It's a chemical most have likely never heard of, glyphosate, other than as the weed killer Roundup. A white crystal that is odorless, it was introduced by Monsanto in 1974, and it has since become the world's best selling herbicide of all time. It was developed to control a wide variety of weeds, grasses and broadleaf plants. Originally designed for farmers, it is also used, in a slightly different formulation, by landowners, local municipalities and school districts, and residential homeowners to keep weeds in check.
According to scientific papers, the use of glyphosate in agriculture was originally limited to post-harvest treatments and weed control between established rows of tree, nut and vine crops. But widespread adoption of no-till farming practices, which increases the amount of water in the soil while expanding organic matter retention and more efficient farming, led to some crop varieties that became resistant to glyphosate. To accommodate that, in the late 1990s, Monsanto began selling genetically engineered seeds, such as soy, corn and cotton, that would be tolerant of glyphosate while the weeds around it were killed. Today, according to reports, 90 percent of the soy and 70 percent of corn grown in the United States are genetically modified.
According to the Chemical Watch Factsheet, in the United States alone, approximately 180 to 185 million pounds of glyphosate are applied each year, with the greatest use, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, in the Mississippi River basin for weed control on corn, soybeans and cotton. But throughout the heartland of the country, including in Michigan, use has climbed, with 57 million pounds of glyphosate applied to cornfields in 2010, compared to 2000, when 4.4 million pounds was applied to U.S. cornfields. Despite U.S. consumption, China currently produces more than 40 percent of the world's supply of glyphosate, and exports 35 percent of it, notably to South America.
Additionally, parklands, playgrounds, sidewalks, school yards and other areas all over the country are routinely sprayed with Roundup or a generic version, in order to keep areas weed free. It's available for homeowners seeking to prevent weeds from invading their flower beds, lawns and sidewalks at every Home Depot, Lowe's and neighborhood garden center across the country. The question comes up, therefore – is it safe for us to be around glyphosate?
Critics of the pesticide assert that exposure to Roundup and glyphosate, which can come through to humans running on sprayed grass to exposure in drinking water from surface runoff or drainage into wells, possibly through our drinking water, the fish we eat, and off of agricultural products, may damage liver and kidneys, cause irregular heartbeat, reproductive disorders, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's, to cancer. Some cities, such as Chicago, New York City, and Boulder, as well as countries like Holland, Denmark, and Sweden, have banned the use of the chemical in all public spaces. In September, California's EPA stated it will now list glyphosate as known to cause cancer.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only performs intensive safety tests on chemicals every 15 years, with 2015 a testing year. The agency's glyphosate fact sheet for its Drinking Water and Health page notes, for the time being, that long-term high exposure to glyphosate “has the potential to cause reproductive effects, and that there is inadequate evidence to state whether or not glyphosate has the potential to cause cancer from a lifetime exposure in drinking water.” It states the major source of glyphosate in drinking water is runoff from herbicide use.
A report, Epidemiological Studies of Glyphosate and Cancer: A Review, by Pamela Mink, Jack S. Mandel, Bonnielin K. Sceurman and Jessica I. Lundin in August 2012, stated, “The United States Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies around the world have registered glyphosate as a broad spectrum herbicide for use on multiple food and non-food use crops. Glyphosate is widely considered by regulatory authorities and scientific bodies to have no carcinogenic potential, based primarily on results of carcinogenicity studies of rats and mice...Our review found no consistent pattern of positive associations with cancer.”
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment published a toxicology review in 2013, finding that “the available data is contradictory and far from being convincing” with regard to correlations between exposure to glyphosate formulations and various cancers, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
A 2002 review by the European Union determined that exposure to Roundup posed no health risk to humans. But a 2014 review article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health updated that, reporting a significant association between B-cell lymphoma and glyphosate exposure.
In its literature, Monsanto has long asserted that Roundup poses no risk to humans nor to the environment.
In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Their determination was based on epidemiological studies, animal studies, and in vitro studies by 17 cancer experts from 11 countries who looked at the available scientific evidence on five different pesticides, including glyphosate.
The WHO report stated that “Glyphosate caused DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals and in human and animal cells studied in laboratories. Studies of workers who had been exposed to glyphosate in the U.S., Canada, and Sweden were found to have increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma that persisted after adjustment for other pesticides.”
Responding to questions on its safety to humans, EPA spokesperson John Peterson of the EPA's Chicago region office said, “We are nearing completion of our cancer review which included consideration of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) review. We expect to release our draft risk assessment within the next few months.”
With all of the conflicting data on the pesticide, what's the real deal on glyphosate?
