Which is Worse: California’s Legal Activism or WHO’s Bad Science?
By Richard Tren, TES Contributor
When it comes to innovation, particularly in the technology field, California has long been a leader, home to so many innovative companies that come up with services and products that make all of our lives better. California is also innovative when it comes to environmental trends, however those often end up being far less beneficial or benign. One such example is the recent jury award of a breathtaking $2.055 billion to a couple who claim that Bayer’s Roundup weed killer caused their cancers. Roundup isn’t just used by gardeners, but is very important in agriculture and Bayer, along with other companies, and indeed all of us, should oppose the ruling.
The latest court case comes after two other similar trials in California in which juries awarded massive awards to individuals and against Bayer, and reportedly 13,000 other lawsuits have now been filed. Here’s hoping these rulings will all be overturned on appeal as the underlying evidence upon which they are based is biased and unscientific.
The successful lawsuits against Roundup, also known as glyphosate, follow its classification as “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Glyphosate has been thoroughly researched and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with the regulatory authorities in Canada, the EU, Japan, and elsewhere. These agencies have failed to find evidence that it is the cause of cancer in humans.
The IARC, on the other hand, relied on far fewer studies than the EPA examined and effectively cherry-picked data by excluding studies that found glyphosate was noncarcinogenic to humans. To put the IARC ruling in perspective, the agency has evaluated thousands of chemicals and consumer products and has found that almost all of them are possible or probable carcinogens, including the coffee you may have enjoyed this morning. Worryingly, however, the IARC appointed Christopher Portier, as an adviser to its glyphosate assessment. As David Zaruk, a risk assessment specialist revealed, at the time Portier was in the pay from a law firm specializing in cancer class-action lawsuits. Now that the lawsuits are up and running, Portier appears as witness for the plaintiffs.
There is a historic parallel in this activist-led attack on glyphosate in the insecticide DDT, which was similarly smeared by biased science that ended up costing lives.
In 1962 Rachel Carson, published her famous book Silent Spring, which warned of a world without wildlife thanks to the widespread use of DDT. The insecticide was first used to control disease spreading insects like lice and malarial mosquitoes, but was later used by farmers to control agricultural pests. Carson claimed DDT was killing birds by thinning egg shells and was harming human life, causing cancers. The problem with Carson’s claims is that when they weren’t wildly exaggerated, they were entirely wrong.
Following the publication of Silent Spring, numerous other environmentalists and environmental groups began campaigning for the banning of DDT. In 1970 the Nixon administration created the EPA and the first action it took was to investigate DDT. Over a period of eight months the EPA held hearings with evidence presented for and against DDT. At the conclusion of the hearings, the presiding judge, Edmund Sweeney, correctly ruled that there was no scientific rationale for the banning of DDT. Regrettably the science didn’t matter and the EPA administrator, William Ruckelshaus overruled Sweeney and banned DDT for agricultural uses anyway. The banning was political and a direct result of environmentalist campaigns. Before the hearings even began, President Nixon was on record saying his administration would act against it.
Following the EPA’s banning of DDT in the U.S., most other countries followed suit. As it happens, newer and arguably more effective insecticides were on the market so the impact on agriculture was not as large as one might have expected. The impact on public health programs, however was substantial. A review of the minutes of World Health Organization (WHO) meetings reveals that numerous malarial countries complained bitterly that they were no longer able to get sufficient stocks of DDT and that the price of the insecticide had risen sharply. Unable to maintain indoor spraying programs to control malaria-spreading mosquitoes, the incidence of the disease, which had been on the decline, started to rise so that by the 1990s around one million people, mostly children, were dying of the disease every year.
A less reported impact of the anti-DDT activism has been a dearth in investment in new public health insecticides. With little to no prospect of generating profits in the small public health sector, and with substantial and costly regulatory burdens, private companies shied away from developing chemicals specifically for public health. The current suite of new public health insecticides are all repurposed from agriculture, and substantially more expensive than the older ones which are less effective thanks to insecticide resistance.
Glyphosate is obviously different to DDT in many respects, but there are important similarities. While DDT was most useful in public health, glyphosate is important in agriculture, and as poor and developing countries work to expand agriculture to feed their growing populations, effective, safe chemicals are essential. If safe, affordable, and effective chemicals like glyphosate are litigated out of existence, millions will inevitably suffer. And if venture capitalists and other investors shy away from investing in new chemicals, global food security could be harmed.
If the trial lawyers are successful in their cases against glyphosate, who knows what they will target next. The idea of these lawyers using faulty science to go after the chemicals that make our modern lives possible in search of their profit is truly chilling.
Bayer has an incentive to fight the outrageous California lawsuits, but we should all be concerned that science is being perverted in this outrageous way.
Richard Tren is a writer based in Washington, D.C.