- Poison in Our Air, Water and Soil
Monsanto’s RoundUp may be coming to a village near you. At a presentation to the Village of Slocan council meeting of September 14, the Central Kootenay Invasive Species Society (CKISS) offered its services to treat infestations of Japanese knotweed in the village. According to CKISS Executive Director Jennifer Vogel, although other, more natural methods have been tried to eradicate knotweed, the most effective treatment—with a 95 percent success rate—is the Monsanto herbicide glyphosate, commercially known as RoundUp. CKISS lists three species of knotweed in the Central Kootenay region: giant knotweed, Japanese knotweed, and Bohemian knotweed. The group’s mandate covers all of the RDCK and Areas A & B of the Regional District of the Kootenay Boundary. CKISS is “currently coordinating treatments on behalf of a variety of stakeholders throughout our region to control invasive knotweed and other priority species along their right of ways,” says Vogel.
This raised red flags with a resident present at the meeting who expressed concerns about the potential health implications of using this powerful herbicide. Such concerns are not unfounded. In March this year, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reclassified glyphosate as a Class 2A Probable Carcinogen. As reported in The Lancet Oncology journal, 17 experts from 11 countries at the IARC conference in Lyon, France supported this conclusion. The evaluation process was screened to be free of conflicts of interests from industry. The assessment was based on peer-reviewed epidemiological and animal studies as well as government reports. The panel was led by Aaron Blair, an internationally renowned epidemiologist and the author of more than 450 scientific papers, who spent 30 years at the National Cancer Institute. According to a whistleblower report by Andrew Cockburn in the September 2015 Harper’s magazine, Blair felt there were scientific grounds for declaring that glyphosate “definitely causes cancer.” A single study of farmers in Iowa and North Carolina with inconclusive results prevented this rating.
Following this announcement, several countries have begun steps to ban or curtail glyphosate use and associated GMO crops. Already in May, France banned GMO corn, the only GMO crop allowed in Europe. California’s Environmental Protection Agency will now list glyphosate as known to cause cancer, though as yet there are no restrictions on sale or use. Monsanto is of course challenging both IARC and California’s EPA, as it routinely does when independent studies contradict their own findings. However, glyphosate’s cytotoxicity (meaning its toxicity to living cells) is well established by independent studies. It has also been found to be potentially genotoxic, meaning it can cause chromosomal damage. A new pediatric study from Argentina found that children living in and around GM crop fields suffered significant increases in DNA damage, a prerequisite for cancer development. GM crops are heavily dependent on herbicides, most commonly glyphosate.
A groundbreaking report published September 14 by the Organic Consumers Association revealed that Monsanto has falsified studies it used to claim its safety as far back as the 1970s. Although Monsanto has yet to be caught and charged for falsifying scientific data, its contractor labs have been caught in the act. “In 1978, the EPA busted Industrial Biotest Laboratories for rigging laboratory results,” notes the OCA; “the company’s executives were found guilty for submitting fabricated data supporting glyphosate positively to the government. In 1991, another firm, Craven Labs, was found guilty on similar charges with 20 felony counts.” Following this announcement, Reuters International reported on September 29 that, “A US farm worker and a horticultural assistant have filed lawsuits claiming Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide caused their cancers and Monsanto intentionally misled the public and regulators about the dangers of the herbicide.” Their lawyers anticipate hundreds more cases.
Other studies point to its effect as an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC), “another carcinogenic mechanism that underlies and promotes hormone-dependent cancer development amongst other health problems. A new study shows that the Roundup glyphosate formulation disrupts progesterone synthesis and causes cytotoxicity in vitro.” A European Union study reported: “Expert panels concluded that EDCs are a probable cause of IQ loss and intellectual disability, autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, childhood and adulthood obesity, adult diabetes, cryptorchidism, male infertility, and mortality.”