Representatives at Monsanto did not respond to questions from Downtown Publications, but according to the company's website, glyphosate, and other similar chemicals they produce, helps farmers produce more from their land while conserving more of the world's natural resources like water and energy. The website states that “Glyphosate-based herbicides are supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health, safety and environmental databases ever compiled for a pesticide product. Comprehensive toxicological studies repeated over the last 40 years have time and again demonstrated that glyphosate poses no unreasonable risks to people, the environment, or pets when used as directed on the label.”
Local experts and scientists disagree, and are concerned for human, animal and environmental welfare.
“There is a concern. There is much more intensive testing in Europe than the EPA has done – much more in-depth, and longer,” said Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash. He noted that his office does not measure for glyphosate at all. “It's considered safe by the EPA, and that's what the MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) relies on.”
According to spokespersons from MDEQ and Michigan Health and Human Services, the state of Michigan does not test for nor regulate glyphosate as it is a federal issue controlled and monitored by the EPA.
Despite not monitoring it locally, Nash said glyphosate is a chemical he personally worries about, and doesn't use. “A professional applicator has to be trained. But when people just buy it and apply it themselves, they may not follow the directions,” he noted.
Nash said he is most concerned about buffers, or a lack of buffers, between lawns and water. “When lawns go to the water's edge, anything on the water flows right off of it. It's not much more impervious than concrete. Anything you put on it can flow right off. Often, you're encouraged to have a buffer of bushes, native plants with deep roots, things that can get absorbed in that area,” he said. “When glyphosate gets into the water, it says on the label it can hurt fish and invertebrates which fish feed on.”
In particular, scientists have noted that when glyphosate is combined with other chemicals, it becomes even more toxic, as the other chemicals become similar to a conductor for the glyphosate. A French study, reported in Scientific American, stated that umbilical cords were especially sensitive, and stress them “to suicide.”
The study also looked at a pond filled with frog and toad tadpoles. The scientists added the manufacturer's recommended dose of Roundup; returning two weeks later, they found 50 to 100 percent of the population of several species of tadpoles had been killed.
“The thing that concerns me the most is the prevalence of its use and health concerns. The rate of exposure to glyphosate, and how much humans are exposed to it is one thing, for human health. But we also need to look at what it's doing to the ecostructure,” said Wayne State University Law School professor Nick Schroek, director of the Transnational Environmental Law Center. “Whether it's just toxic or a carcinogen, it all comes down to exposure. We're exposed through so many sources, from big farms to local stores. If we're exposed with our food and in our yards, eventually that level of exposure can lead to big problems.”
Schroek said the chemicals that are emerging to be of most concern are the ones in the aquatic environment. “What happens is you have runoff from treated yards and fields from rain events into rivers, lakes and streams, and that mixes with other chemicals. It's one thing when it's just one chemical. It's another when it's a mixtures of chemicals. We need to look at what it's doing to birds, mammals, aquatic life, reptiles with such a wide use of adoption.”
“I hate the chemical. It's a pet peeve of mine,” said Linda Schweitzer, associate professor in environmental chemistry and toxicology at Oakland University. “While we're not sure what it's doing with the ecosystem, the human health implications are profound. There's evidence that does suggest that it has toxicity to human cells, and cancer may be one disease that has involvement.”
Schweitzer takes that statement even further, stating, “There seems to be a link between glyphosate and cancer. If you see increases between the two, and the scientific literature sees these links, then you can call it a carcinogen. Which is exactly why the World Health Organization is calling it a carcinogen. I say if there's a body of evidence, it says a lot.”
When asked why the EPA has been reluctant to make that connection, she explained, “The EPA says there has be a strong amount of evidence, and different kinds of evidence. There has to be animal studies, and different kinds of epidemiology, as well as evidence on the molecular level. For the EPA, it's not just circumstantial evidence. It has to be rigorous, scientific studies that shows the evidence stands up.
“However, the body of evidence is stacking up very quickly,” she emphasized. “Their old data is becoming outdated very quickly.”
A scientific study done in 2014 by scientists in Washington state, Oklahoma and Germany, by Swanson, Leu, Abrahamson, and Wallet, concluded, “Evidence is mounting that glyphosate interferes with many metabolic processes in plants and animals and glyphosate residues have been detected in both. Glyphosate disrupts the endocrine system and the balance of gut bacteria, it damages DNA and is a driver of mutations that lead to cancer.”
“Cancer rates in children are much higher than they were pre-World War II, when lots of chemicals started entering the environment. It's not just better diagnoses, it's exposure,” affirmed Donna Kashian, associate professor for environmental toxicology at Wayne State University. “We need to be more cognizant of the chemicals we expose ourselves to and the food we eat. We keep saying chemicals are OK, until it gets to a level that we have to stop. The data we have now may not give us all the risks.”
