Is there a risk? What’s behind a newly certified weedkiller class action lawsuit

Click to play video: 'Ontario class action lawsuit alleges common weedkiller causes cancer'
Ontario class action lawsuit alleges common weedkiller causes cancer
WATCH: An Ontario court has certified a new class action lawsuit that alleges a popular weed control chemical causes cancer. The lawsuit asks for at least $1.2 billion from Bayer, the maker of "Roundup" products. The company denies the claims, despite a long list of similar complaints against it. Abigail Bimman has the details – Jan 18, 2024

A recently certified class action lawsuit is seeking at least $1.2 billion from multinational company Bayer on behalf of Canadians who claim to have been harmed while using Roundup weedkiller products.

The allegations have not yet been tested in court and Bayer says it stands behind the safety of the products.

Roundup, the brand name of a glyphosate-based herbicide that is the subject of the lawsuit, is the most commonly used herbicide in the world and has been sold across Canada since 1976 by U.S. company Monsanto. The German pharmaceutical giant Bayer acquired Monsanto in 2018.

About 165,000 claims have been filed in the U.S. against Bayer alleging Roundup caused users to get sick. The company says 113,000 of those claims have been resolved, meaning plaintiffs were financially compensated or the cases were deemed to be ineligible.

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The Canadian case comes as the controversial ingredient glyphosate was taken out of household Roundup products in the U.S. this month.

“We took this action exclusively to help manage litigation risk in the U.S. and not because of any product safety concerns,” a Bayer email statement reads. “The vast majority of claims in the U.S. have come from residential lawn and garden users, so this action largely eliminates the primary source of future claims.”

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N.B. anti-glyphosate group gives Tory government failing grade

In 2023, at least five U.S. plaintiffs won their Roundup-related court cases against Bayer – requiring the company to pay almost $2 billion in punitive damages and nearly $1 billion in compensatory damages. Several of these decisions are being appealed. Reuters reported that last month, Bayer won a trial against a related lawsuit, ending what had been a five-trial losing streak for the company in trials over similar claims.

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Several Canadian challenges have also been launched over recent years, including a proposed class action from a Moose Jaw, Sask., farmer who alleged in 2019 that Roundup is linked to his diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Three proposed suits were filed in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. in 2019 as well, and advocates in New Brunswick and Quebec have been pushing over the last three years for bans on the weedkiller, citing safety concerns.

While Americans looking to kill weeds around their homes may no longer be using products with glyphosate, Bayer says the ingredient will remain in Roundup products across Canada – both for household and agricultural use – renewing questions over whether this country’s pest regulations are doing enough to protect Canadians’ health.

In 2019, Health Canada re-approved glyphosate for sale in Canada until April 27, 2032 with the caveat that producers needed to have more details on labels. But glyphosate is banned for cosmetic use and sale in certain parts of Canada, such as Montreal.

France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Vietnam are some of the countries with partial or complete bans on glyphosate.

Click to play video: 'Montreal to ban glyphosate pesticide'
Montreal to ban glyphosate pesticide

Jeffrey DeBlock is hoping Canadians will reconsider their use of the product.

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As a 14-year-old in the 1990s, DeBlock started his high school summer job at a family friend’s farm near Exeter, Ont. For a few weeks each summer, he wore a backpack connected to a handheld sprayer that he would use to cover roughly 400 acres of crops with Roundup.

“(Roundup) was deemed to be safe, actually very safe. That is why we were using it… We read through all the materials,” DeBlock said. “We’d be cautious about how we pour it, mix it. But thereafter, I’d be out there (in a) long-sleeve shirt, jeans, rubber boots and sort of walking in the field and I did get it on my, you know, hands and face.”

In high school, DeBlock began to experience fatigue. He saw a doctor, who wrote it off as stress from high school life or maybe mono.

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“I had night fevers, night chills, sweats. Felt a lot of pain,” DeBlock said. “Numbness down my leg because my spleen was about two plus times the size it should have been – a 10, 15-centimetre tumour in around my hip. And it was getting very uncomfortable. Very painful.”

DeBlock lost about 50 pounds in nine months. He finally got CT scans, which allowed doctors to diagnose him on what should have been his last day of high school with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a type of cancer that begins in the lymphatic system. On his 18th birthday, DeBlock started an aggressive six-month chemotherapy treatment. He was given a 20 per cent chance to live two more years.

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“It was pretty challenging treatment…that I don’t really wish on anyone,” DeBlock said. “It was very humbling and difficult on myself, my family and my friends.”

Click to play video: 'Moose Jaw farmer claims Roundup contributed to his cancer'
Moose Jaw farmer claims Roundup contributed to his cancer

DeBlock beat the odds and is now a 46-year-old dad living in Toronto. He believes that using Roundup caused him to get cancer as a teen, and he’s now the lead plaintiff in the Canadian class action.

“I think the product in its current form is just simply not safe and is carcinogenic,” DeBlock said. “I really don’t want to see other people going through what I’ve had to go through.”

