal physical exposure.
Those who have a responsibility to the public, whether for-profit companies or government regulators, need to first and foremost do what is true, honest, just, and as assessed by the man in the street, to be commendable. Point-of-sale distributors who work closely with farmers are often very knowledgeable about products and can offer guidance and advice on safety. Clear and accessible guidelines from manufacturers on how to take precautions to minimise exposure and risk are imperative with all ‘poisonous’ products — because absence of evidence is NOT evidence for absence.
At SugarApple Communications, our mission is to adhere to the highest ethical standards in the promotion of high quality research. Get in touch today and let’s talk.