Lawsuits raise new concerns about Roundup

The $80 million verdict last week for a California man who argued that the weed killer Roundup caused his cancer is reverberating in Georgia.

Just as garden stores have begun overflowing with pallets of flowers, tomato plants and stacks of tangy-smelling, bagged mulch, some retailers are removing the herbicide from the shelves. Others continue to carry it. Georgians’ attitudes reflect those of retailers: Some are nonplussed by the news, while others are looking for alternatives.

“I’ve been using it for 40 years,” said Barry Spann, owner of Spann Landscaping, as he loaded his truck with a day’s supplies outside a local Home Depot. He has no concerns about its safety and no plans to stop using it.

“It works,” he said.

Retailing giant Home Depot plans to keep selling it, and it is still on the shelves at Lowe’s. In an emailed response to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Home Depot said it abides by all regulations.

Roundup has been deemed safe by regulating agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, there are growing questions. The maker of the weed killer has lost two massive lawsuits in the last eight months, giving users and retailers pause.

Pike Nurseries is selling off its stock of Roundup in its 15 Atlanta and two Charlotte stores.

“We found that sales have been going down,” said Desiree Heimann, the vice president of marketing. “So we are bleeding it out. Consumer preferences are changing, and we have other products that can help with that.”

Costco also has dropped sales of Roundup.

Roundup is one of the most-used chemical weed killers in the world. Farmers use it, and it’s popular among homeowners, because it easily eliminates flora such as cudweed and sow thistle.

Early scientific studies in the U.S. and abroad, and some recent ones, found glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is not carcinogenic. The Environmental Protection Agency concluded in 2017 that the chemical is "not likely" a carcinogenic. Monsanto, the company that developed Roundup, and Bayer, the multi-national conglomerate that bought Monsanto last year lean on such studies to defend the product.

The first cracks in that defense came in 2015, after the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans." The agency reviewed years of published and peer-reviewed scientific studies to reach that finding. Other recent scientific studies also have linked glyphosate to increased health risks.

Thousands of lawsuits have been filed, claiming Roundup and other products containing glyphosate cause cancer. But the two suits recently tried and won by U.S. plaintiffs raised the stakes for Bayer. It lost a $78 million judgment last August; the second loss was last week’s California case, and a third trial is underway and expected to finish within a month or so.

Some cities and counties in the U.S. have banned the product’s use, and Roundup is coming under increasing pressure in France and other countries.

In the U.S., Harrell’s, a large Florida-based turf, golf course and agricultural product supplier, released a letter after the $80 million verdict in March, saying it was discontinuing the sales of Roundup because it was having trouble finding an insurer to cover liabilities of claims related to glyphosate.

Georgia farmers use the chemical broadly. But, at least according to state inspectors, while there’s much awareness of the court cases, farmers aren’t overly concerned, said Julie McPeake, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

And “to our knowledge, there has been no discussion regarding increased insurance rates,” for those still using the product, she said.

Walter Reeves, who has long hosted TV and radio shows on gardening in Georgia, gets questions about Roundup and offers alternatives to its use. There's always the old-fashioned way of dealing with weeds.

“When I grew up, we’d go grab a hoe and weed. The first option is dig it up,” he said.

There are also commercial organic weed killers, such as herbicidal soaps. He urges caution when using some products, such as highly concentrated vinegar, because it can burn users’ eyes or skin.

But like many in Georgia, he is not afraid to use Roundup.

Josh Suggs, a Smyrna homeowner pushing a shopping dolly stacked with just-purchased mulch and a bottle of Roundup, said he heard about the suit last week, but is “not really” concerned. He goes through maybe a gallon or two of the weed killer every two years, always using the recommended protective gear, like gloves.

Asked about the research on Roundup, Suggs said it seems to be like the research on eating eggs. One year, the latest study says the cholesterol from eating eggs will kill you, he said. The next year, studies say they eggs good for you.

“I’ll use what works, unless the research is more convincing,” he said.