Big Ag doesn’t want you to know about the connection between cancer and this common herbicide


Dr. Chadi Nabhan spent years treating patients exposed to Roundup who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Published February 25, 2023 7:30PM (EST)

French farmer Nicolas Denieul sprays Roundup 720 glyphosate herbicide produced by US agrochemical giant Monsanto on May 11, 2018, on a field of no-till corn in Piace, northwestern France. (JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s a tale of corporate malfeasance as old as time: corporation discovers herbicide. Corporation markets herbicide. Corporation discovers herbicide does far more than kill weeds, but attacks critics and whistleblowers ad nauseum to sweep it under the rug. 

This, according to Dr. Chadi Nabhan, is the story of glyphosate, an herbicide often marketed under the name Roundup and sold by the quart in hardware and lawn stores across the United States. Nabhan, a cancer specialist, says that glyphosate doesn’t rinse off, but remains on our grains and produce, and anything made from them, right up until the moment we consume them… and longer: a study from last year found glyphosate in 80 percent of Americans’ urine, perhaps because the chemical appears to leech into our drinking water. It also covers the plants one might stroll past every day.

“I think we all know that there are situations where large corporations are able to influence science or bend the science, when they’re able to lobby for their own interest.”

Nabhan testified in the first three trials held alleging that various individuals who had been exposed to Roundup developed a type of cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Now, Nabhan has a new book, titled “Toxic Exposure,” which tells the story of how Monsanto (and later Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in 2018) became fantastically wealthy discovering glyphosate and developing effective weed killers. When scientists like Nabhan noticed links between the chemical and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Monsanto waged war against its critics. As Nabhan attests, anyone who expressed concern was subject to attacks in addition to the anticipated denials, and Monsanto attempted to control its public image with reports backing up its own corporate bottom line. Although a World Health Organization (WHO)-affiliated institution declared that glyphosate was linked to cancer back in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refused to admit the same thing until forced by a federal appellate judge in 2021.

None of this, however, removes the glyphosate that lingers in our food and water supplies. The EPA remains reluctant to change its position on glyphosate. Speaking out against glyphosate still opens one up to a world of potential hurt. Yet Bayer has spent over $11 billion in jury awards since 2016, proving that there is hope for accountability — even if Earth’s ecological prospects seems as bleak as ever.

“One patient… had a form of lymphoma that disfigured his skin.”

Salon spoke to Dr. Nabhan about his research and his new book. In our interview, Nabhan explained, in layman’s terms, exactly how glyphosate gets into the body and what it does there; and how it gets into the environment and where it goes once it rinses into the soil and water.

This interview has been condensed and edited for print. 

What do we know for sure about glyphosate in terms of what it does to the body and in terms of its prevalence in our environment? 

It is extremely prevalent because glyphosate is the main ingredient and the active ingredient in Roundup, and Roundup is the most commonly used herbicide in the world – and, if we focus on the United States, of course, in the United States as well. In the mid-nineties, Monsanto came up with the Roundup-ready GMOs, the genetically modified organisms where the seeds are resistant to the Roundup weed killer activity. In other words, the farmers are able to plant the seeds and they can spray on them the Roundup. And despite all of that, they still are able to harvest without any harm, and they kill the weeds. Suddenly there was an explosion in the use of Roundup. But what that means, Matthew, is that the Roundup is obviously affecting the seeds that eventually come into our food and everything else. There is a lot of exposure to Roundup in the environment as well, in everything that we actually do, so there is a huge ubiquitous prevalence.

As far as the first portion of your question in terms of what we know, what we know is that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is a division of the World Health Organization (WHO), looked at the evidence in 2015. The way the IARC and the WHO work, they look at mechanistic studies, they look at animal studies, and they look at published human studies. And what they determined that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. What that means is that there is a possibility that glyphosate could cause cancer in some patients. Most of the linkage based on the epidemiologic studies was with a disease called Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which is a form of cancer that involves the lymph glands and the bone marrow. 

Let’s talk a bit about what you discuss in your book. The theme that jumped out at me — and this won’t surprise you — is the role of money in all of this. Large agricultural and chemical companies are able to throw their money around in order to meddle with legitimate science. If you had to take a step back and describe the broader dynamics of how scientists are silenced, what are the main tactics that these special interests use to stop the truth from coming out?

That’s a very, very good question. I divide the physicians, the scientists and the other groups of people into two categories. There is definitely a category out there who believes that glyphosate or Roundup is fine, and it’s okay. And it’s really how they interpret the evidence. And they may believe that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is doing great job and all of that, but maybe they have not done their homework enough. And maybe if they spent a little bit more time understanding, for example, how did the EPA reach out to this conclusion? What type of evidence did they evaluate? Did they do a good job or not? They would’ve come to a different conclusion. But maybe there’s a possibility that they’re able to convince themselves that there’s no issue there. 

And there’s the other category, I think what you are referencing, which may be influenced by economics and influenced by power. I think we all know that there are situations where large corporations are able to influence science or bend the science, when they’re able to lobby for their own interest. And I do believe that Monsanto has played a major role — in ghostwriting, as an example, where they would actually have a lot of input into scientific articles — and they never acknowledge that they even had input in these articles. They put the authors on these articles who would be major scientists and thought leaders, but there’s no way you would find out anywhere in the article that Monsanto even had any influence in the writing.

“‘Free speech’ does not mean you should mislead people with misinformation.”

