A friend of mine sent me an email recently after being alarmed by observing a neighbor's son, as a city employee, spraying the herbicide Roundup along the Jordan River Parkway in the center of Salt Lake City. She asked him what he was spraying and he said, "nothing dangerous, just Roundup." He wasn't wearing any protection of any kind.
The very same day, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that they had concluded the active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, the most widely sold agricultural and household herbicide in the world, billed as one of the most benign herbicides ever manufactured, was a "probable carcinogen." The WHO elaborated that their biggest concern was for occupational exposure, but that the evidence was "convincing" that glyphosate caused cancer in lab rats and mice. Obviously, the young man spraying herbicides along the Jordan River has occupational exposure. What about the rest of us?
Glyphosate residues cannot be removed by washing and they are not broken down by cooking.
The bulk of food in the United States now originates primarily from mass plantings of monocultures of "Roundup Ready" crops, genetically engineered to withstand Roundup, which is repeatedly sprayed to exterminate weeds between the crop plants. Not surprisingly, glyphosate residue remains on the crops, which then enters the food chain of animals and humans. About 90 percent of the world's high volume grains are now "Roundup Ready." Glyphosate residues cannot be removed by washing and they are not broken down by cooking. They remain in food for a year or more, even if the foods are frozen, dried or processed. Eating strictly organic doesn't protect you. Several studies have shown that it is even present in the air we breathe, water we drink and rain that falls from the sky. (1) Essentially, no one on earth has been spared. A recent study of non-farmworker, urban dwellers in Germany found glyphosate in the urine of every person tested, and at levels five to 20 times the legal limit for drinking water.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a legally enforceable maximum contaminant level (MCL) for glyphosate of 700 micrograms per liter in drinking water, which is 7,000 times higher than the limit set in Europe. Not surprisingly, urine testing of US residents showed levels 10 times higher than those of European residents. This reflects the pervasive use of Roundup in the United States compared to Europe. A 2012 study from Washington State University professor Charles Benbrook confirmed that the increased use of GMO crops had resulted in increased national use of glyphosate, contradicting the often stated justification for GMO crops - that they would result in less pesticide use.
Regulatory bodies worldwide seem to have taken Monsanto's word for it that glyphosate is not bioaccumulative. Senior Monsanto scientist (forgive me if "Monsanto scientist" seems like a contradiction in terms) Dan Goldstein even recently stated, "If ingested, glyphosate is excreted rapidly, does not accumulate in body fat or tissues, and does not undergo metabolism in humans. Rather, it is excreted unchanged in the urine." One year ago, the first ever testing for glyphosate in the breast milk of US women proved Monsanto's claims to be propaganda. Researchers found high levels in three out of the 10 samples tested, 760 to 1,600 times higher than the European Drinking Water Directive allows for individual herbicides. The shocking results prove that glyphosate does in fact bioaccumulate. Certainly, the last thing a newborn should be ingesting is Roundup from its mother's milk. The pesticide DDT has showed up in concentrations 300 percent greater in breast milk after just one household spraying. (2)
Even at levels barely measurable, Roundup has been shown to promote the proliferation of cancer cells.
