Moving Away from Glyphosate: Environmental and Health Effects and Potential Alternatives

By Lauren Sandford

Roundup is one of the most convenient and popular weed killers in the world. After the creation of its active ingredient glyphosate in 1950, the product quickly became a widely-used herbicide because of its ability to kill weeds without harming nearby crops. Since Roundup’s 1974 debut, however, users have come to realize that the powerful lawn chemicals in the weed killer, particularly glyphosate, may be killing more than just weeds. These chemicals have the potential to harm both the environment and food supplies of humans and animals, and several court cases have even found that glyphosate causes terminal cancer.

Glyphosate and the Environment

According to research performed by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, approximately 287 million pounds of glyphosate were used in the United States in 2016. The herbicide is primarily sprayed for agricultural purposes on farms and ranches, or in large landscaping settings such as ball fields, public green spaces, and school campuses.

Agricultural spraying can cause glyphosate and other chemicals in Roundup to become airborne, which can lead to nearby humans, livestock, and wild animals inhaling the dangerous product. In dairy cattle, glyphosate inhalation or ingestion via chemically-treated feed has been linked to metabolic failure, malnourishment, birth defects, and premature death. Studies have also shown that levels of glyphosate are detectable in humans who have drank milk from those same dairy cows, even when the milk is pasteurized. Similarly, consuming venison may also expose humans to glyphosate, as these animals can be permanently contaminated after exposure.

Commercial glyphosate use can also permeate nearby water streams and aquatic ecosystems. It has the potential to contaminate tap water when it runs off into drinking wells and reservoirs, as well. Before the hazardous effects of glyphosate were a known concern to the masses, a study conducted in the Midwest found that glyphosate was detectable in 36 percent of all streams tested. Glyphosate residue found in water has also been seen to harm the humans who drink tap water, as well as wild animals who drink from natural sources, such as streams and lakes.

How Glyphosate Affects Human Health

In humans, glyphosate exposure has been shown to increase the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma by up to 41 percent. In May 2019, California residents Alva and Alberta Pilliod claimed they developed their illnesses after consistently spraying Roundup to control weeds on their properties. After a jury found Monsanto liable for both of their cancer diagnoses, the Pilliods’ were awarded $2 billion in damages, which was later reduced to $86.7 million. This was the third case in which Monsanto and its new owner Bayer were found guilty of negligence with regard to the safety of Roundup.

There are currently more than 18,400 Americans waiting for their trial dates after experiencing medical problems as a result of Roundup use. The next set of cases is scheduled to take place in October 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri, where a group of 14 cancer patients will face the corporation in Walter Winston, et al v. Monsanto. According to U.S. Right to Know, the “tangled web of actions” leading up to the trial may “threaten to indefinitely postpone the case.” Time will tell whether or not the trial will move forward as planned on October 15.

How Citizens Can Protect Themselves and the Environment

Concerned consumers can reduce the risk of glyphosate exposure on their own properties by switching to organic herbicides. One common and surprisingly effective option for a natural weed killer is high-percentage white vinegar, which does not harm drinking wells or naturally-occurring bodies of water. However, this alternative is only effective for at-home use.

Citizens may still come into contact with glyphosate on public properties such as parks, and could even ingest the chemical if they eat at restaurants that serve non-organic food. Individuals can push to remove glyphosate from their communities by encouraging their local parks departments to forego or ban the chemical. Los Angeles County, for example, has already banned the substance from public use. Similar initiatives are being proposed around the world, where countries like Germany and France have placed restrictions on Roundup use. There is no safe level of glyphosate exposure, and until it is not used in any capacity, people will continue to be at risk of being harmed by the substance.