Glyphosate is on the news a lot. Studies are being cited from opposing sides of the argument on a near daily basis to either prove or disprove that it is bad for public health, with some suggesting it can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL). Indeed, in a landmark case that is likely to set the precedent for thousands more currently running, Dewayne Johnson was awarded $285 in punitive and compensatory damages, to be paid by Monsanto, as a result of him developing NHL due to Roundup exposure. However, with all the legal toing and froing, people could be forgiven for forgetting what everything is actually about: glyphosate.
So what is it and how is it used?
What Is Glyphosate?
Glyphosate was discovered in the early 20th century by a Swedish pharmacist. He could find no pharmaceutical application for it and started to sell samples to other scientists to try and find a use. One chemist, working for Monsanto, discovered that it could be applied as an herbicide in 1970. By 1974, Roundup was delivered commercially to the market. Hence, we now know that the product can be applied to plant leaves in order to kill grasses and broadleaf plants. See also 10 Incredible Facts about Glyphosate
Additionally, however, there is a sodium salt version of the chemical, which is used to ripen fruit and regulate the growth of plants. As stated, it was registered for use in this country in 1974. Since then, it has become the most widely used herbicide in the world. It is used in forestry, agriculture, gardening, industrial weed control, and more. Indeed, some of it can even be used to control aquatic plants. Furthermore, Monsanto has created Roundup Ready (RR) crops, which has further increased the use of glyphosate.
What Products Currently Contain Glyphosate?
Because glyphosate was originally patented by Monsanto, it is mainly associated with Roundup. However, it is available in various forms, including a number of different salts and in an acid, which can be an amber-colored liquid or in solid form. Currently, some 750 different consumer products in this country alone contain glyphosate and they are not all Monsanto-owned or even Monsanto-linked. Sometimes, however, that line is somewhat blurry. For instance, General Mills, which owns Cheerios, is currently facing litigation from a woman who claims that the levels of glyphosate in Cheerios is higher than the acceptable standards. While General Mills does not use glyphosate themselves, Cheerios are made using wheat crops that have been treated with Roundup. See also How Glyphosate Affects Every Single Consumer in the US
Because glyphosate can be found in so many different methods, it is important that you always follow label instructions. This is particularly important now that there is some question about the safety of the product and it therefore being vital to avoid exposure. First aid instructions are always added to the product label and should be followed if exposure does happen, and you may also want to contact the Poison Control Center.
How Does it Work?
Glyphosate is a type of non-selective herbicide. This means that it can be used to kill almost all plants. Specifically, it stops them from creating the proteins required for growth. It is responsible for halting the shikimic acid pathway, a specific type of enzyme pathway. This is needed for various microorganisms and for plant growth.
Human Exposure to Glyphosate
Glyphosate is all around us and levels have been measured in almost all of our food supply, ground water, surface water, soil, and even the air. Indeed, some studies suggest many humans and animals also have concentrations of glyphosate in their kidneys. Unfortunately, it is now virtually impossible to not be exposed to glyphosate because it is everywhere. However, it is important that you don’t have any direct exposure to Roundup or other herbicides containing glyphosate directly. Contact with skin and eyes must be avoided and you should also not inhale it if you use it.
If you have applied glyphosate and not washed your hands, you may even swallow some if you smoke or eat. Additionally, if you have recently sprayed plants and they are still wet, you can also come into contact with it. Although little research exists in this matter, it is not believed that glyphosate will vaporize once sprayed.
What Can I Expect from Brief Exposure?
If you were to be exposed to glyphosate in its pure form, the toxicity levels are very low. However, in products such as Roundup, a variety of other ingredients have also been included to make sure that it can penetrate the plant. These are the products that increase the toxicity of the glyphosate and that can cause problems in humans as well. Upon direct exposure, you are likely to experience some skin or eye irritation. If you have inhaled a product that contained glyphosate, you are likely to feel some irritation to your airways, being both the throat and nose. If you ingest it, you can expect burns in your throat and mouth, increased saliva, diarrhea, and nausea and vomiting. There are reports of people intentionally ingesting the herbicide and this proving to be fatal. See also How Carcinogenic Are Roundup and Glyphosate?
There is also a recognized risk to pets with pesticides. If plants have recently been sprayed with a glyphosate product and are still wet, and the pet eats or touches it, they are at risk. Exposure has led to drooling, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and lethargy.
What Does Glyphosate Do to the Body?
It is quite difficult for glyphosate to enter the body through the skin in humans. Additionally, if it is absorbed or even ingested, it tends to pass quite rapidly through the body. Most of it will exit the body through urine and feces and it will not synthesize into other chemicals. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that traces can remain in the kidney and liver and that this could potentially lead to increasing numbers of people developing chronic kidney disease because of the high concentrations of glyphosate in our environment.
Does Glyphosate Cause Cancer?
There is no definitive answer to this question. What is known, however, is that the product has been administered to lab rats and mice in high concentrations and this showed that it certainly has carcinogenic properties. Other studies exist and they have produced very conflicting results. Additionally, there are questions about the validity of these studies, because some believe that both sides have a vested interest in it. More specifically, the question right now is whether Roundup can lead to the development of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare cancer of the lymph nodes. If the aforementioned judgement in Dewayne Johnson’s case is anything to go by, it seems that public perception is swaying towards the idea that it can indeed cause cancer.
Long Term Effects of Glyphosate Exposure?
There have been numerous studies into the potential long term effect of glyphosate exposure. In lab rats, it was found that there were reproductive and development effects with high and repeated exposure during pregnancy. Specifically, the pregnant rats would become sick and their fetuses would grow much more slowly, often being born with skeletal defects. These effects were only seen at higher dosages, however. Additionally, there are currently no studies that suggest there is a link between glyphosate and asthma or any other diseases.
There is also no evidence to suggest that children are more sensitive to glyphosate than adults.
What about Glyphosate in the Environment?
When glyphosate is applied, it binds with the soil where it can remain for up to six months. Soil bacteria will then break it down. Because of this, it was assumed that glyphosate could not get into ground water, but this has now been shown to be incorrect. Additionally, there have been studies to show that glyphosate would break down in eight to nine days in dead leaves but also that it gets taken up by lettuce and carrots in treated soil. See also Is Monsanto Polluting Our Food Supply?
What about Wildlife
It is known that the toxicity levels of pure glyphosate are very low on wildlife and fish. However, again, glyphosate is rarely applied on its own and the reaction it causes due to the addition of other chemicals is more dangerous. Not just that, it is important to consider the cumulative effect of herbicide use on wildlife. Because it is used to kill plants, including now some aquatic plants, all animal life is seeing its habitat being destroyed. Furthermore, just as with pets, if an animal touches a plant that has recently been treated with glyphosate and is still wet, they may experience some toxicity.
Clearly, there is still a lot to learn about glyphosate and its potential impact on the world around us. However, it is already so widespread in use that some wonder whether it is now too late. That said, the reverberations of the Dewayne Johnson case also still need to be felt.
- NCBI – Glyphosate poisoning (2004). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15862083.
- Sage Journals – Intentional Self-Poisoning with Glyphosate-Containing Herbicides (March 1, 1991). Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/096032719101000202.
- National Pesticide Information Center – Pesticide Use Around Pets (n.d.). Retrieved from http://npic.orst.edu/health/pets.html.