Weedkiller to stay on Israeli shelves despite $10.9 billion cancer claim deal

Without admitting liability, chemical giant Bayer settles 95,000 US lawsuits claiming that herbicide Roundup — widely used in Israel — causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Spraying an Israeli street with weedkiller. (YouTube screenshot)
Spraying an Israeli street with weedkiller. (YouTube screenshot)

Israel has no plans to ban or reduce use of a popular weedkiller, despite its producer, the German pharmaceuticals and chemicals giant Bayer, agreeing last week to pay up to $10.9 billion to settle tens of thousands of lawsuits claiming that the herbicide causes a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The weedkiller Roundup, based on glyphosate, has attracted 125,000 lawsuits in the US, of which around 95,000 have been settled. Another 30,000 plaintiffs are holding out for a better deal.

Bayer, which inherited Roundup when it bought the the US agrochemical and agricultural biotech company Monsanto in 2018, intends to continue selling the product and has no plans for new safety warning labels.

It said the settlement included no admission of liability or wrongdoing.

Cancer risk claims rely largely on a 2015 classification of glyphosate in Group 2A (“probably carcinogenic to humans”) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The organization also found a “positive association for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

Spraying corn with Roundup. (Youtube screenshot)

That classification was cited for a French ban on Roundup 360 in January 2019 and a 2017 listing of glyphosate by California environmental regulators as “known to the state to cause cancer.” Austria, France and Germany announced earlier this year that they intend to ban use of the material in the coming years.

During 2018 and 2019, nearly $200 million were paid out to Americans who claimed that their cancer was caused by these glyphosate-based herbicides. In the largest payout, in May 2019, a California jury instructed Bayer to pay $2 billion in damages, later cut to $87 million on appeal, to a local couple on the grounds that the company had failed to adequately advise consumers of Roundup’s possible carcinogenic risks.

In this August 10, 2018, photo, Dewayne Johnson reacts after hearing the verdict in his case against Monsanto at the Superior Court of California in San Francisco. The Northern California groundskeeper says he will accept a judge’s reduced verdict of $78 million against Monsanto after a jury found the company’s weed killer caused his cancer. (Josh Edelson/Pool Photo via AP)

Roundup is liberally used in Israel, several times a year, in public gardens, city walks, and on paths and sidewalks, more often than not by municipal workers not wearing the required protective gear and without warning the public that spraying has just been carried out.

The use of such weedkillers has been banned by several Israeli local authorities, among them Kfar Saba, Kochav Yair-Tsur Yigal, Carmiel and Gezer.

According to the Health Ministry, however, the IARC classification was “based on ‘limited’ evidence’ of cancer in humans and ‘sufficient’ evidence of cancer in laboratory animals (in tests in which animals were exposed to glyphosate as a pure substance).”

Since then, a statement to The Times of Israel said, the interministerial committee for the approval of pesticides in agriculture, chaired by the Health Ministry, has discussed the issue several times, as well as alternatives to glyphosate. The committee also includes representation from the agriculture, labor and environmental protection ministries, with each ministry taking responsibility for different aspects of particular substances.

“As a result, the Health Ministry recommends reducing the use of this material in the vicinity of public buildings,” the statement said, adding, “Various authorities around the world such as the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), the German Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety and the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) have conducted comprehensive glyphosate risk assessments and all have come to the same conclusion that it is not carcinogenic to humans, contrary to the IARC recommendation.

Spraying weedkiller on a sidewalk in Israel. (Video screenshot)

“Following these safety assessments, the glyphosate material has been re-approved in Europe by 2022 and continues to be approved in the US, Canada and a large number of countries around the world.”

Product instructions had to be followed to protect human and environmental health, the statement said.

A statement from the Agriculture Ministry said that it was wrong to compare the way weedkillers were used in Israel and other countries, because each country determined the quantities that could be used in line with the particular problem being confronted.

A tank ship cruises on the river Rhine in front of the Bayer chemical plant in the evening sun in Leverkusen, Germany, April 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Bayer said it was earmarking $8.8 billion to $9.6 billion to settle with those who have accepted the deal or are still negotiating, and setting aside an additional $1.25 billion for the yet-to-be-resolved claims.

Bayer also announced settlements for two other Monsanto-related class action lawsuits. One, the so-called Dicamba Drift Crop Damage Lawsuit, represented farmers who lost crops because neighboring farms used a particular herbicide that drifted onto their property with the wind. The other concerned water and environmental contamination caused by polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB, which Monsanto manufactured until 1977.

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