In a recent court case in USA the agrochemical giant Monsanto was ordered to pay £225 million to a school groundskeeper who sued them after he developed terminal cancer.

The groundsman claimed it was his frequent exposure to the Monsanto product Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the world, that led to him being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, a product that the World Health Organization classifies as a probable carcinogen and is found extensively in a wide range of other weed killers such as Weedol, Deadfast, Resolva and Gallup many of which are sold to the domestic market.

The case is interesting from many perspectives, first and foremost, that neither side could definitively prove or disprove that Roundup caused the subsequent illness.

The case put to the jury also stated the groundkeeper used Roundup 20 to 30 times per year and that he experienced two on-the-job accidents that doused him from head to toe with the glyphosate based product.

No doubt Monsanto will counter argue the case as there’s no scientific consensus on whether glyphosate causes cancer and no studies definitively proving glyphosate causes cancer.

What we do know is that it can take an incredibly long time to gather sufficient data to demonstrate any synergy or direct correlation with exposure to specific substances, asbestos being a classic example.

It has to recognised that a product designed to kill weeds, kill living plant life, must reasonably be expected to pose a risk to some extent to other living species.

Here in the UK we have a fantastic, albeit often poorly understood and poorly implemented, regulation that focusses on hazardous substances.

COSHH, The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations promotes a risk based approach to how we handle, store, use and dispose of hazardous substances we encounter in the workplace.

We can never predict what evidence the scientific community may uncover but what we can do is ensure that we follow the best advice currently available and apply any control measures defined by suppliers, manufacturers or advisors.

Yes, it can be a complex topic but one that must be taken seriously. The case above raises many questions:

  • Why did the greenkeeper end up doused not just once but twice in the product?
  • Was he trained and competent?
  • Was he provided with the appropriate protective clothing?

COSHH makes you focus on the basics and take nothing for granted because there is not just an obligation on the manufacturer of the hazardous substance, there are very significant obligations placed on the employer and the employee.

If you need advice on how to implement COSHH please get in touch.