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Daily News Blog

04
Jun

Presence of Weed Killer Glyphosate in Human Sperm Elevates Debate on Pesticide Threats to Human Survival 

The presence of the herbicide glyphosate in human sperm documented in a new study, with 4X elevated levels in seminal plasma than blood.  

(Beyond Pesticides, June 4, 2024) A study published in the most recent edition of the journal Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety documents for the first time the presence of the herbicide glyphosate in human sperm. The study looked at 128 French men with an average age of 36 years who tested positive for glyphosate in their blood. Seventy-three out of the 128 men were found to also have glyphosate in their seminal plasma. Not only that, the amount of glyphosate in seminal plasma was nearly four times higher than what was detected in the blood.  

Methods 

The study involved a population of 128 infertile French men from whom seminal and blood plasma samples were collected. The study was conducted at the “Pole Santé Léonard de Vinci” medical center, located centrally near Tours, France. This region is recognized for its urban characteristics as well as being a major agricultural hub, particularly for grain and wine production. The study authors note, “This area reflects the common herbicide exposure in France” and the district ranks third highest in terms of pesticide purchases. While additional qualitative data was collected, only 47 of 128 participants fully completed a questionnaire about their profession, diet (organic or not), and smoking habits. The study examined concentrations of glyphosate and its main metabolite, amino-methyl-phosphonic acid (AMPA), using liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS-MS). Notably, while glyphosate was detected in significant proportions, AMPA was undetectable in the samples. The study also measured oxidative stress biomarkers, including malondialdehyde (MDA) and 8-hydroxy-2′-deoxyguanosine (8-OHdG), using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) techniques. Total Antioxidant Status (TAS) and Total Oxidant Status (TOS) were determined using commercial colorimetric kits to assess the oxidative stress levels in the participants. The researchers analyzed potential correlations between the concentration of glyphosate in the plasma (both blood and seminal) and the oxidative stress biomarkers. They also looked at how these factors correlated with sperm parameters such as sperm concentration, progressive speed, and abnormal forms. 

Findings 

Glyphosate (GLY) was detected in the seminal plasma of the participants, with concentrations that were four times higher than those observed in blood plasma. In contrast, its main metabolite, amino-methyl-phosphonic acid (AMPA), was not detectable. There was a strong positive correlation between the concentrations of glyphosate in blood plasma and seminal plasma and the levels of 8-hydroxy-2′-deoxyguanosine (8-OHdG), a marker of DNA damage due to oxidative stress. The study observed higher concentrations of Total Oxidant Status (TOS), Oxidative Stress Index (OSI) (which is the ratio of TOS to Total Antioxidant Status (TAS)), and malondialdehyde (MDA) in both blood and seminal plasma of men with detectable levels of glyphosate. The Total Antioxidant Status (TAS) in both blood and seminal plasma was similar in men with or without detectable levels of glyphosate, suggesting that the antioxidant capacity remained constant regardless of glyphosate exposure. 

These findings suggest a negative impact of glyphosate on human reproductive health, potentially affecting sperm quality and oxidative stress levels, which could have implications for the progeny of the affected individuals. The study advocates for a precautionary approach in the ongoing discussions about the use of glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides in Europe. 

These results add to the existing mountain of evidence regarding the harmful effects of glyphosate, the most commonly used pesticide in the world and known to many as Roundup™ and Rodeo™. Glyphosate causes DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells, resulting in the onset of chronic disease. It is considered an endocrine disruptor and patented as an antibiotic. It has been specifically linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and multiple myeloma. Beyond Pesticides has reported that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) negatively impacts testicular function and may cause sperm count declines over time, according to a 2022 review published in Endocrine.  

Glyphosate works by disrupting a crucial pathway (shikimate pathway) for manufacturing aromatic amino acids in plants—but not animals—and, therefore, many have assumed that it does not harm humans. However, it is lethal to bacteria that inhabit the human digestive tract and are essential for good health. Disturbing the gut’s microbiota can contribute to a whole host of “21st-century diseases,” including diabetes, obesity, food allergies, heart disease, antibiotic-resistant infections, cancer, asthma, autism, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and more. (See here and here ). 

