I’m sure that none of us, if we had the choice, would voluntarily swallow a toxin that increases the risk of cancer. I know I wouldn’t.
But in the real world, our daily choices aren’t so clear cut. Our world is saturated in chemicals, and you can’t avoid them all. In my opinion, you have to choose your battles.
Glyphosate is in the news lately because a California court awarded $289 million in damages to a man who says the herbicide caused his cancer. He frequently handled the chemical as part of his job as a groundskeeper, so his exposure was probably much higher than you and I would ever ingest in food.
The case is on appeal, and meanwhile thousands of other lawsuits are pending. Originally glyphosate was only available under the brand name Roundup, but the patent has expired, and now many different companies market the chemical under different names. Under any name, it’s long been a target of activist groups.
But how real is the threat this chemical poses? I recently asked one of my best researchers to take an intense, open-minded look at the evidence…
I think we need to better understand what the research tells us about glyphosate.
But before I get started discussing the problems linked to the herbicide, I want to make it clear that I am not in favor of the huge amounts that are being sprayed onto farm fields across the US.
There are plenty of less harmful methods farmers can implement that would control weeds while using less glyphosate. We need to be more prudent about how much of it we use, but at the same time I don’t think we need to panic and ban it altogether.
In the eyes of many critics, the worst thing about glyphosate is that it goes hand in hand with genetically modified crops. These crops are engineered to survive being sprayed with glyphosate, so the net result is that the herbicide just kills the weeds while it spares the crops.
How much does glyphosate add to a person’s risk of cancer? According to Arthur Lambert, a researcher at the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “even if one accepts the high end of the reported risks (for cancer) the effects (of glyphosate) are, at best, modest.”1
As Dr. Lambert points out, while smoking increases your cancer risk by up to 2,000 percent (i.e. by a factor of 20), the highest estimate of glyphosate’s increased risk from exposure is about 30 percent. That’s too much for me – I sure don’t want to eat it — but it’s lower than what’s caused by other common toxins.
Amount we’re eating has soared
It’s hard to estimate the impact of glyphosate on cancer risk for many reasons. One of them is that our national use of this toxin has been increasing. Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine have found that since farmers began growing genetically modified (GMO) foods in the 1990s, human exposure to glyphosate – from food residues – has gone up on average by around 500 percent.2
Because cancer takes decades to develop, in most cases, we haven’t yet seen the impact on cancer rates that may result from the recent, massive increase in consumption.
The California scientists have measured levels of glyphosates by analyzing chemicals excreted in people’s urine since 1993 when farmers first started raising GMO crops. Many GMO crops that are now in our food have been genetically modified to survive the glyphosate exposure that kills weeds.
“Our exposure to these chemicals has increased significantly over the years but most people are unaware that they are consuming them through their diet,” warns researcher Paul J. Mills.
“What we saw (in our research) was that prior to the introduction of genetically modified foods, very few people had detectable levels of glyphosate,” says Dr. Mills.
Now, however, 70 percent of us have the chemical in our bodies, he warns. He adds that use of the herbicide has gone up about 15-fold during the past 25 years, because farmers have increasingly planted the GMO crops designed to survive being sprayed. Glyphosate is applied most often to GMO soy and corn, but it’s also applied to wheat and oats grown in the US.
Inactive ingredients – or not?
Researchers have also focused on questions about how herbicides are formulated: The other chemicals that are mixed into glyphosate-based herbicides can also affect health.
Although glyphosate is allegedly the only “active” ingredient in many herbicide products, researchers in England point out that the “adjuvant” ingredients that are combined with glyphosate, and which are considered “inactive,” can pose health difficulties that get overlooked when herbicides and pesticides are studied for their physiological effects.3
“Exposure to environmental levels of some of these adjuvant mixtures can affect non-target organisms — and even can cause chronic human disease,” warns researcher Robin Mesnage of King’s College London. “Despite this, adjuvants are not currently subject to an acceptable daily intake and are not included in the health risk assessment of dietary exposures to pesticide residues.”
