(Beyond Pesticides, November 18, 2015) Last week, the European Union’s (EU) European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) announced its determination that the popular herbicide glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.” This is in direct contrast with findings released earlier this year by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which classified glyphosate a ”˜probable carcinogen.’ However, these seemingly conflicting conclusions from these premier scientific agencies are put into perspective by knowing that EFSA’s report is limited in that it reviewed glyphosate alone, unlike IARC which reviewed glyphosate and its formulated products (Monsanto’s Roundup) which are more relevant for evaluating risks to human health.
In light of the March 2015 IARC findings —listing glyphosate as a probable carcinogen due to sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity based on laboratory studies, the European Commission requested EFSA consider glyphosate’s potential carcinogenicity. In its report released November 12, 2015, EFSA concludes that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential..”
However, the agency notes that there are “several reasons explaining the diverging views” from IARC’s earlier conclusion. The most important difference is that IARC’s review was more comprehensive in that it not only assessed glyphosate but also glyphosate-based formulations (such as Roundup product formulations), while EFSA focused on the pure active ingredient only. This is an important distinction since glyphosate formulations like Roundup are available to consumers and is widely used on crops throughout the U.S. and Europe. These formulations (which can contain 99 percent of “other” undisclosed ingredients), from a public health standpoint, are most relevant to human health.
Further, EFSA notes that the “toxicity of the formulations should be considered further” as studies that evaluated glyphosate formulations did find positive results of genotoxicity both in vitro and in vivo. EFSA also notes that other toxic outcomes, such as long-term toxicity and carcinogenicity, reproductive/developmental toxicity and endocrine disrupting potential of glyphosate formulations, should be clarified and addressed further.
“This is important,” continues EFSA in its backgrounder factsheet, “because although some studies suggest that certain glyphosate-based formulations may be genotoxic (i.e., damaging to DNA), others that look solely at the active substance glyphosate do not show this effect. It is likely, therefore, that the genotoxic effects observed in some glyphosate-based formulations are related to the other constituents or ”˜co-formulants.’” See EFSA’s factsheet on its finding here. Just this past summer, one scientist who was a part of IARC’s expert panel reviewing glyphosate spoke of glyphosate’s genotoxic potential, saying that the herbicide can damage human DNA, which could result in increased cancer risks.
This corroborates mounting scientific evidence that has long found glyphosate-formulated products to be more toxic than the active ingredient glyphosate alone. Roundup formulations can induce a dose-dependent formation of DNA adducts (altered forms of DNA linked to chemical exposure, playing a key role in chemical carcinogenesis) in the kidneys and liver of mice. Human cell endocrine disruption on the androgen receptor, inhibition of transcriptional activities on estrogen receptors on HepG2, DNA damage and cytotoxic effects occurring at concentrations well below “acceptable” residues have all been observed. A 2008 study confirmed that the ingredients in Roundup formulations kill human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells, even at very low concentrations, and causes total cell death within 24 hrs.
EFSA also proposed a new safety measure to limit glyphosate residues in food. EFSA set an acute reference dose of 0.5 mg per kg of body weight, the first time such an exposure threshold has been applied for glyphosate. EFSA’s assessment will be used by the European Commission in deciding whether to keep glyphosate on the European Union’s list of approved active substances.
The EU’s EFSA and WHO’s IARC take different approaches to the classification of chemicals. The EU scheme —assesses each individual chemical, and each marketed mixture separately. IARC assesses generic agents, including groups of related chemicals, as well as occupational or environmental exposure, and cultural or behavioral practices.
EFSA’s full report can be found here.
Glyphosate, produced and sold by Monsanto, is touted as a “low toxicity” chemical and “safer” than other chemicals by industry. But recent research links chronic, ultra-low dose exposure to glyphosate in drinking water to adverse impacts on the health of liver and kidneys. Previous epidemiologic studies have found that exposure to glyphosate is significantly associated with an increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL), even though these studies have been discounted. In addition to impacts on human health, glyphosate has been linked to adverse effects on earthworms and other soil biota, as well as shape changes in amphibians. The widespread use of the chemical on genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant crops has led it to be implicated in the decline of monarch butterflies, whose sole source to lay their eggs, milkweed plants, are being devastated as a result of incessant use of glyphosate.
Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup, is currently facing personal injury lawsuits that cite the link between glyphosate exposure and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL). Personal injury law firms around the U.S. have found a multitude of plaintiffs and are preparing for what could be a “mass tort” action against Monsanto for knowingly misinforming the public and farmworkers about the dangers of the chemical.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently reviewing the human and ecological risks of glyphosate. The agency has said that its preliminary assessment of the chemical is scheduled to be released this year. Given the mounting evidence of glyphosate’s hazards environmental groups, like Beyond Pesticides, are urging localities to restrict or ban the use of the chemical. Tracy Madlener, a mother of two, who got her neighborhood in Laguna Hills, California to eliminate the use of the widely-used weedkiller. Beyond Pesticides promotes these actions and many more through our Tools for Change page. This page is designed to help activists and other concerned citizens organize around a variety of pesticide issues on the local, state, and national level. Learn how to organize a campaign and talk to your neighbors about pesticides with our factsheets. See Beyond Pesticides’ article Glyphosate Causes Cancer and sign the petition to ban glyphosate.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.