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The toxic truth

We trust our government to keep us safe through the regulation of companies like Monsanto and of products like Roundup; but should we?

Will Caron

A photo has been circulating on social media since late last week of a Hawai‘i County worker spraying a Monsanto-created herbicide onto weeds growing along the bank of a flood channel. While it is difficult to tell whether or not the worker is actually doing anything illegal based solely on the image, it does raise questions about the safety of pesticide use practices currently considered legal in the state of Hawai‘i and the United States at large. As reported yesterday by Andrea Brower:

The U.S. regulatory system allows for activities that are prohibited in other developed countries, including the use of 82 pesticides banned in Europe. Some of these pesticides are used on an almost daily basis next to Hawai‘i homes and schools. At the same time, “trade secret” protections block neighboring residents and even the State of Hawai‘i from accessing basic information about open-air pesticide use. In other words, foreign corporations like Syngenta and BASF are permitted, indeed incentivized, to do things in Hawai‘i that they are restricted from doing in their home countries. ...

“While some states have adopted public-health pesticide regulations to address inadequacies in federal law, Hawai‘i has failed to do so. Hawai‘i is one of only 19 states without regulations addressing the use of pesticides on or near schools. The Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture, other State departments, large landowners, the Hawai‘i Farm Bureau, and the industry all offer remarkably consistent lobbying positions against any and all proposed pesticide regulation, while county initiatives for health and environmental protection from agrochemical operations have been blocked in the courts.

In 2013, Monsanto alone netted $2.482 billion U.S. As of this month, May, 2015, the company has a market cap of $55.7 billion U.S. The global agrochemicals industry is expected to reach an estimated value of $261.9 billion U.S. by 2019. The deregulated nature of the U.S. marketplace is what has allowed for those kinds of staggering profits. But many of those circulating the image are very worried that those profits are coming at the expense of the health and safety of the community.

The worker is seen spraying an unmarked formula of the herbicide Roundup, manufactured by Monsanto, onto weeds growing on the banks of a flood channel somewhere in Hilo. Repeated requests from The Independent to the office of Mayor Billy Kenoi for comment on the legality of the actions the worker is seen taking in the photo (based off of the product’s own instructions, which must be followed by law) have not been responded to as of publication.

According to Nomi Carmona of Babes Against Biotech, a primary pesticide-regulation group in the islands, Hawai‘i has “a serious Roundup problem.”

The Product

Roundup relies on the active ingredient glyphosate (an acid) to kill unwanted plants through direct application. Roundup and other herbicide formulations that include glyphosate as their active ingredient also contain surfactants that are designed to help deliver the glyphosate into the plant cells for action. Roundup is one of the most commonly used formulations containing a surfactant called polyethoxylated tallowamine (known commonly as POEA).

Most roundup formulas are not intended for aquatic use, and the manufacturer’s product restrictions (which, by law, must be complied with) expressly state that the chemical should never be sprayed in or around bodies of water. However, the state has at least one roundup formula on file, Roundup Custom, that is approved for both aquatic and terrestrial use. Of course, even this formula comes with strict rules for application, especially near bodies of water. So the question is, if this county worker is using the Roundup Custom formula, is he doing so in a manner that follows the product restrictions?

According to the product’s usage instructions, the maximum combined application rate of all glyphosate-containing chemical treatments to plants on land must not exceed 8 quarts per acre per year. For application that is being made over water, the maximum application rate is 7.5 pints. Again, it’s hard to tell how much of the chemical is being sprayed, but it certainly looks like more than 7.5 pints.

Additionally, the instructions for Roundup Custom expressly state: “Do not apply this product directly to water within 0.5 miles upstream of an active potable water intake in flowing water, or within 0.5 miles of an active potable water intake in a standing body of water … To make aquatic applications around and within 0.5 miles of active potable water intakes, the water intake must be turned off for a minimum period of 48 hours after the application … When making any bankside applications, do not overlap more than 1 foot into open water.”

Even if the worker is following all the rules the manufacturer set, we have to remember that the manufacturer is Monsanto, and the less regulation on the use of their product, the higher their profit margin and wider their market reach. Again, Brower reports:

While food producers and consumers rely on regulatory oversight of pesticides for their safety, regulation is a nuisance to the industry and can limit markets and profits. It has become common practice for the U.S. government to campaign, coerce and sue to weaken or wipe-out pesticide and Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) regulations in other countries, often in the name of “trade.”