The rise in these same diseases is tightly correlated with the use of glyphosate, and glyphosate exposure can result in inflammation at the root of these diseases. Glyphosate use in agriculture rose 300-fold from 1974 to 2014, with nonagricultural uses increasing by 43-fold during the same time. Increasingly, target weeds are becoming resistant to the herbicide, creating superweeds, and genetically engineered (GE) crops are being created with genetic tolerance for numerous toxic herbicides, such as 2,4-D and dicamba. As Beyond Pesticides’ glyphosate factsheet reports, the greatest overall glyphosate use by acreage is in the Mississippi River basin where most applications are for weed control on GE corn, soybeans, and cotton, as well as other crops.  

Plants treated with glyphosate translocate the systemic herbicide to their roots, growing points, and fruit, where it blocks the activity of the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS), a key enzyme in the shikimate pathway of aromatic amino acid production, ultimately leading to the plant’s death by starvation. Because plants absorb glyphosate, it cannot be removed completely by washing or other food preparation. It persists in food products for up to two years.  

“Inert” Ingredients 

In addition to glyphosate, researchers have also determined that the “inert” ingredients in glyphosate products, especially polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA), a surfactant commonly used in glyphosate and other herbicidal products, are even more toxic than glyphosate itself. The current study of French men was unable to determine if the co-formulants or even other pesticide exposure were contributing factors in their results. But, previous studies have shown that many pesticides, including glyphosate products (e.g., Roundup™), are more toxic than glyphosate alone, and result in a number of chronic, developmental, and endocrine-disrupting impacts. The “inert” ingredients in Roundup™ formulations kill human cells at very low concentrations. At least some glyphosate-based products are genotoxic. POEA is extremely toxic to aquatic organisms. One study found that co-formulants account for more than 86% of Roundup™ toxicity observed in microalgae and crustaceans. 

EPA pesticide registration rules do not require the agency to account for all ingredients when it evaluates pesticide formula safety, even though the industry labels dangerous substances like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as inert or as contaminants. In October 2023, EPA rejected a 2017 Center for Food Safety (CFS) legal petition to compel the EPA to require that pesticide companies provide safety data on all ingredients in a pesticide product, or formulation, both active and inert. The limitations of the EPA’s pesticide registration review process persist despite evidence of potential hazards associated with synergism between ingredients, including inert (undisclosed) ingredients, and other pesticides applied in combination. Bill Freese, the science director at CFS, said, “The idea that we’re not assessing the actual chemicals that farmers spray is kind of ridiculous.” 

At the time of the decision, Beyond Pesticides said: “EPA’s failure to act on the science, as detailed in the litigation, has real-world adverse health consequences for farmworkers, the public, and ecosystems. Because of this lawsuit, the agency’s obstruction of the regulatory process will not be allowed to stand, and EPA should start shifting food production to available alternative non- and less-toxic practices and materials that meet its statutory duty.” 

9th Circuit Court Decision Struck 

In December 2023, farmworker organizations and Beyond Pesticides, represented by the Center for Food Safety, filed a petition with EPA urging the agency to remove glyphosate from the market after having won a 2022 court decision forcing EPA to redo its science evaluation. That 2022 court decision in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that EPA’s 2020 approval of glyphosate was unlawful and voided EPA’s “interim registration review” decision approving the continued use of glyphosate, issued in early 2020. “EPA ignored its own experts and guidelines in making these judgments,” Amy van Suan, senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety and lead counsel in the case, told the judges.  The three-judge Ninth Circuit panel agreed, finding the EPA discounted epidemiological studies showing a link between glyphosate exposure and an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, concluding that the association could be explained by “chance and/or bias.” This decision, the panel said, defied the EPA’s own Cancer Guidelines. 

Environmental groups, including Beyond Pesticides, have consistently urged EPA to follow in the footsteps of the European Union by adopting the precautionary principle, which withholds registration when data on product safety is missing. Given the lack of complete information and uncertainties, Beyond Pesticides advocates that communities and individuals reject legally allowed uses and exposures deemed acceptable under EPA risk assessment calculations. Instead, the organization asked that decision makers focus on safer alternative practices and products that are proven effective, such as organic agriculture, which prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. 