Kashian, unlike some of her fellow scientists, doesn't totally invalidate the use glyphosate.
“Large agriculture is one thing,” she said, noting it's different to her from home use, because in large scale agricultural use, glyphosate can protect the food supply. “You have to take a risk assessment. It's different than lawns. At what level is it dangerous, but does the human population need the food? We keep taking more and more land out of agricultural use. So we have to magnify the efficiency of our cropland. Pesticides are one tool that help us do that. It's worth the risk because we have to accept some level of risk.”
But she draws her line in the sand there.
“Municipalities, schools, homes, gardens – they're a different story,” Kashian said. “I just say, c'mon. Around your children? I live around wells. The possibility of it getting into our water supply is very high, and it's not worth it.
“The general population should minimize chemical use completely,” she said. “Americans have to have perfect lawns and no dandelions. It irks me. I can't justify it. There are many different ways to manage weeds. We can accept weeds, or plant natural grasses, or rock gardens. Common sense should tell us this.”
Kashian believes that “the scientific community probably knew it wasn't a good thing. I suspect it is an endocrine disrupter and a carcinogen. But it's not a new DDT because it doesn't last the same way in the environment. DDT's half life in the environment was so long and it could biomagnify.”
“It's a little bit of apples and oranges,” said Schweitzer regarding comparisons to DDT, while noting there are similarities to the release of a potentially toxic chemical into the environment, and then seeing harmful effects decades later.
Like glyphosate, DDT was a colorless, odorless crystal known for its insecticide properties. In an introduction to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which exposed the environmental impact on entire species of indiscriminate spraying of DDT in the U.S., “DDT enabled the conquest of insect pests in agriculture and of ancient insect-borne disease just as surely as the atomic bomb destroyed military enemies and dramatically altered the balance between humans and nature.” The book exposed how DDT use was poisoning both wildlife and the environment, and endangering human health.
That is the same allegation that opponents of glyphosate are making today. Schroeck said the difference is that “DDT was harmful because birds and animals couldn't even form eggs. We're not seeing that kind of complete species collapse, so I wouldn't go that far at this point. What I am concerned about is bioaccumulation, where a small organism ingests the toxin (of glyphosate), and then that organism gets eaten by a bird or another organism up the food chain, or gets eaten by something else. We're seeing mercury, lead, and various toxins showing up. That's what you have to be worried about.
“I'm more concerned about the end product being about human health,” Schroeck continued. “After a rain event, glyphosate is washed into our water supply. Then there are a lot of potential ways for these chemicals to get into our bodies. We're drinking the water. We're eating the fish. We're eating fruits and vegetables that have been treated agriculturally. The reality is, regulation over these herbicides and pesticides is not stringent enough. We could require more environmental assessment over these products before they're ever released on the market.”
Schweitzer agrees. “It wasn't tested for how it reacts on humans or the environment,” she said. “Human health implications are profound, and so are they for soil microbes. Glyphosate inhibits herbs. It wasn't supposed to be designed for humans, but what they failed to realize is that although it may not have toxicity, there are microbes in our guts. Our digestive system requires microbes, and so it is only recently that scientists have begun studying glyphosate on these microbes. I believe it's the change of these microorganisms in our guts, that could be one reason why we're all fat. But until someone proves it, it's just a theory. It could be public enemy number one.”
Environmentally, Schweitzer said glyphosate kills soil microbes, “and the soil is a living organism. It's not just a dead place to douse insecticides. Healthy soil is supposed to be a healthy place with lots of stuff growing in it, little organisms, fungi, bacteria, bugs. Well, glyphosate is killing all the healthy stuff in the soil.”
Many local municipalities and local school districts use Roundup, or generic forms of glyphosate, in weed control. Others outsource the contractual work, stating they are unaware of what is used in their own community.
Bloomfield Township Department of Public Works director Tom Trice said the township uses Roundup or another type of “total kill” herbicide around fences and landscaping areas to keep weeds under control. In Birmingham, Lauren Wood, director of public services, said the city uses a product with glyphosate in it for spot treatment of weeds in gravel areas and sidewalks, as needed, but it isn't used near water areas. However, Jamie Spivy, foreman for Bloomfield Hills Department of Public Works, said they use calcium chloride in most places. In Beverly Hills, a spokesperson said they don't use Roundup or any product with glyphosate “because they don't want that pesticide in their parks.”
Bingham Farms doesn't spray for weed control.
“The city uses it for weeds with bare grounds, warning tracks, and areas as needed,” said Bill Wright, with Farmington Hills parks and recreation department. Brian Pickworth, with Farmington Hills' Department of Public Works, said they use Roundup Pro and other herbicides, which do not contain glyphosate, when Roundup alone doesn't work.
