The family that took on Monsanto: ’They should’ve been with us in the chemo ward’ | Business | The Guardian
Becoming ‘the face’ of the fight
Edwin Hardeman and his wife, Mary, never expected that they would become de facto leaders of the federal court fight against the world’s most widely used weedkiller. They just wanted Monsanto to acknowledge the dangers – and potentially save other families from the horror they endured.
“This is something that was egregious to me. It was my personal battle and I wanted to take it full circle,” said Edwin, whose cancer is now in remission. “It’s been a long journey.”
Mary bristled when she thought about Monsanto’s continued defense of its chemical: “They should have been with us when we were in the chemo ward … not knowing what to do to relieve the pain.
“I get angry,” she added. “Very angry.”
Monsanto first put Roundup on the market in 1974, presenting the herbicide, which uses a chemical called glyphosate, as a breakthrough that was effective at killing weeds and safe. The product has earned the corporation billions in revenue a year, and glyphosate is now ubiquitous in the environment – with traces in water, food and farmers’ urine.
Hardeman didn’t recognize the term glyphosate when he saw the news report about the Iarc ruling on TV. At that time, the chemotherapy side effects had devastated him – causing violent nausea, swelling that made his face unrecognizable and terrifying feelings of electric shocks jolting his body.
But when he realized that glyphosate was the main ingredient in Roundup and that research suggested it could be responsible for his form of NHL, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, it clicked: “It just hit me. There’s something going on here.”
He filed a lawsuit in February 2016. So did hundreds of other cancer survivors and families who lost loved ones, and many of the parallel suits were consolidated as one case under federal judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco.
The judge selected Hardeman to be first – the so-called “bellwether” trial, meaning it would be the official test case that would inform future litigation and potentially impact settlements for others.
It was a lot of pressure.
“Learning I was going to be the plaintiff, the one, the face of the … litigation, was a shock,” he said.
The unsealed emails and documents suggested that Monsanto had an aggressive PR strategy for years that involved attacking negative research and ghostwriting and pushing favorable studies.
In one email, a Monsanto executive advised others in the company to be cautious about how they describe the safety of the product, warning: “You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen … we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement.”
Edwin and his wife, Mary, never expected that they would become de facto leaders of the federal court fight against the world’s most widely used weedkiller.
Edwin and his wife, Mary, never expected that they would become de facto leaders of the federal court fight against the world’s most widely used weedkiller. Photograph: Brian Frank/The Guardian
Monsanto officials also privately talked about the company writing science papers that would be officially authored by researchers, with one email saying: “We would be keeping the cost down by us doing the writing and they would just edit and sign their names.” The internal documents also shined a harsh light on Monsanto’s cozy relationship with US regulators and its media campaign to combat the Iarc ruling.
(The company has said it was open about its involvement in research.)
One executive eventually revealed that the company had a roughly $17m budget for PR and public affairs related to Iarc and glyphosate.
The unusual and severe limitations made the message of the victory all the more powerful, Wagstaff said in an interview: “We were forced, over our objections, to argue just the science. Any argument by Bayer or Monsanto that this was a sympathetic jury to Mr Hardeman … is just not supported by the facts.”
Mary, who was home sick the day the jury announced, first saw the verdict on Twitter before her husband could break the news: “I let out a scream. It’s a wonder one of my neighbors didn’t come in.”
With the cancer science proven, Hardeman’s legal team was finally allowed to present evidence and arguments about Monsanto’s “despicable” and “reckless” behavior – and that was a success, too. The jury ruled Monsanto was negligent and owed him $80m in damages.
Within minutes of the final verdict, a Bayer spokesperson issued a response: The company would appeal.
In US federal court, there are around 1,200 plaintiffs with similar Roundup cancer cases – and roughly 11,000 nationwide. Despite two jury rulings saying Roundup causes cancer, the corporation’s defense has not changed: Roundup is safe for use.
“We continue to believe strongly in the extensive body of reliable science that supports the safety of Roundup and on which regulators around the world continue to base their own favorable assessments,” a Bayer spokesperson told the Guardian. “Our customers have relied on these products for more than 40 years and we are gratified by their continued support.”
Bayer, which has faced backlash from investors and a share price drop in the wake of the Roundup controversy, could be pushed to negotiate a massive settlement with plaintiffs following Hardeman’s victory.
Hardeman said the very least the company could do is warn consumers: “Give us a chance to decide whether we want to use it or not … Have some compassion for people.”
Hardeman said it also disturbed him that Bayer and Monsanto still have not done their own study on the carcinogenicity of Roundup, even after all these years. (Monsanto has said the company has gone beyond what was required in testing glyphosate exposure risks.)
“I worry about the younger generation,” Hardeman said. “Why haven’t you tested this product? Why, why, why? You’ve got the money. Are you afraid of the answer?”
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