Roundup™ Litigation 

In recent years, Monsanto has been hit by an avalanche of lawsuits asserting that Roundup™ is carcinogenic, particularly linked to non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL) and that Monsanto failed to warn the public of the hazards when using Roundup™ as directed. According to the Lawsuit Information Center, Monsanto has settled nearly 100,000 lawsuits and paid approximately $11 billion as of March this year. There are an estimated 54,000 lawsuits remaining and the company has reportedly set aside an additional $6 billion for additional settlements.  

At first, it seemed that these cases were decided in favor of Monsanto and its relatively new owner Bayer. In 2021, Bayer won nine individual lawsuits over Roundup™, but last year Bayer lost in jury trials in four different cases totaling billions of dollars and the cost is starting to take a toll. This week, Bayer AG Chief Executive Officer Bill Anderson reportedly said at a speech in Chicago that the barrage of lawsuits is an “existential” threat to the company. It has also been reported that the company is considering bankruptcy known as the Texas Two-Step as a means of stopping the hemorrhage of cash. 

Under pressure for a strategy to avoid additional judgments, Bayer has turned to a lobbying effort to twist the narrative away from Roundup™ product liability and the company’s culpability to lobbying for state laws that would end pesticide manufacturers’ responsibility for harm caused by using their pesticide products as directed. Bayer has been lobbying for immunity through legislation since January 2024 and bills to limit Bayer’s liability for claims regarding Roundup™ were introduced in Iowa, Missouri, and Idaho. The bill was defeated in Idaho and Iowa but was passed by the House in Missouri and was defeated in the Senate. Beyond Pesticides recently launched an action to stop this nationwide campaign by chemical manufacturers to shield themselves from liability cases filed by those who have been harmed by pesticide products. Stay informed of news and ways to take action – sign up for Action Alerts here.   

However, this legislative push is not part of Bayer’s “official” strategy to fight off lawsuits. The Bayer website lays out for investors a five-step plan for addressing them. Their best hope was the U.S. Supreme Court, which they hoped would decide that state-based failure-to-warn claims are preempted by federal law. Essentially their argument was that since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the herbicide for use, Bayer cannot be held liable for harm caused to users of its products. However, as of the time of publication, the Supreme Court has declined to hear Monsanto’s appeals. 

The second prong on Bayer’s five-step plan is to continue managing the 170,000 claims filed to date. As reported above, while Bayer started out strong, it recently has begun to settle for huge sums of money. With 54,000 suits left to go, it remains to be seen if Bayer will return to individual negotiations. 

The third prong of the five-step plan is to substitute glyphosate with other chemicals, like Bayer’s Roundup™ product sold in Europe without glyphosate. However, without publicity or fanfare, Bayer/Monsanto has quietly removed glyphosate and substituted other active ingredients with different risk profiles from some formulations of Roundup™ sold in the United States for use by regular consumers (those without a pesticide applicator license). Some of these formulations of Roundup™ contain the active ingredient triclopyr. Advocates are alarmed at the new risk this poses to unsuspecting consumers, since the brand name remains the same. Advocates note that deficiencies in the Roundup™ warning label continue with these new formulations and active ingredients. Given Monsanto’s track record with its use of co-formulants that are potentially more toxic than glyphosate, it seems unlikely that any substitute pesticide will be any less toxic to humans and the environment. And given the failure of EPA to protect the public from these chemicals in the past, it also seems unlikely that the substitute pesticide will receive appropriate vetting.  

Bayer seems to have backtracked on the fourth step of the five-step plan, claiming first to seek individual settlements with claimants outside of the normal legal system. (The website specifically mentions “directly avoiding plaintiffs’ law firms.”) However, Bayer goes on to say that since they have been so successful in court they have decided to stick to the legal system. Recent losses in court and broad Bayer staff layoffs suggest they may be reconsidering this approach. 