Pesticides like Roundup are "biocides" - biologic poisons. They destroy living cells. Cells in the human body share many of the same biologic processes as the cells of weeds and insects, especially nerve cells. So are humans "Roundup Ready" - able to shrug off being exposed to this, and other agricultural poisons? The WHO thinks not, mentioning the multiple studies that suggest its cancer causing potential. Even at levels barely measurable, as small as parts per trillion, Roundup has been shown to promote the proliferation of cancer cells. (3) More pesticide exposure increases a person's risk of lymphoma. (4) Even pre-conception exposure of parents to pesticides (via professional application of pesticides for termites) increases the risk of childhood brain tumors. (5)
Cancer is far from the only concern about Roundup. The medical and toxicological literature examining the health consequences of pesticides reads like a horror show. These deadly chemicals have been shown to be strongly associated with higher rates of depression and suicide, impaired intellect, memory deficits, impaired psychomotor speed, executive functioning, acceleration of the cognitive decline of aging, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13) Pregnant mothers exposed to more pesticides give birth to children with brain architectural anomalies, including thinner cortexes. (14) Children whose mothers had more pesticide exposure during pregnancy demonstrated clinically impaired brain development and scored significantly lower in memory and IQ tests in multiple studies at various ages in childhood. (15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20) Children with higher levels of pyrethroid pesticide metabolites in their urine showed higher rates of behavioral disorders. (21)
In fact, greater exposure to pesticides and their metabolites in lab animals increased rates of obesity, kidney disease and brain dysfunction in three generations born after the exposure. (24, 25, 26, 27) Pregnant mothers exposed to more pesticides delivered infants with lower birth weight and shorter gestational age. (28) A study comparing urine samples of people with multiple chronic diseases showed much higher concentrations compared to people who were generally healthy. (29)
Even Roundup's "inert ingredients" induce apoptosis and necrosis in human umbilical, embryonic and placental cells. Concentrations were 100,000 times more dilute than retail formulations. Proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death around residual levels to be expected in home garden use. (30) Pesticide applicators have shortened telomeres, chromosomal markers that very accurately predict life expectancy. (31) In a study just published, glyphosate and two other popular pesticides were also shown to increase antibiotic resistance in bacteria, already one of the most pressing public health issues of our time.
Monsanto and other producers of glyphosate-containing herbicides are fighting back against the WHO declaration. Unchastened, they issued this defiant public statement: "All labeled uses of glyphosate are safe for human health." Without even a pause for introspection, hesitation or the stirring of a conscience regarding the damage they are doing to the entire world's population, Monsanto is demanding a retraction from the WHO.
With glyphosate-based herbicides we are seeing a replay of the saga of many 20th century environmental toxins.
Don't assume the EPA will now ban Roundup. The agency has a very poor track record in protecting us from dangerous chemicals. In fact, in 2013, well after much of the alarming research on glyphosate had already surfaced, the EPA actually increased the "acceptable" levels of glyphosate contamination of numerous foods, anywhere from twice for soybeans to 25 times higher for carrots. No medical research justified increasing those thresholds. It was just the latest in a long history of federal agencies acting as the handmaidens of Monsanto and the biotech industry.
It was inevitable that weeds would become resistant to Roundup, which is the only thing slowing down its use. The pesticide and biotech corporations' answer has been to just bring in the next generation of even more toxic chemicals - and GMO crops resistant to those chemicals - a never-ending, escalating chemical arms race.
A couple of years ago, a French court found Monsanto guilty of falsely advertising its herbicide as "biodegradable," "environmentally friendly" and claiming it "left the soil clean." The truth is that Roundup is anything but friendly to the environment or your health. The WHO finally made that call official.
With glyphosate-based herbicides we are seeing a replay of the saga of many 20th century environmental toxins - lead, asbestos, radiation, PCBs, DDT, Agent Orange and many others. Red flags were raised early on in the life story of all these products. But powerful corporations were able to milk them for decades of profit by corrupting public policy that should have protected us in the first place.
The cover story of the March issue of the venerable National Geographic, by Joel Achenbach, was titled, "The War on Science." People who believe GMOs are not safe were lumped into the same "Luddite" basket as those that won't vaccinate their kids, believe the moon landing was a fake, evolution is not proven and climate change is not happening.
But no perspective on GMOs is relevant if it ignores the safety of the industrial agriculture system itself, and all the pesticides designed to be used with GMOs. Count me as a proud Luddite scientist who believes in vaccinations, the moon landing, evolution, climate change and that GMOs are a terrible scourge to public health. Apparently, the World Health Organization is also a proud GMO/pesticide Luddite, at least until Monsanto's attorneys and lobbyists crush the rebellion once again.
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First published online: July 12, 2013
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