The Environmental Protection Agency official who was in charge of evaluating the cancer risk of Monsanto’s Roundup allegedly bragged to a company executive that he deserved a medal if he could kill another agency’s investigation into one of the herbicide’s key chemicals.
The boast was made during an April 2015 phone conversation, according to farmers and others who say they’ve been sickened by the weed killer. The EPA manager, who left the agency’s pesticide division last year, has become a central figure in more than 20 lawsuits in the U.S. accusing the company of failing to warn consumers and regulators of the risk that its glyphosate-based herbicide can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“If I can kill this I should get a medal,” said the EPA deputy division director, Jess Rowland, according to a court filing made public Tuesday that says the Monsanto regulatory affairs manager recounted the conversation in an email to his colleagues. The company was seeking Rowland’s help stopping an investigation of glyphosate by a separate office, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, that is part of the U.S. Health and Human Service Department, according to the filing.
A federal judge overseeing the glyphosate litigation in San Francisco said last month he’s inclined to order Rowland to submit to questioning by lawyers for the plaintiffs, who contend he had a “highly suspicious” relationship with Monsanto. Rowland oversaw a committee that found insufficient evidence to conclude glyphosate causes cancer and left his job last year after his report was leaked to the press.
Monsanto issued a statement defending its use of glyphosate without directly addressing the allegations about Rowland. The retired official couldn’t immediately be reached for comment about the multiple documents concerning his role at the agency that were ordered unsealed Tuesday by the judge.
“Glyphosate is not a carcinogen,” the company said. “The allegation that glyphosate can cause cancer in humans is inconsistent with decades of comprehensive safety reviews by the leading regulatory authorities around the world.”
Monsanto also said the documents submitted by plaintiffs’ lawyers “are taken out of context.”
“Plucking a single email out of context doesn’t change the fact that the U.S. EPA and regulators around the world, as well as a branch of the World Health Organization that analyzed pesticide residues, have concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans,” the company said in the statement.
The company on March 10 lost a court bid to keep glyphosate off California’s public list of cancer-causing chemicals. A state judge rejected Monsanto’s arguments that the chemical shouldn’t be added to a list created by a voter-approved ballot initiative that requires explicit warnings for consumer products containing substances that may cause cancer or birth defects.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers say Rowland’s communications with Monsanto employees show the regulator who was supposed to be policing the company was actually working on its behalf.
The unsealing of the court documents “represents a huge development in public health,” Tim Litzenburg, one of the lawyers suing Monsanto in the case, said. Regulatory agencies, scientists, consumers and physicians “can see some of what Monsanto was actually engaging in behind the scenes, and how they have manipulated the scientific literature to date. That’s important to their decision-making, not just our lawsuits.”
After the phone conversation with Rowland, the Monsanto head of U.S. regulatory affairs, Dan Jenkins, cautioned his colleagues not to “get your hopes up,” according to an email cited in the court filing.
“I doubt EPA and Jess can kill this,” Jenkins wrote.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers said in another filing made public Tuesday that Monsanto’s toxicology manager and his boss were ghostwriters for two of the reports, including one from 2000, that Rowland’s committee relied on in part to reach its conclusion that glyphosate shouldn’t be classified as carcinogenic.
The EPA “may be unaware of Monsanto’s deceptive authorship practice,” the lawyers said.
Among the documents unsealed was a February 2015 internal email exchange at the company about how to contain costs for a research paper. The plaintiff lawyers cited it to support their claim that the EPA report is unreliable, unlike a report by an international agency that classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.
“A less expensive/more palatable approach” is to rely on experts only for some areas of contention, while “we ghost-write the Exposure Tox & Genetox sections,” one Monsanto employee wrote to another.
The names of outside scientists could be listed on the publication, “but we would be keeping the cost down by us doing the writing and they would just edit & sign their names so to speak,” according to the email, which goes to on say that’s how Monsanto handled the 2000 study.