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Appeals court tells EPA to consider anew if glyphosate is carcinogenic

In a ruling hailed as a victory for farmworkers and monarch butterflies, the U.S. appellate court in San Francisco ruled the EPA lacked the evidence in 2020 to conclude that glyphosate, the most widely used weedkiller in the world, does not cause cancer. The court ordered the agency to take a new look at the risks to humans. The three-judge panel also said the EPA violated federal law by failing to consult with wildlife agencies on how to limit the impact of the herbicide on threatened and endangered species.

“The 9th Circuit (appeals court) made clear the agency cannot continue to delay a process that could finally result in restrictions on glyphosate’s usage,” said the Natural Resources Defense Council. The environmental group sued the EPA over its 2020 interim decision that “glyphosate is unlikely to be a human carcinogen” or create health risks if used according to EPA guidelines.

“Today is a major victory for farmworkers and others exposed to glyphosate,” said Amy van Saun of the Center for Food Safety. “Imperiled wildlife also won today, as the court agreed that EPA needed to ensure the safety of endangered species before greenlighting glyphosate.”

Glyphosate, best-known under the trade name Roundup, has been under severe challenge since March 2015, when the UN International Agency for Research on Cancer said the chemical is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The EPA reached the opposite conclusion in 2017 and reiterated it during a so-called registration review, required every 15 years for pesticides.

Bayer, the manufacturer of glyphosate, has asked the Supreme Court to overturn a $25 million award to Edwin Hardeman, diagnosed with cancer after using Roundup on his San Francisco Bay area property for years. It says the EPA label for containers of glyphosate, which doesn’t mention of cancer, pre-empted claims that it should have warned purchasers of the risk. The Supreme Court could decide as soon as this week whether to hear the case.

The appeal to the Supreme Court was part of Bayer’s five-point plan, announced in May 2021, to resolve thousands of lawsuits against Roundup. Bayer has set aside $4.5 billion for litigation and settlement expenses for more than 30,000 cases. The plan also calls for ending sale of glyphosate for lawn and garden use, beginning in 2023.

In its decision, written by Judge Michelle Friedland, the appellate court directed the EPA to review its conclusion that glyphosate “does not pose ‘any unreasonable risk to man or to the environment.'” With an eye to the ongoing registration review, it told the EPA to issue a new ecological risk assessment by Oct. 1. The NRDC argued the EPA, in a single sentence, said the benefits of glyphosate outweighed the risk but provided no details.

As to human health risks, the appeals court said EPA’s conclusion “was in tension with parts of the agency’s analysis” and its guidelines. “EPA could not reasonably treat its inability to reach a conclusion about NHL (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) risk as consistent with a conclusion that glyphosate is not likely to cause cancer within the meanings of its Cancer Guidelines,” said the court in a four-page summary of its ruling.

“The panel concluded that the EPA’s determination that glyphosate was not likely to be carcinogenic was not supported by substantial evidence,” said the ruling. “The panel therefore vacated the human-health portion of EPA’s interim decision and remanded that for further analysis and explanation.”

The appellate court decision is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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