So they had an influence in that. They certainly may have had — I really can’t really say I have a hundred percent proof, but there’s a lot of smoke in terms of the relationships between the EPA and Monsanto. This was not necessarily proven a hundred percent. I think we can leave readers to decide whether there is or not, but I have my opinion about that based on what I’ve seen. The EPA has a lot of scientists in there, an epidemiologist, and if you look at the history, what the EPA did is at some point the EPA thought that glyphosate was a potential carcinogen. There were some issues and there were some problems with it, and they’d demanded some studies. These studies were never done. And suddenly, the classification changed at some point without any additional evidence, and glyphosate became non-harmful and non-carcinogenic. Now it’s extremely safe.

You gotta wonder sometimes as a consumer, “well, why did this change?” Like, what changed that made the EPA change the recommendation? I think the core of what you’re saying, does money play a role? Does power play a role in bending sometimes the truth and bending the facts? Unfortunately the answer is yes, and it’s not only in medicine but in a lot of fields: Power, economics and money have an influence in changing the minds and “the truth.”

Now I want to talk about another theme from your book, which is the human element, the suffering of people who are exposed to this chemical and developed cancer. For everyday carcinogens, sometimes it seems like it’s hard for people to understand the serious consequences until there is a human face to it. Are there any stories that impacted you emotionally that you feel epitomize this problem and that you want to share? 

Maybe I have a different view just because I’ve taken care of patients for many years. The one thing I will say to your readers, and to all patients, every single one of us is going to be at some point a patient. There’s no one that’s gonna escape being a patient. I’ve always taken on the view, I could be in that situation. I could be the patient. So what would I want to do for my patient? And I think that is very important, that human element is important. The Monsanto lawyers are going to be patients at some point, and God forbid, I don’t want anybody to get any illness, but if anybody had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, any cancer, the first question they ask is, “why did I get that?”

Sometimes we know the answer, many times we don’t. There are lots of scenarios where I recall from the trials, Matthew, that have a human element. When I first met one patient, he had a form of lymphoma [that] disfigured his skin. And that type of lymphoma sometimes makes you a little bit self-conscious socially. So as you could imagine, if you have somebody with lots of these lesions on their skin. When I first met him, I extended my hand to shake his hand and introduced myself, and he just nodded. And he did not really extend his hand. And I think he felt embarrassed — yes he pain, but he also has scaly things on his skin. He was just very self-conscious in that social situation. He wasn’t able to look me in the eye for an hour.

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I appreciate that. I’m now going to move to my final question. It’s a bit more philosophical. As I’m sure you know, there is a lot of conversation about the idea of “free speech.” And I would argue that free speech is more than just being able to say what you want. It involves transparency in what you read. If the discourse is overridden with bad faith actors, the good faith actors have a legitimate grievance in terms of “free speech” because they are putting their hard work out there in good faith, and it is being drowned out by work that exists in bad faith. When I was reading your book, my question is, from a free speech perspective, what can people who want to read legitimate science do as consumers of information to stop being inadvertently misled by misinformation? Do you that as a free speech issue?

That’s a great question. Basically “free speech” does not mean you should mislead people with misinformation. You can still be free to say wherever you want, but I think what’s really critical is if what you are saying is going to impact other people that are outside of your jurisdiction. I’m free to say whatever I want in my household and to my children, wherever it is, but if what I’m gonna say is going to effect my neighbors and it’s going to effect other people, then there should be some element of ability to vet the information that is being said. The problem here is that, as you know, most consumers of information have very limited time and they rely on other outlets to get the right information. It’s very challenging, Matthew, to tell a patient “You need to go and evaluate the EPA report.”

It’s not fair. They have to rely on other organizations to get the information. And I believe the burden is on our policy makers to make sure that they put in place the people who are going to provide the information that is most accurate. Now, accurate information has to be supported by evidence, because I can admit that science has a lot of nuance. It’s not perfect. If we have to always do science based on a hundred percent perfection, we’ll never advance the field. But we need to use common sense nuance and make sure that at the end of the day, we provide the information that is most useful for patients and society. So free speech does not mean you abuse that freedom and tell people whatever you want because you have a hidden agenda.

It means that you have actually more responsibility. You have to acknowledge that your free speech could impact people.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a professional writer whose work has appeared in multiple national media outlets since 2012 and exclusively at Salon since 2016. He received a Master’s Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and is the recipient of a 2022 science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute. His diverse interests are reflected in his interviews including: President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (1999-2001), animal scientist and autism activist Temple Grandin, inventor Ernő Rubik, comedian Bill Burr (“F Is for Family”), novelist James Patterson (“The President’s Daughter”), epidemiologist Monica Gandhi, theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, voice actor Rob Paulsen (“Animaniacs”), mRNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó, philosopher of science Vinciane Despret, actor George Takei (“Star Trek”), climatologist Michael E. Mann, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (2013-present), dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson (2012, 2016), comedian and writer Larry Charles (“Seinfeld”), Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman (2000), Ambassador Michael McFaul (2012-2014), economist Richard Wolff, director Kevin Greutert (“Saw VI”), model Liskula Cohen, actor Rodger Bumpass (“SpongeBob Squarepants”), Senator John Hickenlooper (2021-present), Senator Martin Heinrich (2013-present), Egyptologist Richard Parkinson, Rep. Eric Swalwell (2013-present), Fox News host Tucker Carlson, actor R. J. Mitte (“Breaking Bad”), theoretical physicist Avi Loeb, biologist and genomics entrepreneur William Haseltine, comedian David Cross (“Scary Movie 2”), linguistics consultant Paul Frommer (“Avatar”), Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (2007-2015), computer engineer and Internet co-inventor Leonard Kleinrock and right-wing insurrectionist Roger Stone.

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