What happens when our regulatory government agencies are working cooperatively with companies to lessen health and safety regulations on those companies’ products? Community health is put in serious jeopardy while company profits soar.

The Data

According to a report by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, “Glyphosate is usually assumed to be quickly and tightly adsorbed to soil particles and, as a result, not to have adverse affects beyond its target. But glyphosate is known to enter aquatic systems, e.g. by accidental direct application, by drift of the herbicide spray, or as the result of surface runoff.”

Research on the effects of glyphosate in the aquatic environment has not received the same level of study or attention as its effects on land. But there is research (Perez et. al. “Effects of the Herbicide Roundup on Freshwater Microbial Communities: a Mesocosm Study.” Ecological Applications, 2007) that shows that “[o]nce in the aquatic environment, glyphosate may become toxic to living organisms, including plants, animals and microorganisms.”

It has been generally believed that glyphosate, which is designed to kill plants, has only minor effects on animals that may be exposed. However, a second study (Relyea, Rick A. “The Lethal Impact of Roundup on Aquatic and Terrestrial Amphibians.” Ecological Applications, 2005) found that:

• “Roundup caused a large reduction in the survival of all three species of tadpoles” (i.e. toads, leopard flogs, tree frogs).

• Across all soil types “Roundup reduced tree frog tadpole survival from 75 percent to 2 percent, toad tadpole survival from 97 percent to 0 percent, and leopard frog tadpole survival from 98 percent to 4 percent.

• Across all species, only 2 percent of all tadpoles survived the Roundup application after three weeks.” (The soil types issue is important because some have claimed that by absorbing glyphosate and subjecting it to microbial breakdown, soils remove the herbicide from the aquatic environment and so prevent it from having lethal affects on aquatic life.)

• “In the terrestrial experiments, all three species suffered substantial mortality when exposed to Roundup. After 24 hours, the application of Roundup reduced juvenile wood frog survival from 96 percent to 32 percent, juvenile tree frog survival from 100 percent to 18 percent, and juvenile toad survival from 100 percent to 14 percent. Across all species, only 21 percent of all juvenile amphibians survived the Roundup application after one day.”

• “The most striking result from the experiments was that a chemical designed to kill plants killed 98 percent of all tadpoles within three weeks and 79 percent of all juveniles within one day.”

• “The cause of the high Roundup-associated mortality appears to result from direct toxicity (possibly due to damaged epithelial cells in the gills) rather than any indirect effect…”

• Rapid death also occurred in terrestrial experiments. “After only 24 hours, 79 percent of all juvenile frogs and toads died.”

A study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Biological Sciences, tested the negative effects of four well-known pesticides on the biodiversity of aquatic communities containing algae and 25 species of animals. The pesticides tested consisted of two insecticides, Sevin and malathion and two herbicides, Roundup and 2,4-D. The study found that species richness was reduced by 15 percent with Sevin, 30 percent with malathion, and 22 percent with Roundup (Relyea, Rick. “The Impact of Insecticides and Herbicides on the Biodoversity and Productivity of Aquatic Communities.” Ecological Applications, 2005)

The insecticides, Sevin and malathion, specifically reduced zooplankton diversity by eliminating cladocerans, which are small crustaceans commonly called water fleas, as well as reducing the diversity and biomass of predatory insects. The two herbicides, Roundup and 2,4-D had no effects on zooplankton, insect predators, or snails. However, although 2,4-D had no effect on tadpoles, Roundup completely eradicated two species of tadpoles and nearly exterminated a third species, resulting in a 70 percent decrease in the species richness of tadpoles overall.

The Institute of Science in Society reported on a test that “Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup Bioforce as well as glyphosate alone reduced testosterone levels in [rat] testicular cells at very low concentrations; and at the higher concentrations—still 10 times below agricultural use—the cells died in 24-48 hours.” (“Glyphosate Kills Rat Testis Cells,” ISIS Report, 27/02/12, link)

Glyphosate has also been shown to be damaging and toxic to mouse bone marrow (Prasad, S. et al. “Clastogenic Effects of Glyphosate in bone Marrow Cells of Swiss Albino Mice,” Journal of Toxicology, 2009).

