OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - Monsanto says it wasn’t concerned about early epidemiological studies showing a possible link between the active compound in Roundup and cancer, but unsealed documents and emails paint a different picture.
Questioning Monsanto’s corporate representative William Reeves at a video deposition played in court on Wednesday, attorney Brent Wisner, who represents an elderly couple claiming Roundup caused their non-Hodgkin lymphoma, showed the jury unsealed emails showing mounting anxiety within the agrochemical company’s scientific ranks.
It began in 1999 with a study published by Dr. Lennard Hardell and Dr. Mikael Ericsson that found an increased risk for non-Hodgkin lymphoma following exposure to certain pesticides.
An email exchange between lead Monsanto toxicologist Dr. Donna Farmer and former Monsanto epidemiologist Dr. John Acquavella discussed the “growing index of concern for future epidemiological studies.”
But Reeves said he didn’t think Farmer and Acquavella were too worried at that point.
“We did not believe that the study provided concrete evidence,” he said.
But by the late 1990s, the National Cancer Institute was gearing up to release the first version of its massive Agricultural Health Study, a cohort study of about 89,000 licensed pesticide applicators and their spouses from Iowa and North Carolina.
In 1999, Farmer sent an email expressing concern about AHS.
“Many groups have been highly critical of the study as being a flawed study. In fact, some have gone so far as to call it junk science. It is small in scope. And the retrospective questionnaire on pesticide uses and self-reported diagnoses also from the questionnaire is thought to be unreliable, but the bottom line is scary. There will be associations identified between glyphosate use and some health effects just because of the way the study is designed,” she said.
Then in 2001, University of Saskatchewan researcher Dr. Helen McDuffie published a study of men who had been exposed to specific pesticides and non-Hodgkin lymphoma that showed an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma with exposure to glyphosate.
In a 1999 email to Farmer ahead of its publication, Acquavella said, “I’m afraid this could add more fuel to the fire for Hardell et al.”
He later sent an email to Farmer and Monsanto product safety assessment lead William Heydens, saying he would be attending a conference of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology where he intended to meet with McDuffie.
Acquavella later said of McDuffie, “She doesn’t seem to have any preconceived notions about glyphosate,” and that she had agreed to share the paper with him before publication.
In a celebratory email to Farmer, Acquavella said that all mention of glyphosate as a risk factor for non-Hodgkin lymphoma had been removed from the abstract of McDuffie’s paper.
“The fact that glyphosate is no longer mentioned in the abstract is a huge step forward,” Farmer replied. “It means it won’t be picked up in abstract searches.”
Wisner then pointed to a response from Acquavella that said, “It is a good result but not everything we wanted. However it won’t be picked up by the usual suspects because it’s not included in the abstract.”
Reeves, who was being questioned by Wisner about the email, said, “I don’t believe it being out of the abstract prevents people from finding it.”
Later in 2008, Mikael Eriksson published another study showing the doubling of the risk for non-Hodgkin lymphoma with exposure to glyphosate.
Responding to an email from Bayer executive Dean Nasser who sent her an article on the study, Farmer wrote, “We've been aware of this paper for a while and we knew it would only be a matter of time before the activists pick it up. I have some epi experts reviewing it. As soon as I have that review, we'll pull together a background to use in response.”
She then quotes part of the article in Beyond Pesticides, which recommends that people “Avoid carcinogenic herbicides in foods by supporting organic agriculture, and on lawns by using nontoxic land care strategies that rely on soil health, not toxic herbicides.”
“Here is their bottom line,” Farmer writes, adding, “How do we combat this?”
Wisner also played a video deposition of former Monsanto toxicologist Mark Martens, who was tasked with recruiting a well-respected fellow toxicologist to help promote glyphosate to regulators.
In 1999, Monsanto hired Dr. James Parry of Swansea University in Wales as a consultant. Parry was sent four Italian papers on glyphosate to review, and concluded that both glyphosate and an Italian formulation of Roundup was potentially genotoxic due to its production of oxidative damage in human lymphocytes. Parry recommended further testing.
Monsanto scientists were disappointed. Farmer speculated in a Sept. 2, 1999 email that Parry’s report was written by a graduate student, saying Parry had dug them into a “genetox hole.”
Monsanto employee Alan Wilson replied, “Two options [sic] work closely with Parry (i.e. someone other than Mark) or get someone else."
Testifying by video, Martens said his colleagues were more concerned with the way Parry presented the information than the information itself.
“The conclusions were well received but the form was not,” he said.
Heydens wrote on Sept. 16, 1999 that the report could be improved. “However, let’s step back and look at what we are really trying to achieve here," he said. "We want to find/develop someone who is comfortable with the genetox profile of glyphosate/Roundup and can be influential with regulators and Scientific Outreach operations when genetox issues arise. My read is that Parry is not currently such a person, and it would take quite some time and $$$/studies to get him there. We simply aren’t going to do the studies Parry suggests.”
The emails Wisner displayed on Wednesday are part of a large batch of documents unsealed in March 2017 by U.S. District Judge Vincent Chhabria, who presided over a federal trial that concluded last month with an $80 million verdict in favor of Ed Hardeman, a Bay Area man who used Roundup for 26 years.
A state court jury in August 2018 awarded San Francisco Bay Area groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million in damages – later reduced by a judge to $78 million – after finding Roundup caused his terminal non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
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