In a landmark decision, a jury found the chemical company Monsanto responsible for a man’s terminal cancer. The case focused on a popular weed killer used by millions of Americans. But Monsanto’s epic loss, may have been sealed by inside documents exposing a disturbing use of slanted science. Lisa Fletcher has the story.
CBS: Environmental groups are applauding the landmark ruling.
NBC: This morning, fall-out from a monumental verdict.
Litzenburg: I don't think anybody in their wildest dreams thought that we would get such a potentially world changing verdict.
Attorney Timothy Litzenburg represented Dwayne “Lee” Johnson -- a former school groundskeeper who routinely used Roundup -- the popular weed-killer you find at stores, on farms...And in homes all over the country.
Johnson is dying of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Lawyers - And the landmark case, put the blame on Monsanto - saying Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, caused his cancer.
Judge: Did you find by clear and convincing evidence that Monsanto acted with malice or oppression in the conduct upon which you base your finding of liability in favor of Mr. Johnson? Answer: Yes.
The jury awarded 289 million dollars to Johnson, saying Monsanto failed to warn the public about the risks of glyphosate. Months later, the judge upheld the decision, but reduced some of the damages, lowering the total to 78 million.
Monsanto told Full Measure, “the verdict does not change the fact that more than 800 scientific studies and reviews...Support the fact that glyphosate is safe for use.”
Some 5-thousand plaintiffs are now suing Monsanto...alleging exposure to Roundup caused them, or their loved ones, to develop cancer.
Litzenburg: I think there's plenty of evidence to convince juries all over the country, so we'll keep doing it.
Key to the case against Monsanto -- was testimony that the company polluted the science. As part of the discovery phase of Johnson’s trial, Monsanto turned over company correspondence, putting millions of internal emails and texts in public view.
Krimsky: When I understood there's litigation documents. I thought this is a, a trove, a treasure chest of information that the public should know about. They should know about what was behind the scenes in shaping the scientific viewpoint about glyphosate or Roundup.
Tufts University professor Sheldon Krimsky has been studying scientific ethics for 30 years. He sifted through the documents and published a paper with his findings.
Lisa: Was there one thing you saw that bothered you perhaps the most?
Krimsky: As a matter of doing business, believed it had the right to write articles and put other people’s name on the articles.
...Otherwise known as ghostwriting. A memo dated August 4, 2015, a Monsanto scientist summarized his work with the words, “ghost wrote cancer review paper.” A year later, an email from a different Monsanto scientist discussed “who should be the ultimate author” of two scientific papers to which he contributed, but was not listed as author.
Monsanto told Full Measure, “any allegation of ghostwriting is false.” Though in its email, Monsanto specifically cites only one article -- a review of glyphosate published in the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology in 2000...Saying that paper followed all standards and was not ghostwritten. The company did not address other examples cited in Krimsky’s paper.
Litzenburg: Monsanto has a lot of scientists under their thumb. They have certain go-to professors, academics, they will rely upon to counter the real science or any sort of anything against Monsanto.
But the question of real science has become something of an international debate. In 2015 --- the World Health Organization’s independent cancer research body .. the IARC.. classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
That agency’s research came under question in Congress... From House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith.
Smith: There appear to be serious problems with the science underlying IARC’s assessment of glyphosate...News media reveals evidence of data deletion, manipulation and draft assessments before final publication.
As recently as September - A statement from the US Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pesticides stated: “Roundup is not dangerous to humans despite continued public debate about its safety.”
Litzenburg questions the corporate connection.
Litzenburg: Drug companies are often cozy with the FDA. Monsanto and the EPA is in a whole other league. It’s incredible. In 2017, California Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu asked the EPA to address allegations that an EPA employee may have colluded with Monsanto “to conduct a biased review of glyphosate.”
The EPA's Inspector General responded -- asking the Office of Investigations to “conduct an inquiry.” More than a year later, no findings have been released.
Lisa: Should the EPA be held to account for these cozy relationships and the potential damage that it does?
Litzenburg: These companies have had their foot in the door for a long, long time and they developed these relationships over many years. Um, I'm not sure what the solution is except a big change at the political level.
Monsanto - now owned by Bayer - denies improper action with officials, saying its interactions with the agency are quote "routine, transparent and fully compliant with the law." There are allegations of bias and influence on both sides... so the fact is- it's hard to get at the facts when we're talking about big business...and it's even harder to rely on claims of science.