The fifth step of the plan is to simply repost their “scientific safety studies” for their products, thereby ensuring “more transparency and information.” However, industry-funded studies have repeatedly been shown to have bias, poor science, or other questionable findings. An investigative report published in 2022 provided a comprehensive review of Bayer’s strategy to deny science, manufacture doubt, and discredit critics who have researched, reported on, and/or advocated against the company’s products. A report from U.S. Right to Know in collaboration with Friends of the Earth and Real Food Media, Merchants of Poison: How Monsanto Sold the World on a Toxic Pesticide, exposed not only Bayer’s malfeasance in its promotion of its glyphosate-based herbicide products, but also highlighted the broader landscape of corporate efforts to white- or green-wash products that companies know are harmful to people and the environment.  

Merchants of Poison says, “Big Tobacco’s spin tactics arguably cost millions of lives as regulations emerged long after it was evident that cigarettes cause cancer—and continue to cost lives. (The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 8 million people die annually from tobacco use.) The fossil fuel sector’s spin pushed science denialism and political inaction that has led to a warming world and is associated with millions of deaths per year, with few clear pathways to averting catastrophic climate change.” 

The report’s coauthor, Stacy Malkan, commented, “The pesticide industry is not just following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco and Big Oil, they co-wrote the playbook — from their attacks on Silent Spring author Rachel Carson 60 years ago to the recent Monsanto-led assault on the cancer researchers of the World Health Organization.”  

As Beyond Pesticides has reported, the pesticide industry has engaged in knowingly deceptive and aggressive tactics to persuade the public that pesticides are not only “safe,” but also somehow “critical” to producing enough food for the world’s population. Both claims are demonstrably false. Beyond Pesticides has frequently written about the impressive capacity of organic, regenerative, agroecological agriculture to produce high-quality and sufficient food supplies as well as being key to turning around the public health, biodiversity, and climate crises. (See here, and the latest news here). 

The unsavory and sometimes corrupt activity has also extended, as Beyond Pesticides has covered, to federal agency staff, including managers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which oversees pesticide registration and regulation. Indeed, unholy “alliances” between industry lobbyists and EPA staff exacerbate the toxic pesticide problem, as we have reported here and here

And it is not just EPA that is often “towing” the pesticide line for Bayer and other manufacturers, but U.S. foreign policy has engaged in efforts to tamp down restrictions more stringent than the EPA. Both Thailand in 2019 and Mexico in 2024 adopted bans on the use of glyphosate products in their countries, only to be met with pushback by the U.S. government that resulted in their postponement and possible withdrawal of the bans.  

This most recent study of glyphosate reinforces the urgent need to get off the toxic pesticide treadmill and adopt organic regenerative approaches that obviate the use of these compounds.  

What Beyond Pesticides wrote in 2018 still holds: “Beyond Pesticides has strategically sought to transform our country’s approach to pest management, both agricultural and residential/structural, by eliminating reliance on pesticides and advancing organic management practices that do not rely on toxic inputs. In this context, pesticides like glyphosate become an example of chemical industry influence resulting in inadequate underlying laws and regulations. . . [W]e must teach that these chemicals are not only dangerous to environmental health, but are unnecessary to prevent pests and achieve pest management goals.” 

Please see the Daily News Blog and Take Action features on the Beyond Pesticides’ website homepage, and join Beyond Pesticides to support our campaign to end the use of toxic pesticides, such as glyphosate, in the next decade. To reduce exposure to pesticides such as glyphosate residue in conventional food, please see Eating With A Conscious.  

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides. 

Sources: 

Glyphosate presence in human sperm: First report and positive correlation with oxidative stress in an infertile French population, Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, June 15, 2024 

Bayer wants legislative help to fight its cancer lawsuits, The Economist, May 18, 2024 

Glyphosate (Roundup™) Factsheet, Beyond Pesticides, 2017 

Glyphosate: Cancer, endocrine disruption and other health risks, US Right to Know, January 19, 2024 

Whistleblowers Expose Corruption in EPA Chemical Safety Office, The Intercept, July 2021 

The Monsanto Papers – Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption and One Man’s Search for Justice, Carey Gillam, March 2021 

Roundup litigation discovery documents: implications for public health and journal ethics, Journal of Public Health Policy, June 2018  

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