The Perez study also shows that Roundup “was roughly four times more toxic” to some aquatic macrophytes (aquatic plants) than glyphosate alone—raising the issue of the toxicity of the surfactant and the rest of Roundup’s unknown “other ingredients” in conjunction with the glyphosate herbicide itself.

“In the case of some formulations, the volume of other ingredients, including the surfactant, can outweigh the volume of glyphosate in a named herbicide product,” according to the Delaware study. “For example, Roundup Original Max, according to its label, is 51 percent other ingredients—but what these other ingredients are isn’t listed. Much of the research into the effects of Roundup and others in this herbicidal family seem to demonstrate that at least some of the toxic impacts to the environment are caused by the surfactant used.”

Whether the lethal effects of the herbicide Roundup is primarily due to the glyphosate or the surfactant, or the other unknown ingredients, it is clear that Roundup, with the combination of ingredients it possesses, can cause high rates of mortality in several species of North American Amphibians and can kill or damage cells in other small animals at levels below what is considered “safe.”

Additionally, there continues to be emerging research that demonstrates that glyphosate, POEA and the herbicides like Roundup containing them are not safe for humans as is often asserted. At the very least there is science which calls into question the impacts of herbicides like Roundup and support implementation of the precautionary principle whereby these herbicides are not allowed for use until they are conclusively proven safe. As with studies in the environment, studies of human effects indicate that it is the glyphosate with the surfactant that has the more toxic effects. For example:

• A 2009 study on liver cells found that formulations of Roundup had endocrine disrupting affects at dilutions 800 times lower than the level authorized in some food or feed. “This confirms and enhances the potential toxic action of G[lyphosate]-based herbicides that we observed in human placental and embryonic cell lines, and on fresh umbilical cord cells” The study authors wrote. “..G[lyphosate]-based herbicides present DNA damages and CMR [carcinogen, mutagen and reprotoxic] effects on human cells and in vivo. The direct g[lyphosate] action is most probably amplified by vesicles formed by adjuvants or detergent like substances that allow cell penetration, stability, and probably change its bioavailability and thus metabolism.” (Gasnier, C. et al “Glyphosate-based herbicides are toxic and endocrine disruptors in human cell lines.” Toxicology, 2009)

• In 2005 researchers found that Roundup could be considered a potential endocrine disruptor. And that “at higher doses still below the classical agricultural dilutions, its toxicity on placental cells could induce some reproduction problems”. The research found that Roundup reduced placental cell viability with concentrations 10 times lower than that of the agricultural use and that it did so to a higher degree than glyphosate. The researchers further concluded that the dilution of glyphosate in a Roundup formulation may multiply its endocrine effect. This study also found that the addition of surfactants “greatly facilitated” the penetration of glyphosate through animal cell membranes, as it does for plant cell membranes. (Richard, S. et. al, “Differential Effects of Glyphosate and Roundup on Human Placental Cells and Aromatase.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 2005)

• Another 2009 study looked at the effects of different Roundup formulas on human cells including from the placenta, embryonic kidney and neonate. The results found that “the four R[oundup] herbicides and G[lyphosate] cause cellular death for all types of human cells, with comparable toxicity for each one but at different concentrations.” According to the study, the surfactant POEA, of those considered, was the most potent and “[t]hus, POEA could be considered as the active ingredient on human cell death….” And that while POEA, glyphosate or the major metabolite of glyphosate known as AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid), may have a “small toxic effect on embryonic cells alone at low levels, the combination of two of them at the same final concentration is significantly deleterious.” And it found that the surfactants did not appear to be necessary to “render G[lyphosate] as a death inducer” at the levels studied. In conclusion “… the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death around residual levels to be expected….” (Nora Benachour & Gilles-Eric Seralini, “Glyphosate Formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Plancental Cells,” Chem. Res. Toxicology, 2009)

There’s plenty of precedent for the Environmental Protection Agency and state and local agencies claiming that, under a certain level, a pesticide is safe around humans, only to repeal that decision decades later, and only after substantial damage had been done to humans. (See Paul Koberstein’s examination of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in his article, “The Ghost in the GMO Machine,” Jan., 2015). So take a look at the photo again and ask yourself, do you feel safe knowing that these kind of practices are occurring, and that they may very well be perfectly legal?