Wednesday, October 23

Alum wins lawsuit against Monsanto for hiding side effects of pesticides

Alumnus Brent Wisner said Dewayne Johnson regularly used Roundup while working as a groundskeeper for Benicia Unified School District. He received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma after two years of regular exposure. (Courtesy of Todd Cheney)

Alumnus Brent Wisner said Dewayne Johnson regularly used Roundup while working as a groundskeeper for Benicia Unified School District. He received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma after two years of regular exposure. (Courtesy of Todd Cheney)

Correction: The article incorrectly stated Roundup can only be used on genetically modified crops. In fact, it can be used to kill weeds.

This post was updated Nov. 8 at 10:14 a.m.

A UCLA alumnus helped win a lawsuit against agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto, whose herbicide Roundup has been linked to cancer cases throughout the United States.

Michael Baum, who graduated from UCLA School of Law in 1985, said he worked with a team of experienced attorneys, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., to find scientific evidence that linked Roundup to cancer in a January 2016 lawsuit.

The jury returned a verdict in Baum’s favor in August.

Roundup is a general herbicide that uses a molecule called glyphosate to disrupt enzyme pathways, Baum said. To reduce damage to crops, Monsanto worked with researchers to develop genetically modified corn that is resistant to Roundup. For this reason, Roundup is used on specially genetically modified, glyphosate-resistant crops. Monsanto’s researchers claimed glyphosate was harmless to mammals, which use different enzyme pathways than plants.

“Monsanto promoted Roundup for years as safer than table salt,” Baum said.

Their research uncovered that the same properties that allow Roundup to penetrate the surfaces of plants also allow it to penetrate human skin and damage DNA. Baum, who also received a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA in 1982, said this motivated the jury to order Monsanto to pay $289.2 million in damages.

Brent Wisner, who graduated from UCLA in 2005 before attending Georgetown Law School and worked with Baum on the case, said the long-term toxicity of Roundup came to light over time, culminating in the lawsuit filed by Dewayne Johnson.

Wisner said Johnson regularly used Roundup while working as a groundskeeper for Benicia Unified School District. He received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma after two years of regular exposure. Despite numerous attempts to contact Monsanto, the corporation refused to acknowledge that Roundup could be linked to cancer. Finally, when his cancer worsened to a terminal diagnosis, he had no choice but to file a lawsuit, Wisner said.

“He went from having something he could live through to a death sentence,” Wisner said.

Pedram Esfandiary, another attorney who worked with Baum and Wisner on the case, said Monsanto repeatedly hid evidence from the public that linked Roundup to cancer. The corporation even went so far as to hire employees to ghostwrite articles in response to concerns that Roundup was genotoxic, or harmful to DNA.

“In this case, we have troves of documents where Monsanto demonstrates their knowledge … that they have a problem with their product,” Esfandiary said.

Baum said he worked with his team to uncover Monsanto’s own documents and emails to prove that it covered up studies proving Roundup’s toxicity. Many of the company’s internal emails demonstrate employees’ blatant disregard for Proposition 65, which requires specific labels to warn consumers that glyphosate is a potential carcinogen, he said.

“A (Roundup) distributor in California wrote an email to the head of sales and said, ‘In California, we’re being overrun by liberals and morons, and we’re going to have to take them out one by one,’” Baum said.

Baum added although his team won the case, he felt disappointed to learn that a judge later reduced the reward to $78 million because she believed the original award was too high. He said the jurors, many of whom have strong scientific backgrounds, presented legally astute arguments against this reduction. He plans to appeal the reduction and he said he is willing to do so multiple times on Johnson’s behalf.

Baum said his work on this case is not yet finished. Seven more trials are set for 2019 against Monsanto involving complaints similar to Johnson’s. Baum said he hopes to change policies regarding the use of Roundup. The European Union took into account the evidence compiled by his team in its policymaking decisions, and has moved toward banning Roundup throughout Europe, Baum said.

“When Europe got our documents, it changed European policy on use of herbicides, particularly Roundup, and it stopped the vote (on glyphosate usage),” he stated.

Baum said nonorganic foods in the U.S. contain glyphosate, meaning these foods are potential carcinogens. He said future lawyers must work with legislators to implement regulations to prevent this chemical from entering the diets of ordinary people, especially children.

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  • JJ

    I wouldn’t be so excited about this. Basically these guys are ambulance chasers that talked a liberal jury into something it didn’t prove…..that Roundup causes cancer….which it doesn’t.

  • spritelymiss

    Not sure how much evidence you need, what your analytical abilities are, or what your conflicts of interest are, but it’s as clear as day that glyphosate (and especially the product formulation of Roundup-which includes several toxic synergists-like cell membrane penetrants and dispersants) can cause cancer in individuals who are either: (1) exposed regularly to this chemical at home, at work, or recreationally (e.g. golf courses and parks); OR (2) have genetic variants/polymorphisms that make them unable (or less able) to efficiently process xenobiotic compounds. While the genetics around this are relatively new, it appears that anywhere from 15% to 33% of the population is particularly sensitive to pesticide toxicants that are designed to interfere with basic biological pathways. Now, you AND Monsanto can bury your head in the sand and throw tantrums about how safe your poisons are, but that won’t make it true, and it most certainly won’t prevent people and animals from needlessly suffering at the hands of these poison products. Ever heard of ethics? Rather than spending money to bully and bribe its way to a hollow (and temporary) “victory” against human life, maybe Monsanto should take a look in the mirror and realize that it’s the most hated company on Earth for a reason. It needs a new playbook, and no, that doesn’t mean buying off more Boy Scout troops or Conservancies who agree to use their herbicides on massive amounts of land in the name of a horticultural ethnic cleansing (i.e. eradicating “invasives”). Monsanto and the people who love them strike me as having little to no human empathy. If it hasn’t happened to you, then it’s basically not happening.

    • JJ

      They have over 800 studies that support that Roundup doesn’t cause cancer. Including the newest one, a long term study with Pesticide applicators that also shows it doesn’t cause cancer. Where is your proof?

  • James Wilson

    Solid win, but I still am curious to how long this fight will take. Some sources suggest that verdict might cause some settlement pressure on Bayer but compare this to the big tobacco lawsuit that lasted forever.