24 June, 2024


Can A California Jury Decide If A Pesticide Caused Gardener Johnson’s Cancer?

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana

A set of California Jurors has decided that the use of the herbicide Roundup was the cause of the cancer contracted by Mr. Johnson, a California-school gardener. This is an alarming warning to modern technical societies. Modern societies are still using ancient instruments of judgement, namely, the old court system which came into being mainly to preserve property rights of landed aristocracies. 

Should they be called upon to make decisions on technical questions within the existing judicial framework, often within a few weeks where the jurors – people off the street – are called upon to understand the complex submissions? While the public should in the end decide, such a decision must come through a series of deliberations and conclusions graded in technicality, and not in “one shot”. 

In fact, how the tobacco companies misused  the court system at a time when public lobby groups were poorly established is well known. At the time the public actually supported smoking and considered it to have psychological and even physicological benefits, rejecting the views of academic scientists, and leaning on company propaganda. Today, lobby groups  who are heavily funded by “natural-foods” supermarket chains, anti-GMO activists, as well as a public frightened by the false belief that their “food is poisoned”, have grouped together. They are underwritten by  fortune-hunting “class-action” lawyers.

When juries are called upon to decide on extremely complex technical questions that experts have debated for decades, in a mere two weeks, and when huge fines are determined on that basis, then justice is miscarried and the public good is endangered. Furthermore, each such case adds vast amounts to lawyers pockets. It is the mercenary legal system of the United States that fuels this type of process which transforms into “class-action” projects leveled against public and private enterprises, with the sole intent of extracting money by using the psychological tactics of ancient witch hunts.

The idea that a jury picked up form the street can quickly decide if a cancer contracted by a farmer is due to use of glyphosate, or some other cause, is absurd. Only detailed lab tests, carried out over a period of time can say if a substance causes cancer or not. The belief  that expert presentations brought in by the two litigating sides will bring the jurors up to the task goes contrary to our knowledge that even students selected by rigorous examinations take many years of study and training to acquire the necessary capacity to evaluate such complex information. Can a jury determine if the gardener’s family shows any genetic propensity to such cancers, or if he had been exposed to other carcinogens? The gardener can refuse to release such information using his rights to prevent self-incrimination.

Modern research on the causes of disease uses advanced statistical methods applied to extensive health records of patients and control groups. However, the more intuitive, easily understood “common-sense” approach is still based on a number of “criteria” used by field epidemiologists. When such criteria point to a possible causal link, more expensive statistical studies involving long-term monitoring can be taken up.

Thus the so-called Bradford-Hill criteria are often used as a “common-sense” way to related putative causes with a diseases. They are usually stated as  seven criteria. 

(I) Strength of association between so called “cause and effect (disease)”.

That is, when the strength of the cause is doubled (say, by using more of the pesticide), the illness or the epidemic increases proportionately. Thus countries which use a very large amount of agrochemicals and pesticides should show higher incidence of, say, cancer. However, no such correlation is seen. For instance, New Zealand or Qatar uses far more glyphosate per hectare than California, but no cases of cancer associated with glyphosate use have been reported from such countries. The use of agrochemicals is proportionate to the use of fertilizers. The figures for New Zealand and USA are 1717 and 137 kg/hectare (2015 World bank data) respectively, while Qatar uses  over 7100 kg/hectare.

(ii) Consistency: a causal factor must be consistently associated with the “effect” (the disease). That is, the disease should manifest when the cause is present unless clear mitigating effects are seen. Although glyphosate is extensively used in soya, maize and tea plantations all over the world, no correlated presence of cancer has been observed. 

(iii) Plausibility: the proposed cause and the effect (i.e., the disease) must be connected by a plausible physiological or environmental mechanism, or by statistical  data.

The US department of health studied  90,000 farmers for nearly 25 years and found no signs of any cancer attributable to glyphosate formulations, and yet, the one alleged case of the farmer Johnson is enough for the California Jurors even when a cause-effect relationship is not scientifically plausible. 

(iv)The proposed cause must be coherent (not contradictory) with existing chemical, physiological and epidemiological knowledge. 

For instance, the claim by Dr Jayasumana (physician and politican), Dr. Sanath Gunatillleke (physician from California) and Ms. Senanayake (“Natha-Deviyo” clairvoyant) that glyphosate joins with hard water and arsenic to form a  new substance that causes a new kind of kidney disease is contrary to well established chemistry and  to available epidemiological data. This claim was made in 2014 and publicized by Dr Mercola, Ven. Ratana and others, but the authors have not produced even an iota of evidence for the existence of the alleged substance.

(v) There should be experimental evidence linking the proposed cause to the disease. Currently, there is no conclusive evidence of glyphosate or its agricultural formulations causing cancer. The classification that it could probably be carcinogenic was made in 2014 by the IARS, an arm of the WHO. It is purely a hazard classification and NOT a health-risk classification. The IARC classification  has been misconstrued and used as publicity against glyphosate formulations by the “organic food” lobby. A further clarification by the WHO on 16th May, 2016 clearly stated that no chronic toxicity is expected from Glyphosate use. However, this as well as the study on 90,000 farmers for 25 years (showing no cancer) have been ignored and swept under the carpet, even in the reporting of the California judgment by the news media.

(vi) Analogy: there should be analogous models of disease causation.

(vii) A proposed causal factor must be absent when the disease is absent. Thus, if glyphosate causes a particular kind of kidney diseases (as has been claimed by Ven. Ratana and his followers) or cancer, that kidney disease or cancer should not be found where glyphosate has not been used. This is in fact NOT the case.

Hence we see that the Bradford-Hill criteria are NOT satisfied by the claim that the use of glyphosate in agriculture causes cancer. Furthermore, there is now strong experimental evidence against it, coming from the USD Dept. of Health study on some 90,000 Glyhosate-Roundup users extending over a period of nearly 25 years (see: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Volume 110, Issue 5,  2018, Pages 509-516) which found  NO evidence linking  glyphosate formulations with increased incidence of any type of cancer.

Instead, the jury’s main reason for awarding a huge some of money seems to be to punish Monsanto, stating  that Monsanto’s  internal documents showed that they too were wondering if glyphosate causes cancer, and had examined the issue but not disclosed their concerns to the public.

Surely, ALL pesticide markers and pharmaceutical manufacturers ask themselves if their product can have bade side effects such as causing cancer or any other illness, and they do debate about it in their labs. That does not mean that they CONCLUDE that their product is carcinogenic etc. They cannot disclose all  internal scientific debates to the public in a useful manner. However, if needed, they should  make such discussions available to other scientists who understand the scientific process of drug discovery and testing, without hiding under the right to protect oneself. It appears that  Monsanto’s internal documents were indeed available to the trial.

The California jurors  could not have evaluated the internal papers, or the causes of the cancer. In fact, even an expert committee already familiar with a lot of scientific knowledge would not be able to make any credible decision within such a court setting. 

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Latest comments

  • 3

    If Jurors piked from the street can decide on murder cases and execute people why cannot they sit in judgement of huge conglomerates exploiting people. Obviously value of a man convicted and executed wrongfully by a street picked jury cannot be counted in terms of Dollars.

  • 1

    After Sir Cyril Ponnamperuma perhaps Chandre Dharmawardane is the best scientist Sri Lanka has ever produced.

    • 0

      Hello Malthi Alponso when did you remarry for the nth time? Do your friends tease you, “Malty Malty Nestomalti”?
      Seriously when was Cyril Ponnamperuma knighted?

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