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Amid lawsuits, Bayer mounts campaign to defend weedkiller

Dr. S. Eliza Dunn, a physician at Bayer, was in Cambridge Tuesday to defend Roundup weedkiller, arguing that it is not carcinogenic.
Dr. S. Eliza Dunn, a physician at Bayer, was in Cambridge Tuesday to defend Roundup weedkiller, arguing that it is not carcinogenic.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Forget the three juries that delivered staggering multimillion-dollar verdicts to people who claimed Roundup weedkiller caused their cancer.

And a 2015 finding by a World Health Organization agency that Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

And the fact that several European countries, including France on Monday, have taken steps to ban glyphosate products.

Dr. S. Eliza Dunn, a physician who works for Bayer, said Tuesday that there’s no credible evidence the German company’s signature weedkiller endangers consumers, and that banning Roundup would be disastrous for farmers and the planet.

“There’s nothing wrong with this product in terms of safety and causing cancer,” Dunn, Bayer’s medical sciences and outreach lead, said in an interview at Bayer LifeHub near Kendall Square. “We stand by this product because it is safe and effective and really critical to agriculture.”

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Dunn, who has three children, said she uses Roundup herself to control honeysuckle at home in St. Louis.

But a lawyer for a former school groundskeeper whom a San Francisco jury found in 2018 got terminal non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after using Roundup dismissed Dunn’s comments as “nonsense.”

The attorney, Timothy Litzenburg, said Bayer is desperate to salvage its $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto, the St. Louis-based creator of the herbicide. Bayer’s share price has fallen by more than 40 percent since the deal closed in June 2018, and it faces suits by more than 42,000 plaintiffs. But, he said, Bayer still views Roundup as a moneymaker.

“What people fail to understand is that Roundup is a $15 billion-a-year product,” said Litzenburg, of Charlottesville, Va. “There’s a reason they bought [Monsanto]. And there’s a reason they’re trying to weather the storm.”

Bayer declined to say how much Roundup generates in sales each year, saying the company doesn’t break out that figure.

Glyphosate has been the focus of controversy since 2015, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a unit of the WHO, concluded it was a likely carcinogen.

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That finding has led to an avalanche of lawsuits. Litzenburg’s client, Dewayne Johnson, was awarded $289 million — a sum reduced by the judge to about $78 million — in the first case that went to trial.

Bayer lost two more trials in the San Francisco Bay Area over the next nine months, including one in which the jury awarded $2 billion to a couple who blamed their non-Hodgkin's lymphoma on use of Bayer’s herbicide. A judge later cut that award to $86.7 million. Bayer is appealing all three verdicts.

Amid the litigation, Bayer announced deep cuts in its workforce, saying last year that it was slashing 12,000 jobs worldwide, about 10 percent of its employees. In April, Werner Baumann, Bayer’s chief executive, lost a nonbinding shareholder confidence vote.

A fourth trial was scheduled to start in October in St. Louis, but was delayed as a mediator tries to negotiate a settlement between Bayer and thousands of people with claims.

Nonetheless, Bayer officials have been meeting with reporters around the country to defend the safety of Roundup. Bayer has a tiny presence in Massachusetts, with 20 employees, but plans to add 150 in the next few years, according to a spokesman.

Dunn, who was accompanied by a Washington, D.C., lawyer consulting for Bayer, Mark A. Behrens, said juries have sided with plaintiffs in the Roundup trials because they feel badly for people with cancer.

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“You have a company on one side and the person on the other side,” she said. Jurors, she added, hear from “experts on both sides, and what [jurors] do is they say, ‘Well, this guy’s really sick. This company can afford it.’ ”

Several countries have begun taking steps to ban glyphosate weedkillers. This week, the French health and environment agency said it was banning most such products, ruling there wasn’t enough data to exclude health risks.

Austria’s lawmakers voted to ban the herbicide in July, but the government said Monday that the ban can’t take effect on Jan. 1 because of a legal technicality. Bayer’s home country of Germany plans to ban glyphosate by the end of 2023.

Dunn characterized such moves as a “political decision.”

“Because of the jury verdicts, the populations around the world have gotten very nervous,” she said.

US regulators have behaved more responsibly, she said. The Environmental Protection Agency has concluded Roundup is safe and in August announced that it will not approve labels on products containing glyphosate that link the chemical to cancer.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, rejecting a move by California to declare the chemical a carcinogen, said, “We will not allow California’s flawed program to dictate federal policy.”

But critics of Roundup say Monsanto for years smothered internal concerns about the product, tried to discredit studies by scientists who say it is carcinogenic, and cozied up to EPA officials to keep consumers in the dark.

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“If you have some internal concerns, why not err on the side of public health?” said Carey Gillam, a journalist and the author of a 2017 book on Monsanto called “Whitewash — The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science.’’

“They’ve never done that,” she said. “Whenever concerns come up, they just try to beat down the scientist or the journalist raising the concern.”


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.