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Australian farmer sues over claims Roundup caused his cancer

Lying in his hospital bed receiving chemotherapy, Mr Wild learnt that thousands of American farmers with his type of cancer had been exposed to Roundup.

“Over there they call it the farmer’s disease,” Mr Wild says. “There was no doubt in my mind what had happened to me.”

Five months after Mr Wild was diagnosed, a California jury awarded $289 million (later reduced on appeal) to a former groundskeeper who blamed Roundup for his terminal cancer.

Bayer, the company that bought Roundup’s creator Monsanto in 2018, has since lost two more cases in the US, forced to pay millions in damages each time.

The active ingredient in Roundup – glyphosate – kills most plants by preventing them making proteins needed for growth. Its popularity burgeoned in the 1990s when Monsanto began selling genetically modified crop seeds in the ’90s that were resistant to the herbicide.

Bayer says on its website that 800 scientific studies and reviews submitted to US, European and other regulators confirm that glyphosate-based products can be used safely and are not carcinogenic.

But Reuters this month reported that 42,700 plaintiffs claiming to have been exposed to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based products had sued the company in the US as of October 11.

Last month Mr Wild became the first Australian farmer to launch proceedings in the Victorian Supreme Court, alleging his cancer was caused by RoundUp.

His lawyer, Tony Carbone, is also representing Melbourne gardener Michael Ogalirolo, who alleges he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2011 after using Roundup three times a week for 18 years.

Former gardener Michael Ogalirolo has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma which he alleges is due to exposure to Roundup.

Former gardener Michael Ogalirolo has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma which he alleges is due to exposure to Roundup.Credit:Joe Armao

Mr Carbone, the managing partner of Carbone Lawyers, said in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

“It’s not possible to say councils have made a proper risk assessment on the back of that and say it’s safe,” he said.

A spokesperson for Bayer Australia Limited confirmed it had received two writs.

“We firmly stand behind the safety of our products, and these claims will be vigorously defended,” he said.

In June this year the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning conducted a review into its use of glyphosate products “following developments in the USA”.

“The review established that DELWP’s use of products containing glyphosate is safe to continue as long as the safety data sheet and internal procedures are followed,” a spokesperson said.

The department said its advice was supported by WorkSafe Victoria.

The Municipal Association of Victoria also points out that the national regulatory body – the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority – clearly states that the products it approves containing glyphosate can “continue to be used safely according to label directions”.

But this has not stopped a wave of Victorian councils seeking to minimise – or stamp out altogether – their use of glyphosate herbicides, including Roundup.

Last month Moreland became the latest council to crack down on glyphosate, committing to phase out the chemical by August 2021.

Mayor Lambros Tapinos said increasing numbers of residents had asked to be placed on the ‘No Spray’ register – which enables residents and businesses to request that weeds not be sprayed in front of or alongside their property – with many citing concerns about Roundup.

“It’s a controversial product – people have seen what is happening in the US and Europe, where they are moving away from it,” Cr Tapinos said.

Germany – the country where Bayer is headquartered – has said it will ban glyphosate by the end of 2023 because it wipes out insect populations.

“It’s not just the safety element – it’s also the fact it is quite damaging to some native species and insects and kills some native grasses,” Cr Tapinos said.

Moreland is not alone.

Maribyrnong City Council phased out the use of glyphosate-based products in early 2018.

Frankston City mayor Sandra Mayer said the council had unanimously voted last month to stop using them from July next year.

Many of the councils and shires The Age spoke to said they were minimising the use of glyphosate weedkillers and trialling alternatives.

A large number – including Greater Dandenong, Bayside, Bass Coast Shire, Maroondah, Stonnington and Mount Alexander Shire – do not use glyphosate around playgrounds, childcare centres and schools.

Hume City Council said it had reduced its use of glyphosate weed control by 70 per cent, now  removing weeds on footpaths by mechanically edging.

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In April Baw Baw Shire began a chemical-free trial in three of its parks in Drouin, Trafalgar and Warragul.

“Other options being considered include trialling the use of steam to control weeds, the use of of organic pine oil and vinegar-based herbicides and the use of small flame burners,” Baw Baw Shire said.

Municipal Association of Victoria president Coral Ross said she was aware that a small number of councils had made the decision to phase out the use of glyphosate-based products and that others are considering doing so.

“We have some concerns that, while there is a strong focus on glyphosate, the risks and effectiveness of some alternative weed control measures may not be well understood,” she said.

Moira Shire said it was very interested in working with other councils and looking at alternatives for weed eradication.

“We have trialled some of the organic products on the market and at this stage the results have been inconclusive and have not met expectations or requirements,” said executive manager operations Rick Devlin.

He said trials by other councils had found organic products could corrode rubber rings due to the high acid content, that the acidic smell bothered some people and the products had to be used more frequently than glyphosate.

Stonnington CEO Jacqui Weatherill said in the past few years, the council had discontinued the use of glyphosate-based herbicides in playgrounds and other sensitive sites.

“In areas where council has sought to reduce glyphosate use and employ alternative methods, these activities have been very costly, significantly less effective and led to increases in resident complaints,” she said.

“This is a very challenging issue facing all councils, and there are no easy answers.”

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