The reputation of Roundup, whose active ingredient is the world’s most widely used weed killer, took a hit on Tuesday when a federal court unsealed documents raising questions about its safety and the research practices of its manufacturer, the chemical giant Monsanto.
Roundup and similar products are used around the world on everything from row crops to home gardens. It is Monsanto’s flagship product, and industry-funded research has long found it to be relatively safe. A case in federal court in San Francisco has challenged that conclusion, building on the findings of an international panel that claimed Roundup’s main ingredient might cause cancer.
The court documents included Monsanto’s internal emails and email traffic between the company and federal regulators. The records suggested that Monsanto had ghostwritten research that was later attributed to academics and indicated that a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency had worked to quash a review of Roundup’s main ingredient, glyphosate, that was to have been conducted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
The documents also revealed that there was some disagreement within the E.P.A. over its own safety assessment. The files were unsealed by Judge Vince Chabria, who is presiding over litigation brought by people who claim to have developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a result of exposure to glyphosate. The litigation was touched off by a determination made nearly two years ago by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen, citing research linking it to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Court records show that Monsanto was tipped off to the determination by a deputy division director at the E.P.A., Jess Rowland, months beforehand. That led the company to prepare a public relations assault on the finding well in advance of its publication. Monsanto executives, in their internal email traffic, also said Mr. Rowland had promised to beat back an effort by the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct its own review.
Dan Jenkins, a Monsanto executive, said in an email in 2015 that Mr. Rowland, referring to the other agency’s potential review, had told him, “If I can kill this, I should get a medal.” The review never took place. In another email, Mr. Jenkins noted to a colleague that Mr. Rowland was planning to retire and said he “could be useful as we move forward with ongoing glyphosate defense.”
The safety of glyphosate is not settled science. A number of agencies, including the European Food Safety Agency and the E.P.A., have disagreed with the international cancer agency, playing down concerns of a cancer risk, and Monsanto has vigorously defended glyphosate.
But the court records also reveal a level of debate within the E.P.A. The agency’s Office of Research and Development raised some concern about the robustness of an assessment carried out by the agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs, where Mr. Rowland was a senior official at the time, and recommended in December 2015 that it take steps to “strengthen” its “human health assessment.”
In a statement, Monsanto said, “Glyphosate is not a carcinogen.”
It added: “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. The plaintiffs have submitted isolated documents that are taken out of context.”