Environment

Why isn’t Round-Up banned? | Popular Science

In July, chemical giant Bayer announced that home garden growers would no longer be able to purchase products containing glyphosate, the active ingredient in the world’s most widely used herbicide. This was the culmination of tens of thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto, the former owner of Bayer and Roundup, for their alleged role in causing a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So far, the plaintiffs have secured hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements. In August, Bayer petitioned for US Supreme Court review of one of those cases.

The decision to remove glyphosate from the home gardening market was not an admission of guilt, and farmers will continue to use products containing glyphosate. Bayer stresses that glyphosate is safe and does not cause cancer. The most recent report from 2016 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports Bayer’s view. The report’s authors concluded that glyphosate was an unlikely carcinogen and posed no known risks to human health.

At the same time, scientists and economists are raising doubts about the safety of Roundup and similar products — and the accuracy of the research that’s included in Bayer and EPA reports.

How to become a ubiquitous news reporter

When Monsanto first marketed Roundup in 1974, the company sold it as an agricultural breakthrough: an herbicide that’s safe for the environment and humans. Unlike the pesticide DDT, which was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972, Monsanto ensured that glyphosate would not remain in the environment or in people’s bodies. Studies show that the half-life of glyphosate within the soil, or the amount of time it takes for half of a given application to break down, is between seven and 60 days. It leaves behind a chemical byproduct, AMPA, but neither glyphosate nor AMPA tends to accumulate in human cells. Instead, it is excreted in urine and feces.

[Related: Pesticides might be worse for bees than we thought.]

There is also a mechanism by which glyphosate kills weeds: it inhibits the shikimate pathway, a system that plant cells use to produce energy, by inhibiting an enzyme that helps them synthesize amino acids from carbohydrates. In essence, glyphosate starves plants. Human cells do not have the same pathway to produce energy. This detail distinguishes glyphosate from other chemicals that cause genetic mutation and cancer, which tend to target pathways also found in human cells, says Jia Chen, professor of environment and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “For that purpose, you might consider it completely harmless,” Chen says.

While human cells do not use the chemotactic pathway, bacteria do. The apparent danger to human health of glyphosate is likely due in part to the chemical’s effect on the good bacteria in our gut. This community of good bacteria not only helps us digest our food; They are also vital players in our immune system.

Studies in rats and lab-grown bacteria indicate that glyphosate inhibits the formation of gut bacteria, which may limit their ability to modulate our immune system. (However, we can’t know for sure based on these studies whether the same effects occur inside the human body.) The chemical just needs to pass. Imbalances in the microbiome create space for disease-causing bacteria, which can lead to inflammation. Researchers believe that both inflammation and an immune disorder are linked to an increased risk of cancer, according to a 2018 review published in the journal carcinogenesis. Furthermore, research indicates that even at very low concentrations, glyphosate mimics human hormones, which can either stimulate or accelerate the growth of tumors.

Nearly half a century after it was introduced into agriculture, the chemical is now ubiquitous in the environment. “Glyphosate is, by far, the most widely used and most profitable herbicide ever discovered,” says Charles Bainbrook. Heartland Health Research Alliance agricultural economist and expert witness in ongoing litigation. As of 2014, 825,000 tons of herbicides were used annually worldwide, according to an article in the journal environmental health.

Scientists have found glyphosate everywhere from tree roots to honeybee hives. In a study of 94 pregnant women who were not directly exposed to the herbicide at work, Chen and a team of international scientists found traces of glyphosate in the urine of 95 percent of participants. “You can even detect it in surface waters and rain,” Chen says, “Glyphosate is basically everywhere.”

The problem with studying a news report

Scientists have linked products containing glyphosate to a number of conditions, from miscarriage to cancer. But you can’t randomly expose people to a potential poison and compare them to a non-exposed group, the way you’d do clinical trials of a drug—it would be unethical for the former and pretty impossible for the latter, given that compound is so ubiquitous—so studying the effects of Glyphosate in humans remains a challenge, Chen says. Scientists tend to study the chemical’s effects on human cells or other animals in the lab, or ask people retrospectively about their exposure to glyphosate to find potential health associations. However, exposing laboratory mice to toxins will not give you a clear picture of what is happening to humans, and people may encounter many potentially toxic substances throughout their lives that can harm their health. In other words, there is no perfect way.

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that glyphosate was “not likely to be a human carcinogen.”

[Related: Pesticides can hurt agricultural communities—so why do farmers fight back against bans?]

Scientists, regulators, and the popular press have focused overwhelmingly on the link between glyphosate and cancer. But from my perspective, I’m more interested in non-cancerous outcomes. “Health doesn’t just equate to cancer,” says Chen. Published in the journal Chen’s experimental study on pregnant women this year Environmental pollution, and higher concentrations of glyphosate in urine have been linked to a shorter pregnancy. All of the pregnant women in the study gave birth to full-term babies — in other words, the pregnancy lasted 37 weeks or more — but shorter gestations, especially those under 37 weeks, are associated with complications in the newborn, from breathing to digestive problems. Babies born to people who have more glyphosate in their urine also have a greater distance between the anus and the genitals, which is associated with higher levels of male sex hormones. This finding suggested to Chen that glyphosate might interfere with the endocrine system, which is worrisome but not conclusive.

Data on non-cancerous outcomes isn’t the only information we’re lacking, says Leland Glena, a sociologist at Penn State University. Herbicide manufacturers are not required to share inactive ingredients in their products, so scientists don’t really know what Roundup contains, aside from glyphosate. This makes studying difficult.

The data is not only incomplete. Glena, who researches the role of science and technology in agricultural policy-making, believes that much of it is unreliable. Much of the epidemiological data we have comes directly from scientists working for companies producing herbicides – a potential conflict of interest. In the EPA’s report on glyphosate, 39 percent of the reviewed studies were produced by Monsanto scientists, according to an analysis published in Environmental Sciences Europe.

“There is a clear difference between the public sciences and the private sciences,” says Glena. The same analysis found that of the 36 studies on pure glyphosate that were included in the EPA’s report, only two percent published by industry scientists found an association between glyphosate and cancer versus 67 percent of those published in peer-reviewed journals. But even this number may be unreliable.

[Related: The main ingredient in RoundUp doesn’t just kill plants. It harms beetles, too.]

During the 2018 court case Johnson vs Monsanto, the evidence presented included leaked internal emails in which Monsanto employees discussed cryptographic studies to support the claim that glyphosate is safe for human health. This included discrediting the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s report that “glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen,” according to a 2021 review that Glenna co-authored and published in the journal. search policy.

However, scientists do not have conclusive evidence that the Roundup report causes health problems. According to Chen, science still has a long way to go before reaching any conclusion about the effects or a news report — or lack thereof. She and other scientists are calling for more independent research, releasing information on the inactive ingredients in these products, and focusing more on complete herbicide formulations rather than just glyphosate.

Currently, Benbrook of the Heartland Health Research Alliance does not advise consumers to forgo Roundup altogether. Instead, he says, appropriate precautions should be taken: Wear protective clothing when using herbicides, shower immediately after any potential exposure, and avoid the product if you are immunocompromised in any way.

“There is some troubling evidence, but nothing concrete,” says Chen. “That’s why we need more research.”

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