Glyphosate is one of the most popular and notorious herbicides used in the United States. Glyphosate was patented – under the name of Roundup – by the agrochemical giant Monsanto (now owned by Bayer AG) in 1974 and has been one of the best-selling herbicides since that date. Glyphosate is used on many crops, but it is most known for its use on corn and soy. More recently though, it is better known as the center of several million-dollar lawsuits. 

In these lawsuits, the plaintiffs alleged that the use of Roundup led to their development of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and, in most cases, that Monsanto had failed to provide its consumers with adequate warning of the product’s cancer-causing potential. To date, three Roundup cases have gone before a jury and large multi-million-dollar judgments have been awarded. The basic details of these cases are described below.

Major Cases

  1. Dewayne Johnson v. Monsanto Co.
  • From 2012 to 2015 Dewayne Johnson used Roundup consistently in his job as the Integrated Pest Manager for a school.
  • While at work one day, a sprayer full of Roundup broke, soaking Johnson in the substance. He was later diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. 
  • Mr. Johnson claims that Roundup was the cause of that cancer as the product poses a significant cancer risk and was improperly labeled to reflect that. 
  • Court awarded Johnson $289 million – later cut down to $78 million.
  • This decision is being appealed currently. 

2. Edwin Hardeman v. Monsanto Co.

  • Mr. Hardeman used Roundup to treat the plants at his house from 1986 through 2012.
  • In 2015, Mr. Hardeman was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and pointed to Roundup as a cause. 
  • The court awarded him $25 million. 

3. Pilliod v. Monsanto Co.

  • Alva and Alberta Pilliod used Roundup at their residence for over 30 years. 
  • Alva was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2011 and Alberta was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2015. They placed the blame on Roundup alleging that it caused the cancer and that the company failed to provide a warning that it did so. 
  • The Pilliods eventually received a reduced judgment of $87 million. 
  • The case is currently being appealed.

While only three cases have gone before a jury, there are over 10,000 pending cases against Bayer AG and its product Roundup. Juries have found enough evidence to support blaming Roundup for causing cancer and Monsanto for not warning its customers. However, the world’s largest scientific bodies are divided on whether Roundup does cause cancer. 

Differing Opinions

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken a very public stance against the claim that glyphosate causes any type of cancer. The EPA has even listed on its website their belief in an entire section titled Human Health. In this section, the EPA claims that there is no evidence of glyphosate causing cancer, making specific note of how much more extensive its testing process was than that of the International Agency on the Research of Cancer – an agency that does claim glyphosate causes cancer. Furthermore, the EPA goes so far as to claim glyphosate causes no risk to human health as long as the directions on the product are followed.

This stands in contrast to the stance taken by the International Agency of the Research of Cancer (IARC). In 2015, the IARC classified glyphosate (PDF) as “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on both human and animal evidence. The human evidence was classified as limited while the animal evidence was classified as sufficient. With two of the largest health bodies disagreeing on whether or not glyphosate caused cancer, the use of Roundup drew even more national attention. 

A paper was published in 2019 in the periodical Environmental Sciences Europe that outlined why the two organizations found different results. The paper cites three central reasons for the differing results. First, the EPA’s study focused mostly on glyphosate traces that would be found in food and other means of normal exposure and did not take into account the higher levels of risk associated with higher than average glyphosate exposure from certain occupations and activities. The IARC’s study did account for the higher levels of exposure though. Second, the EPA relied primarily on unpublished regulatory studies while the IARC relied mostly on peer-reviewed studies. Finally, the EPA conducted most of its studies using isolated glyphosate – the compound itself – while the IARC conducted most of its studies using glyphosate-based herbicides. While the paper pointed out the differences in the findings of the agencies and had its critiques for the methods used, it ultimately concluded that the debate on the whether or not glyphosate causes cancer is likely to continue.

Are there Any Limits on Usage?

With the world undecided on whether or not Roundup causes cancer, there seems to be nothing keeping Bayer AG from continuing to stock the shelves of stores with Roundup (assuming the stores choose to carry it). However, some countries have issued an outright ban on glyphosate or have heavily restricted its use. Among them are the countries of Portugal (whose president is an advocate for a worldwide ban of glyphosate), Belgium, Colombia, France, and India. Other countries, such as Austria, Germany, and Canada have either issued partial bans or have issued bans that will take effect in the coming years. 

The United States is absent from the above list despite being the home of all of the major Roundup lawsuits. There are currently no national bans – nor any plans for national bans – against the use of Glyphosate in the U.S. However, some cities have taken matters into their own hands and have issued specific ordinances that restrict the use of Glyphosate. Several cities in California for example have discontinued the use of glyphosate following the large verdicts mentioned earlier. Some cities, such as Austin, Texas and Middletown, Connecticut have taken a less aggressive approach and banned glyphosate only on city-owned and municipally owned land. However, the use of glyphosate is still largely unrestricted in most U.S. cities. 

There are some tolerance restrictions issued by the EPA concerning the amount of allowable glyphosate residue on foods. These limits can be found in Title 40 of the United States Code of Federal Regulations under section 180.364 titled Glyphosate; tolerances for residues. If any Glyphosate residue is found on a commodity in excess of the limit listed in the Code of Federal Regulations, that commodity will be seized by the United States Government. The EPA also notes that trace amounts of glyphosate may be present on certain commodities, but that those amounts should not be of concern. Outside of the specific bans in certain cities and the residue limit excess enforced by the EPA, glyphosate use is not limited in the United States. 

What Happens Next?

With organizations like the EPA and IARC reaching opposite conclusions, it seems unlikely that the world will have a unified opinion on glyphosate any time soon. It does not seem that we will have a clear answer. What is clear though, is that in the coming months and years, there will be no shortage of glyphosate related cases. With over 10,000 cases pending against Bayer AG involving Roundup, this controversy is far from over.