by Joel Rosenblatt, Lydia Mulvany and Peter Waldman
The Environmental Protection Agency official who was in charge of evaluating the cancer risk of Monsanto Co.’s Roundup allegedly bragged to a company executive that he deserved a medal if he could kill another agency’s investigation into the herbicide’s key chemical.
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. After leaving his job as a manager in the EPA’s pesticide division last year, Jess Rowland 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,” Rowland told a Monsanto regulatory affairs manager who recounted the conversation in an email to his colleagues, according to a court filing made public Tuesday. 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 quit last year shortly after his report was leaked to the press.
Monsanto vice president of global strategy Scott Partridge said in a phone interview that it would be "remarkable" if Monsanto could manipulate the EPA under the Obama administration. The unsealed emails represent "a natural flow of information" between the company and the EPA, Partridge said. "It’s not an effort to manipulate the system."
Asked about emails specifically describing Monsanto working with Rowland to kill the glyphosate investigation by the toxic substances agency, Partridge said he would review the messages and respond at a later date.
The company also issued a statement defending its use of glyphosate.
“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 said.
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," said Tim Litzenburg, one of the lawyers suing Monsanto. 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. He may have spoken too soon. Another internal Monsanto memorandum unsealed on Tuesday said the ATSDR, as the federal toxics agency is known, "agreed, for now, to take direction from EPA."
“While Monsanto cannot speak for EPA, our understanding of this comment is that EPA was concerned about ATSDR starting a duplicative safety analysis of glyphosate without realizing that EPA was already far along in its own comprehensive safety analysis,” Monsanto spokeswoman Christi Dixon said in an email.
The ATSDR announced in the Federal Register in February 2015 that it planned to publish a toxicological profile of glyphosate by October that year. It never did. The agency’s press office didn’t respond to multiple phone messages seeking comment. EPA representatives also didn’t immediately respond to phone messages seeking comment.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers said in another filing made public Tuesday that Monsanto’s toxicology manager and his boss, Bill Heydens, were ghost writers 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,” Heydens wrote to a colleague.
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 on to say that’s how Monsanto handled the 2000 study.
Monsanto said the ghost writing allegations are false, and in a blog post Tuesday accused the plaintiffs’ lawyers of taking an email comment out of context to mischaracterize the role of a company scientist.
The contributions by Heydens to the 2000 paper were fully disclosed in the report’s acknowledgments section and his own reference to ghost writing in the 2015 email was an overstatement for the “minor editorial contributions” he made, the company said.
“It was things like editing relatively minor things, editing for formatting, just for clarity, really just for overall readability to make it easier for people to read in a more organized fashion,” Heydens said in sworn testimony in the San Francisco litigation, according to the company.
The case is In re: Roundup Products Liability Litigation, MDL 2741, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).
Peter Blumberg, Joe Schneider
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