Why a whammy of a settlement isn’t changing Oregon’s use of glyphosate

In the months since our story on the use of glyphosate by Oregon cities, studies continue to be published that suggest concerns about the herbicide for human health. In August, a California jury awarded a school groundskeeper nearly $300 million for terminal cancer attributed to the chemical.

But glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed-killer Roundup, remains available to people in grocery and hardware stores in Salem, and Oregon State University’s Pesticide Safety Program hasn’t changed the way it teaches about the herbicide.

Because the future of the chemical is in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency, it is doubtful this apparent disconnect will change any time soon.

City of Salem worker sprying RoundUp in Salem parks

Recent research and an explosive court case

Several peer-reviewed papers on glyphosate were published in the respected scientific journal Environmental Health in May. One was a study of rats who were exposed daily to the chemical according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acceptable daily dietary exposure level. The study showed that the herbicide altered certain important biological aspects of the animals related to sexual development and was destructive to the genetic material of their cells.

Earlier in the year, a study of pregnant women, also published in Environmental Health, showed that those with high levels of the chemical in their bodies were more likely to have shorter pregnancies – which could hinder the brain development of their babies.

This peer-reviewed research came on the heels of dozens of studies documenting health issues, including connections with cancer, with glyphosate. Likely the most important of these is the 2015 review by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which found that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen.”

Cancer patients have filed more than 2,400 lawsuits against Monsanto, Roundup’s manufacturer, to this date. The plaintiffs in these lawsuits are generally groundskeepers for cities and schools and farmers who handle the herbicide on a regular basis.

The first to have his day in court was Lee Johnson. Johnson was a groundskeeper for a school district in California who noticed a severe rash several years after he began spraying Roundup as part of his work. The rash evolved into terminal cancer of the lymphatic system, non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Johnson blamed glyphosate.

One who testified at trial was Dr. Charles William Jameson, an animal toxicology expert. Jameson supported the IARC’s finding and said that research on animals consistently show that glyphosate causes cancer.

On August 10, the jury in Johnson’s trial awarded him $289.2 million. $250 million of that was punitive damages.




It’s everywhere

Studies show it is almost impossible to avoid glyphosate. A 2014 survey by Boston University found levels of it in numerous samples of honey – including 46% of the “organic” honey that was tested. A 2018 study by Alexis Temkin found that glyphosate was found at levels deemed unsafe by the Environmental Working Group – in 96% of tested oat products like granola and oatmeal. Traces of the chemical are even found in rainfall.

So it’s not be surprising that last year a University of California study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association who followed people over the age of 50 for about 20 years discovered that the percentage of people who tested positive for glyphosate increased by 500% in that time, and glyphosate levels shot up more than 1000%.

Lack of clarity

The reason the glyphosate isn’t universally banned is that scientific consensus is a tricky thing to reach and the studies damming it are disputed. Monsanto, including during Johnson’s trial, rejects the methods used by those who connect the chemical with cancers, rejects studies that show it remains in the ground and water – rejects even some studies that use animals.

For their part, environmentalists and scientists charge Monsanto with influencing data to suggest that glyphosate is harmless, with ghostwriting and meddling in research to hide the dangers of their product. Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request last year suggested inappropriate contact between the chemical manufacturer and government employees who were investigating its product.

An internationally watched lawsuit

As Johnson’s trial proceeded, a federal judge in Brazil ruled that herbicides containing glyphosate would have their registration suspended and new glyphosate products could no longer be registered.

On August 13, the German environment minister called to terminate the use of the weed killer. France’s environmental minister said it should be banned, and Italy’s deputy prime minister said the same.

An unchanged Oregon

But in the weeks since the Johnson decision OSU, which educates pesticide applicators across Oregon, has not removed glyphosate from its curriculum and local Fred Meyers still carry Roundup on their shelves.

There are reasons for this. First, scientists know that jurors are not scientists and are likely to act on emotion, not reason. But more importantly, universities like OSU and state agencies like the Oregon Department of Agriculture rely on peer-reviewed consensus and it’s not as easy as one would suppose – even with numerous studies by respected institutions – to “prove” that something “causes” cancer or other health damages.

This is especially true when some studies and some governmental agencies, including the National Toxicology Program, have found the chemical to be non-carcinogenic or otherwise predominantly harmless. 

Kaci Buhl, statewide Pesticide Safety Education Program coordinator and Associate Professor of Practice at OSU directs the training of over 1,000 licensed pesticide applicators in our state each year. Many of those applicators work for cities, schools, and municipalities.

Buhl says OSU does not take an official position for or against glyphosate since its mission is to educate, not to legislate, but adds that all applicators are trained that no pesticide is completely harmless.

“If the preponderance of peer-reviewed studies shifts and glyphosate is found toxic, the EPA would be the first to research it,” says Buhl.

This is because the EPA does risk assessment of chemicals while the Oregon Department of Agriculture – which regulates pesticides in the state – does not.

“The EPA examines pesticides every fifteen years, “ says Buhl, “and glyphosate is actually under review at this time.”

The structure of the way chemicals are evaluated in the United States and the burden of scientific consensus means that despite studies that show glyphosate’s toxicity and a court settlement of enormous size, it may be a long time before there is any change in the chemical’s presence in Oregon.