A Once-in-a-Century Pesticide (that Probably Causes Cancer)

On Friday, a World Health Organization panel of scientists from 11 countries announced their decision to list glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, as a probable human carcinogen. In particular the panel noted the links between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as a study showing the chemical caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells, another showing increases in blood markers of chromosomal damage in people studied after nearby glyphosate spraying, and several recent animal studies showing evidence of carcinogenity.

Glyphosate use in the U.S. has skyrocketed since the mid-1990s introduction of Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” GMO crops. Glyphosate kills anything that grows – but by engineering crops like soy, corn and others to withstand high doses of the chemical, Monsanto created crops that farmers could spray directly with Roundup, killing nearby weeds while leaving the crop unscathed. In just a few years, farmers’ use of glyphosate more than doubled, making the chemical the most widely used herbicide in the country.

EPA: If loving glyphosate is wrong, we don’t want to be right

I’ve been writing about the health risks of glyphosate for more than twenty years. In a 1991 brief, I noted that the U.S EPA had stated that the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate was “not fully understood.” By 1995, EPA had classified glyphosate as a non-carcinogen for humans, despite their own reviewer’s statement that, “Our viewpoint is one of protecting the public health when we see suspicious data.” At that time, Monsanto was introducing their GMO crops. Instead of acting in the interest of public health, EPA quietly granted a Monsanto request to triple the allowable levels of glyphosate residues on our food. By the time of my October 2000 update on glyphosate, studies linking the chemical to non-Hodgkin lymphoma were already being reported, and by 2004 even more studies raised this alarming potential health threat from exposures to glyphosate.

The advent of GMO crops resulted in a total increase in U.S. pesticide use of 404 million pounds in the first sixteen years following their widespread adoption by farmers – the bulk of this being attributed to the increased use of Roundup. Despite the increasing safety concerns, faced with this massive increase in spraying, in 2013 EPA again increased the allowable levels of glyphosate on our food, doubling the amount allowed on soybeans (doubled from the level that was triple the pre-GMO tolerance) and increasing the amounts allowed on other foods by as much as 25 times. It should be no surprise, then, that a recent study found that “extreme” levels of glyphosate are now common in GMO soybeans. EPA explained their decision to allow more of the chemical on our food by stating that glyphosate is not a cancer risk and is considered generally safe.

Lies, damn lies, and pesticide marketing

You might be wondering how EPA got this so wrong for so long. But EPA was hardly alone. Monsanto’s public relations efforts and advertising over the years created a false reputation for glyphosate as a safe, environmentally benign pesticide. The company’s campaign was sidetracked in 1996 when the New York Attorney General fined Monsanto $50,000 for false claims that Roundup is biodegradable and “less toxic” than table salt, but the slap on the wrist hardly deterred pesticide proponents. A 2008 paper co-written by a USDA researcher (your tax dollars at work!) called glyphosate a “once-in-a-century herbicide,” equating its safety with that of “sodium chloride” (that’s salt to you and me) and aspirin. Even more recently, in 2012 Monsanto was brought to task for false advertising again, this time for claims in a Dutch paper that glyphosate would have no effect on soil or groundwater. The company ran the misleading ads despite reports a year earlier by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that found glyphosate residues were common in streams, rain and air throughout the Mississippi River farm belt. In 2014, USGS reported that glyphosate residues were “widespread in the environment,” finding the chemical in soils and sediments, lakes, ponds, wetlands, surface water and even some groundwater samples.

In keeping with its falsehoods about glyphosate’s environmental persistence, Monsanto continues to insist the chemical poses no health threats. In 2013, the company told the Associated Press that, according to EPA’s rating of glyphosate, the evidence demonstrates that it does not cause cancer. Predictably, Monsanto rejected the latest WHO conclusion that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, stating that Roundup could “continue to be used without unreasonable risks to people or the environment.”

Sour vindication

You might think that the conclusion about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate by the world’s leading health authority would give a feeling of vindication to someone who’s been reporting on this potential for two decades. But instead I’m left with mixed feelings of hope and despair. I have hope that this may finally make it impossible for our government regulators to ignore the health and environmental costs of the massive use of this toxic chemical. I have hope that California will add glyphosate to its Prop 65 list of carcinogens. But I also despair for the families whose lives may be changed forever by serious and even life-threatening illnesses from exposures they suffered to this unsafe pesticide. I also reflect on all of the time, energy and resources we’ve wasted over more than twenty years for a chemical that organic and sustainable farm systems have demonstrated is completely unnecessary (see here and here and here and many other resources here and here). Vindication is supposed to be sweet, but the WHO conclusion leaves me feeling sadly sour.