A California jury has awarded a couple $2 billion in a lawsuit against Monsanto. The couple claims that the company’s Roundup weed killer caused their cancer.
This follows a case in which a terminally ill California man won a $289 million settlement from the controversial chemical manufacturer after a judge agreed that Roundup caused the man’s cancer.
The lawsuit opened the floodgates for more litigation against Monsanto — which denies that the weed killer causes cancer and plans to appeal the verdict — and its use of the chemical glyphosate in Roundup. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
“We were finally able to show the jury the secret, internal Monsanto documents proving that Monsanto has known for decades that… Roundup could cause cancer,” Brent Wisner, the lawyer for the California man, Dewayne Johnson, said in a statement obtained by The Guardian.
Scott Partridge, the vice president of Monsanto, disagreed, telling the newspaper that, “glyphosate does not cause cancer, and did not cause Johnson’s cancer.”
Johnson was using Roundup regularly for his job as a groundskeeper at a Bay Area school district, and was once left soaked by the product when a hose broke. But for the average person who uses it occasionally for yard work, are Roundup and other weed killers still safe to use?
Unfortunately, we don’t have the scientific evidence at this point to know for sure, Dr. Robb Bassett, the associate medical director for the Poison Control Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells PEOPLE.
“This case brings up the question of how much protection do we need for Roundup and we’re simply not sure, which is a big problem,” he says. “Our understanding of a lot of commercial chemicals is limited, and an abundance of caution is always useful.”
But, Dr. Bassett says, people should not be overly concerned because of this lawsuit.
“The important thing to do is to continue to use common sense, and not overreact that all commercially available products at your local hardware store are an imminent threat to public health,” he says. “But, that being said, this underscores the need to follow the instructions and take every precaution to limit exposure to any chemicals, especially chemicals that we don’t totally understand. And that’s definitely the case with glyphosate.”
Dr. Bassett advises doing anything possible to limit skin exposure when using weed killers, such as wearing long sleeves and pants, and gloves. If the liquid does get on the skin, he says to wash it off immediately.
“The general rule in toxicology is removal from exposure is 90 percent of the battle, so doing whatever it takes to take it off the skin,” he says. “We teach our junior doctors that the solution to pollution is dilution, and that using soap and water can minimize that concentration and remove the chemical immediately — it doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.”
If people have additional symptoms, like painful or itchy skin, or a rash, they should contact a doctor for more advanced decontamination.
And as another form of prevention, it’s best to store Roundup or other weed killers as far from the home as possible, and in areas where kids and pets cannot reach.
Dr. Bassett adds that if people are ever in doubt of their safety after using weed killers, they can call poison control at any time.
“This is what the poison control centers are here for, if there’s ever any question of exposure or concern, we’re a great free, public health entity,” he says. “Across the country people can call 800-222-1222 and they’ll be directed to their local poison center.”
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