Better Living Through Glyphosate? Spray Now, Ask Questions Later

Photograph Source: Chafer Machinery – CC BY 2.0

There’s a lot of talk in the Trump era about the “war on science.” But this war, such as it is, extends far beyond uninformed Republican attacks on climate change science or Donald Trump’s mocking insults of Greta Thunberg, the teen climate activist nearly 60 years the old bully’s junior. This war involves not only outright science denial, but the myriad ways science is corrupted to serve corporate interests instead of the public good. 

One of the latest salvos came this past December when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under the leadership of a Trump-appointed coal industry lobbyist, asked a federal appeals court to reverse the lower court ruling that held Bayer AG, now owner of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, responsible for a California man’s cancer. The German-based conglomerate purchased Monsanto in 2018 for $63 billion. 

The friend of the court brief, filed in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice, argues the California state law requiring a health warning label for glyphosate-based herbicides was unnecessary since the EPA does not categorize glyphosate as a carcinogen. In fact, Bayer AG has already lost three recent lawsuits filed by individuals who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, after long-standing use of the Roundup product. The company now faces over 40,000 lawsuits over Roundup’s potential health risks. 

The legal challenges to glyphosate-based herbicides are based on a growing body of epidemiological evidence that link exposure to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other health effects. Most notably, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an affiliate of the World Health Organization, determined in 2015 that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The agency’s position was based on about 1,000 studies of glyphosate exposure among largely agricultural workers, such as farmers and pesticide applicators, primarily in the United States, Canada, and Sweden, along with evidence from animal studies. The link to cancer humans was based on what IARC describes as “limited,” but “statistically significant” evidence. The IARC report also noted some evidence glyphosate caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells.

Further, the Environmental Working Group (EGW), in an Aug. 21, 2019 statement to the EPA, cites evidence from five of eight epidemiological studies of an elevated risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma among those exposed to glyphosate-based herbicides. One recent study, a 2019 meta-analysis done by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Washington, found those with the highest cumulative exposure to glyphosate, such as agricultural workers, had a 41 percent greater risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 

World’s Leading Herbicide

Today, glyphosate-based herbicides are a ubiquitous global presence. The use of this group of herbicide products has grown approximately ~100-fold since first introduced in the 1974. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the volume of glyphosate-based herbicides in use in the United States increased from less than 25 million pounds in 1992 to over 250 million pounds in 2016. Significantly, the advent in 1996 of Monsanto’s genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” crops, tolerant of the Roundup herbicide, has only accelerated the herbicide’s use. 

Of course, nature has a way of adapting to even the most effective of human interventions. Just as widespread use of antibiotics led to the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance, rendering many such drugs ineffective against infectious disease, the extensive commercial use of Roundup and similar products has engendered the emergence of glyphosate-tolerant weeds. In response, there’s thus far been a compensatory increase in the volume of the herbicide’s commercial applications.

It’s worth noting the EPA had actually classified glyphosate as carcinogenic in 1985. Subsequently, the company spent the next several years working to persuade the EPA to reverse its position on glyphosate, which it eventually did in 1991, writes science historian Elena Conis, PhD, for The Washington Post (April 9, 2019).  

“In the decades that followed, the company commissioned its own science from its preferred scientists and asked federal regulators to base decisions on that science,” reports Conis, who is affiliated with the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley. “In one instance, the EPA ceded to industry requests to remove a certain scientist from a glyphosate safety review panel. In another, an EPA scientist promised Monsanto it would block a planned glyphosate safety review. The president whose EPA made this promise? Barack Obama.”

The latter point is a reminder that science in service to for-profit corporate interests is hardly the exclusive preserve of Trump Republicans. In fact, as Conis reminds us, since the 1970s the EPA has allowed companies to register new pesticide products “conditionally;” in other words, without submitting all the otherwise required safety and testing data. To note, such practices parallel similar laxity in regulatory practices in the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries. As for the pesticide industry, Conis notes that more than two-thirds of the 16,000 pesticides used in the United States were initially registered under conditional status. This includes glyphosate. 

With human exposures to glyphosate increasing, many researchers believe there is a vital need for updated assessments of the potential toxic risks associated with glyphosate-based products. Indeed, most studies have evaluated the impact of high-level exposures in humans, with only limited data available on the impact of long-standing, low-level exposures, such as might occur with residential lawn applications or from residues in food, water, and air. 

In fact, it’s difficult for researchers to even study the health effects of glyphosate-based herbicide products since manufacturers are not required to provide full disclosure of their ingredients. This lack of data is a burden for toxicology studies, say experts. As Vanessa Fitsanakis, PhD, a neurotoxicologist at Northeast Ohio Medical University, told The Scientist in 2018, “From a research perspective, I can’t tell which component might need to be changed [to reduce possible toxicity] in those formulations because I don’t know what some of those components are.”

This is a concern as glyphosate-based products, formulated with other “inert” substances, show evidence of being more potent than glyphosate alone, according to Fitsanakis and other researchers. This is especially concerning for researchers who want to better understand the potential for what are described as the “subtle and accumulative” health effects over years of exposure to these commercial products. One thing is certain. The science involved in the issue of long-term health effects is far from settled.  

Faith-based Democracy? 

To start the new year, France’s health and environment agency announced a ban on dozens of glyphosate-based herbicides, explaining there was insufficient data to establish they were not harmful to human health. The ban so far covers about three-quarters of the volume of glyphosate products annually sold in France. In recent years, more than three dozen nations have similarly moved to ban or restrict glyphosate-based herbicides. 

In the United States, things continue to work a little differently. “This is our system for ensuring that pesticides are safe,” concludes Conis. “They are innocent and on the market until proven guilty. Close relationships between industry and our regulatory agencies help keep them there. By the time enough independent science has produced evidence of harm, it’s far too late to reverse the damage done.”

Where is the democracy in this? Why should humans, wildlife, and the environment be potentially put at risk by the long, slow pollution of the planet by agrochemical corporations, whose primary driver is their own enrichment and profits? In light of charges by some civil litigants that Monsanto suppressed evidence of known health risks, the story lurches even more into the realm of corporate criminality.

Certainly, independent scientific reviews of agrochemical products, free of corporate influence or collusion, should be demanded of all chemical products to confirm their essential safety before being introduced into use. The health of the public, including the occupational health of workers, and protection of the natural environment should always come first.  

In an economy driven by “free market” capitalism, healthy living and the protection of nature is always at risk. Over the course of time industrial capitalism has exposed humans to leaded gasoline, asbestos, cigarettes, DDT, smog, toxic chemicals in water and food, and fossil fuel pollution that now threatens to denigrate the climate to the point of no return. All of this and more has been brought to us courtesy of manufacturer’s safety assurances and the backing of “authoritative” science.

Unfortunately, when the latter is in the paid employ of private industry, and public health agencies work, however subtly or indirectly, to facilitate the interests of the corporate marketplace over public health, those who are not scientists are left in the position of being expected to just have faith in the good intentions of profiteers and their experts. 

Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He grew up a few blocks from the site of the old Lindlahr Sanitarium frequented by Eugene Debs in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. However, none of the teachers in the local schools ever spoke a word about Debs or the clinic. He does remember Carl Sandburg’s Elmhurst home, which was torn down in the 1960s to build a parking lot. Email: