Roundup Cancer Trial: Emails Show Monsanto Cozy With Feds

The chemical structure of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the Monsanto weed killer Roundup. (via Wikipedia)

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – As the trial over the world’s most widely used herbicide and its connection to a California couple’s cancer stretches into its third week, their attorney showed the jury more unsealed records showing a cozy relationship between the agrochemical company and U.S. regulators.

Attorney Brent Wisner, representing plaintiffs Alva and Alberta Pilliod, played video testimony of Monsanto corporate spokesman William Reeves in court Monday, in which he acknowledged Monsanto executives had exchanged text messages with regulators who sat on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency committee that found glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is not carcinogenic for humans.

The Pilliods’ legal team hopes these email and text exchanges will be enough evidence of collusion between Monsanto and the EPA to delay a review by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a public health agency connected to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma within four years of each other, claim Roundup was a substantial factor in causing their cancer. Both Alva and Alberta sprayed the herbicide for roughly 30 years on their properties, and they accuse Monsanto of covering up the product’s harms.

On June 18, 2015, Monsanto scientist Eric Sachs sent a text message to former EPA toxicologist Mary Manibusan, asking if she knew anyone in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“Yes. Where specifically?” Manibusan asked.

“On tox profiles,” Sachs said, referring to “toxicity.” The agency had been working on a toxicological profile of glyphosate on the heels of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s 2015 classification of the herbicide as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The U.S. agency had announced the review in February 2015 with a planned publication date that October.

“It’s been a while but I can. Sweetheart, I know lots of people so you can count on me,” Manibusan told Jenkins.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to keep from having a domestic IARC occur with this group. May need your help,” he said.

Wisner also showed the jury internal emails of Monsanto’s efforts to get the agency to wait with its review until after the EPA’s own re-evaluation/preliminary risk assessment of glyphosate.

On June 23, 2015, Dan Jenkins, Monsanto’s liaison to various U.S. regulatory agencies like the EPA, wrote in an email to colleagues saying that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry had assured Jack Housenger, at the time the director of EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, that it would put its report on hold.

“ATSDR Director and Branch Chief have promised Jack Housenger (Director of the US Office of Pesticide Programs) to put their report ‘on hold’ until after EPA releases its preliminary risk assessment (PRA) for glyphosate. EPA will not have the final meeting of its internal cancer review technical group until after the IARC monographs are published, and thus will not put out the PRA until after this (guessing this would mean around mid-August),” Jenkins wrote. “ATSDR has cited a GAO Audit report in arguing that their process is distinguishable and not duplicative. They look at different endpoints and told EPA they don’t ‘make a call on cancer’, but I think we should continue to be cautious. EPA will send me the name of the Branch Chief so that we can hopefully set up a meeting.”

In a response thanking Jenkins for the follow-up on June 24, Monsanto toxicologist William Heydens wrote, “‘Distinguishable and not duplicative’? Seriously? And I will believe the not ‘making a call on cancer’ part when I see it. Anyway, at least they know they are being watched, and hopefully that keeps them from doing anything too stupid …”

That same day, Jenkins replied: “Completely agree. Mary Manibusan told me yesterday that EPA has had several issues in the past with ATSDR coming to different conclusions. … She describes ATSDR as being VERY conservative and IARC like in this regard as well as the fact that they are hazard based.”

He then added, “Makes me very nervous.”

Earlier that year, Heydens sent Jenkins an email about dealing with “the IARC fallout.”

At the end of the message, Heydens said, “NOW THE QUESTION – What are your thoughts on approaching EPA and having a conversation, probably a generic one, about what area they see as most problematic (e.g., human epidemiology vs. animal bioassays vs. genetox) or just ask if there is anything that would help them defend the situation?”

In his reply, Jenkins suggested Heydens get in touch with Jesudoss “Jess” Rowland, a division director in the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs. Rowland was also chair of the EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee that was responsible for evaluating the carcinogenicity of glyphosate for the EPA.

“I think you and I could get on the phone w Jess Rowland and discuss this pretty openly. He’ll give us straight talk,” Jenkins said.

“That would be great Dan,” Heydens replied.

Jenkins responded the next day, telling Heydens that Rowland had called him up “out of the blue” asking for a contact name at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“He told me no coordination is going on and he wanted to establish some saying ‘If I can kill this I should get a medal’. However, don’t get your hopes up, I doubt EPA and Jess can kill this; but it’s good to know they are going to actually make the effort now to coordinate due to our pressing and their shared concern that ATSDR is consistent in its conclusions w EPA,” Jenkins wrote to Heydens.

In October, Jenkins also sent a text message to Monsanto executive Phillip Miller, at the time vice president for global regulatory and government affairs. “Remember that ATSDR said it would render its view in October as well,” he said. “Told EPA to please reach out and keep them aligned.”

Under video questioning from Wisner, Reeves could do little other than confirm the contents of the messages, but he did say, “I never heard anyone at the EPA say they were going to tell ATSDR what to do.”

The agency did not release its toxicological profile on glyphosate that October. In fact, it didn’t release its draft report until April 8, 2019, almost four years later. The report took a cautious approach, saying, “Numerous studies reported risk ratios greater than 1 for associations between glyphosate exposure and risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma or multiple myeloma; however, the reported associations were statistically significant only in a few studies.”

Rowland’s committee released its cancer assessment document on glyphosate on Oct. 1, 2015, finding “The epidemiological evidence at this time is inconclusive for a causal or clear associative relationship between glyphosate and NHL.”

Reeves said it has always been Monsanto’s position that there is no evidence linking Roundup and cancer. He cited, along with the EPA’s findings, reports from the European Food Safety Authority and European Chemicals Agency and conclusions by regulators in Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Australia that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.

The Pilliods’ lawyers are expected to wrap up their case next week, when Monsanto – now owned by German chemical giant Bayer AG – will bring in its own experts. 

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