“We've been using a combination of the two for about four or five years,” he said. “Roundup is used around fences, guardrails, and some other areas.” He said the other combination works well for poison ivy, a problem the city has had in the past. When either pesticide is used, the city posts it, which he said is required by applicators under state law.
Commerce Township also uses Roundup for weed control in its parks and other areas, township supervisor Tom Zoner said. In Waterford, Dave Papke, superintendent for facilities and operations said glyphosate is only used in the the parking lot areas of the township campus for weeds in the cracks. “The township uses TruGreen for the other areas, and TruGreen doesn't use glyphosate.”
Michael Hartner, director of the Rochester Hills Forestry Department, said the city uses an outside contractor that uses glyphosate for controlling phragmites, a large perennial grass found in wetlands that is dense, tall and very invasive. However, the Rochester Department of Public Works said they only use a root-based herbicide, rather than glyphosate, “which will kill anything with chlorophyll.”
The city of Farmington, as well as Troy, Huntington Woods, and Highland Township, reported that they contract out their services and aren't aware of what is used. If it is utilized in Huntington Woods, officials said the only areas that would be sprayed would be along the I-696 service drive.
Many other Oakland County communities did not respond to repeated calls, including West Bloomfield, Wolverine Lake Village, Walled Lake, Auburn Hills, and Royal Oak.
Just as worrisome, or even more, are the schools which use a form of glyphosate for weed control, which can come into some contact with children.
Both Bloomfield Hills Schools and Birmingham Public Schools use Roundup. Marcia Wilkinson, Birmingham Schools spokesperson, said, “We use Roundup minimally on sidewalk cracks and fence lines. It is not used near playgrounds, etc. It is applied by personnel who have been trained in how to properly handle and dispense the product.”
In West Bloomfield, they also utilize glyphosate. West Bloomfield Schools spokesperson Pamela Zajac said, “The West Bloomfield School District has used products that include the chemical glyphosate in a limited capacity in order to treat weeds on concrete and asphalt areas which are also known as 'right-of-way' areas. This chemical is not applied on grass or playground areas and the district only applies treatments during summer months while school is not in session. In the limited capacity that the school district has used products that include glyphosate, the district always used pre-mixed and ready-to-use products as opposed to concentrate that requires mixing on premises. The district applies the product according to label instructions.”
Judy Evola, spokesperson for Walled Lake Consolidated Schools said they also use glyphosate, “but only in various cracks of the sidewalk and in pavement around school property where weeds may grow. We use it strictly in the summer and on weekends when there are not children in the area, and we follow all application guidelines. We use 'ready to use' containers and there is no mixing it with any other products.”
Novi Community Schools also uses glyphosate, according to maintenance director Mike Dragoo. “We use the generic chemical glyphosate. We use it all over, although not on general grounds, like we don't use it on playgrounds. But we do on beds and mulch beds. By keeping up our mulch, we don't need as much, and if we have tall weeds, we hand pull,” he said. “My guys all have their pest licenses, and go to continuing education. We even mix a little bit less than protocol, because the stuff costs us so much money. We also use a pre-emergent in the spring and summer.”
Cranbrook Schools uses it for spot treatment on all of their grounds, according to Stephen Pagnani, head of marketing for Cranbrook Education Community. “We use it in limited treatment for spot treatment, such as in sidewalk cracks where something has sprouted, like in the spring after heavy rains. We don't use it at all for heavy treatment, and we don't spray the whole playing fields.”
Many schools have determined they don't want to expose their students to toxic chemicals. Lori Grein, director of communications for Rochester Community Schools, said they do not use glyphosate. Similarly Troy School District, Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, The Roeper Schools in Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham, and Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Township, don’t utilize glyphosate.
Mercy assistant principal Larry Baker said, “No, our personnel doesn't utilize any chemicals on our grounds.”
Detroit Country Day Schools refused to supply any information.
Cities around the country are questioning the wisdom of exposing their residents to glyphosate's toxicity, as well. Chicago, Boulder, Colorado and Richmond, California are all municipalities which have banned the use of the pesticide in the last 18 months. In the summer of 2015, groups actively protested the heavy use of Roundup in New York City's parks, including a Change.org petition urging residents to fight its use. Around the world, between 2013 and 2015, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Bermuda, Columbia, El Salvador, and France have all banned the use of glyphosate.
“When a chemical has the ability to change the gender of frogs and completely warp the mating habits of amphibians, shouldn't that chemical be considered a threat to life on the planet and be forbidden from use?” asked Natural News in July 2015, regarding the EOA assessing dangers of glyphosate. “Does anyone care about endocrine system health?”