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Monsanto Roundup: Killer Cocktail?

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The “inert” ingredients in Monsanto Roundup--including POEA, which European regulators banned use of in 2016--make it more deadly than glyphosate alone.

Oakland, CAThe jury in Pilliod v. Monsanto Co heard evidence that was not presented in previous Monsanto glyphosate lawsuits. It may have prompted the record-breaking $2 billion award, and the information may be central to the more than 13,000 Roundup lawsuits still pending.

Roundup is more toxic than glyphosate, alone. It may be the combination of glyphosate and polyoxyethylene tallow amine (POEA) that’s killing people. Monsanto’s long-held position that glyphosate is safe may have been a distraction to divert attention away from the real problem, which is the combined action of the two chemicals.

Herbicide science

Glyphosate is the ingredient in Roundup that actually kills the weeds. It is also used as a desiccant on conventional grain crops to dry them before harvest, and on public roads, railway lines, parks, open space, forests, and private home gardens. Non-agricultural use of glyphosate has risen steadily in the U.S., from 2270 metric tons per year in 1993 to 9300 metric tons per year in 2007. Glyphosate-based Roundup has been marketed for 40 years and is now the largest selling herbicide in the world.

Glyphosate, however, makes up only about 40 to 60 percent of the ingredients in Roundup. Between 10 and 15 percent of the formulation is POEA, a soap-like surfactant that helps glyphosate spread over and stick to plant leaves, rather than beading up. POEA can also be extremely damaging to human cells – so much so that European regulators banned its use in 2016.

Harmful by itself, POEA also makes glyphosate more damaging to human beings because the property that makes glyphosate adhere to leaves also makes it penetrate human cells. It is a synergistic effect. The two chemicals together are more damaging than either is alone.

Did Monsanto hide the danger?

Legal liability requires a showing not just that the Roundup formulation was poisonous to human beings, but that the company either knew or had reason to know that it was dangerous and withheld that information from consumers.

Internal Monsanto documents suggest that the company did know about the danger. In a 2002 email, a Monsanto scientist reportedly wrote, “we are in pretty good shape with glyphosate but vulnerable with surfactants. What I’ve been hearing from you is that this continues to be the case with these studies - Glyphosate is OK but the formulated product (and thus the surfactant) does the damage.”

In another email, surfaced as part of the discovery process in Pilliod, a Monsanto toxicologist wrote, “you cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen ... we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. The testing on the formulations are not anywhere near the level of the active ingredient. We can make that statement about glyphosate and can infer that there is no reason to believe that Roundup would cause cancer.”

More pointedly, one Monsanto scientist wrote, “Even though no testing requirements have been implemented for several years now, this damn endocrine crap just doesn’t go away, does it.”

Although Monsanto changed the Roundup formulation in its European market, where POEA had been banned, it declined to do so in the United States, where the change might have been adversely interpreted as evidence of internal doubt about the safety of the product.

Are the emails a smoking gun? On hindsight, they certainly suggest internal doubts. The defensive strategy that developed thereafter seems to rely on statements about the safety of glyphosate, but that steers away from the potentially more damaging questions about the safety of the total formulation.

EPA fumbles

The Environmental Protection Agency also seems to have limited its safety review to glyphosate, as the active herbicidal ingredient in Roundup, and separately to surfactants, like POEA, but not the effect of the combined product.

The agency does not appear to have reviewed the safety of the formulation. In fact, the EPA does not appear to have information about the non-glyphosate elements of the product as late as 2016. Instead, its reassurances to consumers about the safety of Roundup appear to be based on piecemeal investigations and an extensive database of Monsanto-sponsored studies.

What now?

The punitive damages portion of the Pilliod verdict will likely be reduced, but the evidence collected about the role of Roundup in damaging human health will be likely be available in pending Monsanto glyphosate lawsuits. The internal memoranda suggesting qualms about the safety of the formulation may provide powerful evidence of deliberate deception on the part of Monsanto. Court watchers are watching for settlement negotiations.


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