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said in 2015 that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” More research has come out since then, including a multi-institutional global glyphosate study released in October 2023, which found that low doses of glyphosate-based herbicides appeared to cause leukemia in rats.

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While the claims made in the class action have yet to be tested in court, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice certified DeBlock’s case as a class action on Dec. 8, 2023.

The next hearing date for the case has yet to be scheduled.

Declining an interview, a Bayer company spokesperson sent an emailed statement emphasizing that leading health regulators in Canada and around the world have repeatedly concluded that glyphosate is not a carcinogen and that glyphosate products are safe when used according to label directions.

“While we have great sympathy for the plaintiff, we are confident our glyphosate products are not the cause of his illness,” the emailed statement reads in part. “Bayer stands fully behind the safety of our glyphosate products, which have been used safely and successfully in Canada and internationally for nearly 50 years.”

Federal Health Minister Mark Holland declined an interview about glyphosate.

Do Canadian regulations need to change?

However, there remain calls for domestic regulations to be adjusted.

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One of the leading scientists calling for change in Health Canada’s classification of glyphosate is Bruce Lanphear, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University.

In 2022, Lanphear accepted an invitation to co-chair Health Canada’s scientific advisory committee under the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), formed to increase transparency around the regulatory process for pesticides in Canada. But after serving for less than a year, Lanphear grew frustrated and resigned, calling for a complete overhaul of the way pesticides are regulated in Canada.

At the time, new studies had come out about glyphosate, including a survey of urine samples showing glyphosate levels in people living in Canada.

“All the previous risk management was done making assumptions about how much exposure is actually out there,” Lanphear said. This new survey included data on humans. But Lanphear alleged Health Canada would not allow the committee to examine it.

Questions posed by scientists on the committee had to be approved by Health Canada, which Lanphear said could take three to four months. If approved, the scientists may get some additional information into their queries, he said, but sometimes information was withheld.

Click to play video: 'Monsanto found liable in lawsuit alleging weed-killer caused cancer'
Monsanto found liable in lawsuit alleging weed-killer caused cancer

In an emailed statement, Health Canada said it is committed to being open and transparent.

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“No information relating to the safety of certain pesticides, including glyphosate, has been withheld from Health Canada’s Science Advisory Committee on Pest Control Products,” the email statement reads.

The widespread exposure of glyphosate is a concern for Lanphear, because he says there are no safe thresholds below which pesticides are harmless.

“If you have hundreds of pesticides, what if some of those pesticides or other toxic chemicals interact and magnify the health effects of each other? We haven’t even begun to look at the joint effects,” he said.

Yet, Health Canada disagrees and says a small amount of glyphosate may not be cause for concern.

“The amount of glyphosate detected in humans is very low, more than 1000 times below the screening level (which is the level that would trigger further analysis) and is not a health concern.”

Gathering enough studies to limit or ban glyphosate is a hurdle that Lanphear characterized as “an extraordinary and daunting task.” Once a pesticide is given the green light, Lanphear claims it is very difficult to overturn the decision even if new evidence is found.

“This is going to take decades, and in the process, what’s happening? Canadians are being used in a massive experiment – one that they’ve never been asked or consented to participate in,” he said. “We now know that [glyphosate] exposure is widespread and this is just in the last five to 10 years.”
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Are there other alternatives?

There are some Canadian farmers who are already trying to phase out glyphosate, including Christopher Dermott in Utopia, Ont.

Dermott runs a 1,500-acre family farm where they’ve been growing wheat, corn and soybeans for generations. Since 2023, he has devoted himself to his “hope and dream” of finding a different way to grow food.

“This year, I have probably cut at least half of [the glyphosate] we generally would use in a year,” Dermott said.
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But the change is no small commitment.

Click to play video: 'Bayer stock drops after $2B award in Roundup trial'
Bayer stock drops after $2B award in Roundup trial

“Glyphosate is so common because it makes farming easy. It is a product that will easily wipe out the weeds that are a nuisance in your farms,” Dermott said.

Part of what fuelled Dermott’s decision to shift his farm was a worry of whether his family could have health risks from the herbicide.

“I definitely was worried about exposure. Your kids want to play outside…my son would want to come up and ride in the tractor or the combine or even in the sprayer,” Dermott said. “And I want to see my kids be able to go out and walk in that field.”

Dermott has begun making his own “brews,” composed of good bacteria that naturally occurs in lakes or ponds mixed with water and molasses, to act as natural weed and disease deterrents. While it takes more time and money than using Roundup, Dermott said it has been just as effective in keeping weeds and mold off his crops.

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“I’m not putting something on the plant that can be harmful to the plant or to people who are consuming it,” he said.

Dermott believes more farmers would phase out glyphosate if they had access to resources detailing how to do it.

“The unknown is hard for a farmer – changing practices (from) doing something your father’s always done for the past 30 years,” Dermott said. “And (it’s) not to say what my father did was wrong. But when there are other people researching and trying new ways of managing how to be a better farmer, I think we can’t be scared of that.”

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