16 January 2015
Frustrated over health risks from world’s most popular weedkiller
There always seems to be something afoot that could possibly threaten our health and well-being. And we generally don’t have to look very far to find it. On occasion, the news finds us. The problem is that the threat is not always clear, nor are the actions we need to take to deal with it. It’s what makes it so hard for us to avoid tripping over what is toxic to us.
A good case in point is the latest dust-up over glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, the world’s best-selling weedkiller. Monsanto began marketing glyphosate under the Roundup name in the 1970s, and it quickly became an industry standard. In 1997, its use tripled with the introduction of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops, plantings genetically modified to withstand glyphosate in order to enable farmers to use more of the herbicide in killing crop-threatening weeds. Glyphosate is sprayed on most of the corn and soybean crops in the United States, as well as over sugar beets, canola and other crops.
In 2007 alone, the agricultural sector applied between 180 million and 185 million pounds of glyphosate to crops in this country. The home and garden sector applied 5 million to 8 million pounds, and industry, commerce and government applied 13 million to 15 million pounds of glyphosate. It was the most widely used herbicide in U.S. agriculture and second-most widely used herbicide in the home and garden sector.
The reason it should be on our radar now is that glyphosate is under a standard registration review by the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency is determining whether glyphosate use should continue as is or be limited or even halted.
For years, various interest groups, as well as researchers and scientists from several countries, have complained that heavy use of glyphosate is causing problems for plants and animals, including humans. Studies have been conducted, and findings have been made.
In 2011, U.S. government scientists said they detected significant levels of glyphosate in air and water samples. A 2013 MIT study argued that glyphosate residue in food and water induces disease by disrupting normal cellular detoxifying functions. The authors of the study claimed that exposure can eventually lead to increased risk of gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. This was a peer-reviewed scientific research paper from one of our nation’s leading academic institutions – something you’d think would not be easily dismissed.
Apparently, it was.
In May 2013, federal regulators agreed to raise the permitted tolerance levels for glyphosate residue in food, citing an increased human resistance to the compound. No independent tests were conducted in reaching the conclusion that higher residue levels of this stuff pose no danger to humans or the environment. Levels were raised in oilseed crops – which include sesames, flaxes and soybeans – to 15 times the previous levels. Regulators also raised the allowable levels for sweet potatoes and carrots to 25 times the previous levels.
In making their determination, the government officials relied on tests and data provided by the manufacturer, which deems the risks as insignificant. Monsanto says glyphosate has been extensively studied and has a long track record of safe and effective use.
And the company could be right. We may have far more important things to worry about. Heck, glyphosate may be so insignificant we could sprinkle its residue on our cornflakes. Who knows? It may even be in our cornflakes.
But I have an uneasy feeling when I hear terms such as “insignificant risks” or “inadequate evidence” when the topic is potential impact and continued proliferation of an ever-present synthetic compound that has yet to be the subject of a comprehensive, independent U.S. government study.
What do I believe when I read that even the EPA’s technical fact sheet on glyphosate states, for example, that chronic long-term exposure can cause kidney damage and reproductive effects?
And when an MIT study argues that glyphosate’s “negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body”?
Do I read this as it sounds – that maybe what is being called insignificant or low-risk in the short term could escalate into having a significant impact on health over the years? Is it something that could shorten a person’s life?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture routinely tests food for chemical residues to make sure they are within approved tolerance levels but does not routinely test for glyphosate. The rationale has been budget restrictions and the lower health risks associated with this synthetic compound. So don’t look for any warning labels any time soon. The only real way you have of knowing whether glyphosate traces or residue is in the food you eat is if you grow it yourself or only buy products that are certified organic.