The OCA report summarizes a frightening litany of diseases potentially arising from exposure to glyphosate. “Among the many diseases and health conditions non-industry studies identified Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism since Roundup has been shown to instigate aluminum accumulation in the brain. The herbicide has been responsible for reproductive problems such as infertility, miscarriages, and neural tube and birth defects. It is a causal agent for a variety of cancers: brain, breast, prostate, lung and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Other disorders include chronic kidney and liver diseases, diabetes, heart disease, hypothyroidism, and leaky gut syndrome. In addition to lung cancer, glyphosate may be responsible for today’s growing epidemics of chronic respiratory illnesses among farm workers and their families.” And it’s not just humans who are at risk. Another study notes: “Glyphosate is also a serious threat to the environment, further highlighted by a new study on the ecotoxicology model organism Daphnia magna, with glyphosate interfering with animal growth, reproductive maturity and numbers of offspring.”
“Glyphosate has become so ubiquitous in our environment that it is now being detected is standard lab feed, along with other pesticides,” concludes one study. According to The Lancet report, glyphosate is “used in more than 750 different products for agriculture, forestry, urban, and home applications. Its use has increased sharply with the development of genetically modified glyphosate-resistant crop varieties. Glyphosate has been detected in air during spraying, in water, and in food.” It is now the leading herbicide worldwide, with around 650,000 tonnes of glyphosate products used in 2011 alone, according to a report by Friends of the Earth Europe. Glyphosate has thus been found throughout the food chain. Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist at Washington State University, states: “You can imagine the residue levels on the damn wheat. If you buy whole wheat bread, the glyphosate will be ground up with the whole wheat kernel and it will be part of the flour… The bran will have three or four times the concentration of glyphosate, because that’s where the residues are lodged. It’s insanity.”
Monsanto claims that glyphosate binds to soil and degrades quickly, so that it does not pose the risk of groundwater leaching or long-term contamination. This claim too has been challenged. One study found that residents in two communities near areas sprayed with glyphosate showed evidence of chromosomal damage. CKISS’s own report, Glyphosate: A Review of Mode of Action, Environmental Fate, Toxicology and Recent Literature, says that pesticides can be “pulled out of the air by precipitation events.” A study cited by CKISS “looked at glyphosate and AMPA composites in air and rain in the agricultural areas of Mississippi and Iowa. Weekly air and rain samples were collected in these areas throughout three growing seasons. Glyphosate and AMPA were detected in 60 percent and 50 percent of the air samples, respectively… Both glyphosate and AMPA can be transferred from terrestrial environments to aquatic environments as solutes or particle‐bonded forms (i.e., bonded to the soil). This transfer typically occurs as a result of run‐off or spray drift.” AMPA is an amino acid that mimics the neurotransmitter glutamate. It is used as a metabolite for glyphosate.
- Monsanto’s Cozy Relationship with Regulators
The Harper’s magazine report noted a long history of links between Monsanto and government regulatory agencies. According to investigative journalist Andrew Cockburn, the invasive species war was kicked off by President Clinton’s executive order creating the National Invasive Species Council in 1999. “Among the founding members of the council’s advisory committee was Nelroy E. Jackson,” writes Cockburn, “a product-development manager and weed scientist for Monsanto who had helped to develop Roundup formulations specifically for “habitat-restoration markets” — that is, for eradicating invasives.” A quick Google search with the keywords, “glyphosate use by invasive species committees” reveals that across North America such groups have chosen glyphosate as their herbicide of choice, making these organizations an unwitting Trojan horse for Monsanto.
The BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) admits to using glyphosate as an invasive species control method on Crown land. According to FLNRO spokesperson Greig Bethel, “None of the ministry’s glyphosate treatments in 2015 were… close to or within municipal boundaries” in the West Kootenay. Glyphosate was used in 2015 on knotweed in Creston area for an FLNRO and Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure joint program on highway right-of-way near Kitchener and a gravel pit near Yahk. As per Section 64 (1) of the Integrated Pest Management regulations, FLNRO is required to notify “landowners with property contiguous to a treatment site,” specifying “the location of the treatment, the targeted invasive plants species, the date and time of treatment, the herbicide proposed for use, precautions to minimize exposure to the herbicide being applied (ie – do not enter the treated area for specified period of time), and a contact telephone number for the agency undertaking the treatment to answer specific questions or address any concerns.”
