Monsanto expert witness says human body repels glyphosate - 'confident there's no hazard'

By Rich Peters | May 6, 2019

OAKLAND – The third trial against Monsanto wrapped its sixth week as the discussion of whether or not Roundup use was a substantial factor in causing a Northern California couple’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma continued, bringing Monsanto’s expert witnesses to the stand.

Alva and Alberta Pilliod, married and in their 70s, allege that the weedkiller gave both of them non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using it for more than three decades around several Bay Area properties.

A number of experts testified for Monsanto throughout the week, most notably involving environmental hazards and exposure. 

Expert Dr. Robert Phalen said in the Alameda Superior Court that glyphosate, the key chemical in Roundup, is not easily absorbed by the human body and argued that a high dosage rate is unlikely despite decades of the product’s use by the plaintiffs.

“As a general matter, does glyphosate readily absorb through skin?” asked Monsanto attorney Kelly Evans. 

“No. It’s a very low rate. It’s kind of a little misleading looking at percentages here,” replied Phalen. “The rate is very low, I can tell you. The skin repels water; it repels glyphosate. And these rates with many of these studies are – we call 10 to the minus six type amounts, a millionth of a milligram per centimeter squared per hour. Just very low amounts are going to get through the skin. The skin actually repels glyphosate.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys and their expert witnesses have maintained throughout the trial that the “dose makes the poison,” making Phalen’s statements key for the defendant’s argument of its product’s safety.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Brent Wisner cross-examined Phalen, probing him about the amount of glyphosate the Pilliods could have absorbed over decades of use. Phalen calculated that the highest possible dose Alva could have absorbed was 0.044 milligrams, comparing it to 1/95,000 of a teaspoon of sugar. Alberta, he said, could have been exposed to 0.036 milligrams, the equivalent to 1/115,000 of a teaspoon.

“The skin is not going to absorb like a sponge,” said Phalen, also noting the amount of clothing worn by the plaintiffs while using Roundup. 

“It’s actually repelling it," he said. "And so, in that repelling it, the outer skin is kind of waxy, oily and it's like bricks and mortar. And so the bricks are made of cells filled with keratin. And in between them is oils and waxes. And it has to go try to go around those cracks. And that’s really what limits glyphosate from getting in through the skin.”

Coinciding with Phalen’s testimony, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also released a statement April 30 following the conclusion of another glyphosate study, declaring the chemical safe. 

“EPA has found no risks to public health from the current registered uses of glyphosate,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in the written statement.

Phalen acknowledged and agreed with the EPA’s findings, citing his trust of the product’s safety. 

“I know it’s safe,” said Phalen. “I’m confident there’s no hazard there.”

Wisner disputed much of Phalen’s testimony and stood behind the plaintiffs’ own exposure expert, toxicologist William Sawyer, who last week warned attorneys to wear gloves when handling Roundup because it is “absorbed by the skin and stored in the body for days.”

Last year, northern California janitor Dewayne Johnson was awarded more than $289 million in damages against Monsanto for similar claims. The judge later reduced the award to $78 million - $39 million in compensatory and $39 million in punitive damages. Last week, the verdict was appealed by Bayer, which purchased Monsanto last year.

In March, California resident Edwin Hardeman was awarded more than $80 million in damages - $75 million in punitive damages on claims that Monsanto failed to warn of cancer risks, as well as $5.6 million in past and future non-economic losses and $200,967.10 in past economic losses.

More than 10,000 plaintiffs have now sued Monsanto over similar allegations of glyphosate being linked to their non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

In the case of Alva and Alberta Pilliod, Monsanto’s defense is expected to rest on Monday, followed by closing statements before the case is left in the jury’s hands.

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