Another concern: Studies show that an increased cancer risk isn’t the only health issue linked to glyphosate.
For example, researchers at the University of California – San Diego have also found the herbicide may be linked to liver problems.4 When they looked at people suffering what’s called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), it turned out that their levels of glyphosate were significantly higher than in people with healthy livers.
And, these California researchers note, lab studies have similarly indicated that glyphosate can give your liver a hard time.
“There have been a handful of studies, all of which we cited in our paper, where animals either were or weren’t fed Roundup or glyphosate directly, and they all point to the same thing: the development of liver pathology,” says Dr. Mills.
Problems can be passed down to children
Meanwhile, tests at Washington State University raise the possibility that health issues caused by glyphosate may be inter-generational – your exposure to glyphosate may affect your children and grandchildren.5
These lab studies, done on rodents, found that glyphosate exposure during pregnancy may cause prostate, kidney and ovarian problems in offspring and later generations. They also found the herbicide is statistically linked to a bigger risk of being obese and suffering birth abnormalities.
The researchers conclude that we need to take the risk to future generations into account when analyzing the safety of glyphosate and other toxins. “The ability of glyphosate and other environmental toxicants to impact our future generations needs to be considered and is potentially as important as the direct exposure toxicology done today for risk assessment.”
Eat organic when possible
When it comes to my own concerns about glyphosate and other agricultural chemicals, I try to eat organic food – which is grown without pesticides and herbicides – whenever I can. But I don’t obsess about it.
I figure that occasionally some exposure to low levels of a chemical like glyphosate won’t be a significant factor in affecting my health. And in light of how our food supply is grown and produced, some exposure to glyphosate is probably unavoidable, anyway.
I think the damage awards in the large lawsuits against firms that produce glyphosate products have gone too far. Cancer has many, many possible causes, and most of us have been exposed to a large number of them. Probably each and every one of us has been exposed to dozens of deadly toxins.
For most of these toxins, the exposure has to be pretty high, and last for a long time, to “cause” someone’s cancer. And even then the cancer will likely take decades to develop. So if you have cancer it’s next to impossible to put your finger on one cause and say, “This is it, this is what gave me cancer.”
Little is known about the interactions among all the different causes of cancer. For example, it’s known that the combination of asbestos exposure AND a smoking habit is lethal. Studies likewise suggest that drinking alcohol regularly PLUS smoking is much more risky than either one by itself.
But in general we don’t know much about the lethal synergies of all these carcinogens.
My life in the toxic world
A partial list of my own exposure to toxins would include: eating non-organic foods most of my life, until about 15 years ago; eating massive amounts of sugar when I was a child and young adult; growing up in farm country where the groundwater was likely contaminated with huge amounts of pesticides and herbicides; living in homes and apartments that were sprayed every month for insects; growing up in the era of leaded gasoline and living in cities with heavy air pollution; having mercury fillings in my teeth until about 25 years ago; taking tons of antibiotics when I was young…
When I was a kid, the whole town was sometimes sprayed at dusk by aircraft, with the aim of killing mosquitoes.
I could go on and on. I think a person can make himself crazy worrying about these things. I just do the best I can, and move on. There’s a great deal you can do detoxify yourself and get all the accumulated junk out of your body.
That seems like a more practical strategy than singling out one corporation to blame for cancer.
I ask myself, “What can I do to protect myself and become healthier?” Not, “Who can I sue?”
Do I eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, keep my weight down, take advantage of the many great supplements that are available? A smoker or obese person who complains about Roundup needs to reorder their priorities.
That doesn’t mean we should carelessly accept glyphosate in our food. We need systemic changes to our agricultural system to bring the use of glyphosate and other pesticides down.
It’s also clear the regulatory authorities are worse than useless at identifying carcinogens and denying corporations the right to put them in products. In that sense, the folks who campaign against glyphosate – and other activists who wage war against other toxins – are doing good work.