The ministry’s Pest Management Plan is for Crown land only, leaving regional and municipal governments to set their own standards regarding herbicide use. According to the RDCK’s Manager of Environmental Services Uli Wolf, the regional district has no specific policy or treatment program for invasive species. “I’m not aware that we do actually do anything more than mowing or extracting. I couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that somebody isn’t using it.” The RDCK is only responsible for grounds maintenance at regional district-owned facilities such as transfer stations, community halls, landfills, water treatment plants, leisure facilities, and fire halls, “and that’s very individualized by local employees maintaining the property they manage.”
When it comes to safety, both FLNRO and CKISS defer to Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), whose mandate is “to prevent unacceptable risk to people and the environment from the use of pesticides by establishing conditions and limitations for their use.” PMRA’s official stance is that it “only allows registration of products for which there is rigorous data demonstrating safety,” however it has yet to respond to the IARC classification of glyphosate as a Class 2A Probable Carcinogen. CKISS Executive Director Jennifer Vogel replied by email that the agency adheres to “Best Management Practices.” When this reporter suggested that “Best Management Practices” would hardly support using an herbicide deemed carcinogenic by the WHO, she replied that, “The CKISS board of directors is aware of your concerns and will further discuss this during a winter board meeting.”
Such trust in governmental regulatory agencies is clearly misplaced in this era of corporate influence on legislation, as Monsanto’s cozy relationship with the Clinton administration illustrates. Here in Canada the situation is no different. Health Canada has repeatedly proven itself amenable to industry lobbying on a variety of issues. Dr. Chiv Chopra, a scientist who worked for Health Canada for 30 years, published an autobiography entitled Corrupt to the Core: Memoirs of a Health Canada Whistleblower in 2009. Chopra cites one health Canada scientist who reported “a pattern since the early 1990s of requests being made by managers to change decisions, verbal threats of lawsuits and drug evaluations that were taken away from her and given to others in the department in the hope of a more favourable decision.” But the real smoking gun is summed up in a single incident related by Dr. Chopra during an interview for a position he was applying for at the agency. “A member of the Selection Board, Norman Stevenson, asked me as follows: “Suppose you are selected for this post, whom would you consider to be your client?” I replied: “The public, of course.” “No, it is the industry,” said Stevenson.” (Dr. Chiv Chopra, Corrupt to the Core: Memoirs of a Health Canada Whistleblower, KOS Publishing, Caledon, Ontario, 2009, pp. 19, 94.)
Unsurprisingly, Monsanto has responded in force to deny glyphosate’s toxicity through industry front groups such as the Glyphosate Task Force and the Genetic Literacy Project.
Report: Monsanto’s Sealed Documents Reveal the Truth behind Roundup’s Toxicological Dangers, Organic Consumers Association
Report: Weed Whackers: Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species, by Andrew Cockburn, Harper’s magazine September 2015
News article: California just announced it will label Monsanto’s Roundup as cancer-causing, Anti-Media, September 12, 2015
Report: Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate, Lancet Oncology, March 25, 2015
IARC monograph, March 20, 2015: http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf
News article: U.S. workers sue Monsanto claiming herbicide caused cancer, Reuters International
Report: Genetically engineered crops, glyphosate and the deterioration of health in the United States of America, Journal of Organic Systems
Study: Endocrine disruption and cytotoxicity of glyphosate and roundup in human JAr cells in vitro, Fiona Young*, Dao Ho, Danielle Glynn and Vicki Edwards, Department of Medical Biotechnology, Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia
RoundUp, cancer & the future of food, Pesticide Action Network North America
French ban on GMO maize cultivation gets final approval, Reuters International
Friends of the Earth Europe report