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New emails complicate debate over safety of Monsanto's weed killer

The original Monsanto was founded in St. Louis in 1901. Saccharine, an artificial sweetener, was that company's first product.
The original Monsanto was founded in St. Louis in 1901. Saccharine, an artificial sweetener, was that company's first product.

The debate over the safety of Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup has become more complicated, as newly released emails suggest the company had ghostwritten scientific research on glyphosate, the pesticide’s key ingredient.

Monsanto’s internal communications were unsealed Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria in California. Chhabria is presiding over litigation brought by farmers and other agricultural workers who claimed that exposure to glyphosate caused them to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In one email, Monsanto executive William Heydens recommended company employees could write papers about glyphosate and hire scientists to publish studies under their names. He said that this had been done once before.

“We would be keeping the cost down by us doing the writing and they would just edit & sign their names so to speak,” Heydens wrote.

In a blog post published Tuesday, Monsanto refuted the claim about the paper published in 2000.

“The paper and its conclusions are the work of Dr. Williams, Dr. Kroes and Dr. Munro. The paper also underwent the journal’s rigorous peer review process before it was published,” it said.

The post also quoted Dr. Heydens himself: “I made some minor editorial contributions to that 2000 paper that do not mount to the level of a substantial contribution or an intelletual contribution and, thus, I was only recognized in the acknowledgements and not as an author, and that was appropriate for the situation.”

Safe or not?

Glyphosate’s safety has been debated for some time by regulators and experts. After reviewing many studies on glyphosate, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a group within the World Health Organization, concluded in 2015 that the chemical is a “probable carcinogen.”

Since then, regulators have arrived at different findings. The Environmental Protection Agency last fall said that glyphosate wasn’t likely to cause cancer. On Wednesday, the European Chemical Agency also declared that it doesn’t think the pesticide should be classified as a carcinogen.

Robin Greenwald, an attorney representing the farmers in the litigation against Monsanto, believes that IARC’s 2015 finding was conclusive.

“The science is pretty strong that there is an association, and this product is dangerous,” she said.

Bill Freese, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, also thinks that the World Health Organization’s finding is more reliable because the studies were reviewed by medical experts.

“These are the people we need to listen to, medical scientists who have our best interests at heart,” Freese said, “and not regulatory agencies, which are often making decisions that the companies want them to make.”

Plus, the emails also show close ties between the EPA and Monsanto. Former EPA official Jess Rowland tried to block the U.s. Department of Health and Human Services from investigating the chemical. In a message sent to his colleagues, Monsanto executive Daniel Jenkins had recounted Rowland saying in 2015, “If I can kill this, I should get a medal.”

Glyphosate is licensed for use in more than 130 countries.

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Copyright 2017 St. Louis Public Radio

Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.