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An absorbing debate

Experts have yet to reach agreement on whether herbicide glyphosate poses health risk to humans

Jacob DeRochie/contributing photographer

Glyphosate, a chemical commonly used in some weed killers, is surrounded by conflicting reports of whether it causes cancer, and how much, if any, is safe to use. It was recently the topic of a $289 million lawsuit award to a man dying of cancer. Plants absorb the chemical, which keeps them from making proteins needed for growth.

It’s in breakfast cereals, granola bars and oatmeal.

Farmers spray it on their crops and use it to limit weeds.

It’s been blamed for a California’s man’s terminal cancer, and his $289 million legal award.

Farmers across Cortland County — both dairy and crop farmers — have used it for decades without any known health problems.

The chemical is glyphosate, an herbicide that is applied to the leaves of plants to kill both broadleaf plants and grasses.

It’s found in brand name Roundup and other herbicides including, Rodeo Aquatic Herbicide and Eraser.

Expert agencies have yet to reach an agreement on whether it is harmful and carcinogenic, but Willet farmer Alvin “Sandy” Doty Jr. has used it for decades.


How glyphosphate works

Glyphosate is absorbed into plants it is sprayed on, said Janice Degni, field crops specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Cortland County.

It prevents the plants from making certain proteins necessary for plant growth, killing them, according to the National Pesticide Center.

“A lot of field crops are designed to tolerate it,” Degni said.


“I don’t glow in the dark, yet,” he said.

40 years of spraying

Glyphosate first hit the scene in the U.S. in 1974, according to National Pesticide Information Center. It is one of the most widely used herbicides in the country.

People apply it in agriculture and forestry; on lawns and gardens; and for weeds in industrial areas.

Some products containing glyphosate are also used to control aquatic plants.

For decades, Doty has used it on his farm for both his crops and weed management around fence lines. “I’ve used it for years, both the regular and generic,” he said.

The chemical comes in different forms, including an acid and several salts. They can be either solids or an amber-colored liquid. More than 750 products in the United States contain glyphosate.

The chemical, according to the pesticide center, prevents plants from making certain proteins necessary for growth.

Doty, who has an applicator’s license through New York, uses the chemical on some of his crops, including corn and soy beans.

“There is no harm with it if used right,” Doty said.

In August, however, a California jury ordered Monsanto, the company that produces the weed killer Roundup, to pay $289 million to a school groundskeeper who got terminal cancer after using the product, which contains glyphosate.

A Superior Court jury deliberated for 2 1/2 days before finding that Dewayne Johnson’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma was at least partly due to using glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Roundup.

Johnson regularly used glyphosate to spray fields while working as a groundskeeper. He was awarded $39 million in past and future losses, both economic and noneconomic, as well as $250 million in punitive damages.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as probably carcinogenic in humans, even while noting that there was limited evidence of a link between glyphosate and non- Hodgkin lymphoma, according to consumersafety.org.

However, the National Pesticide Information Center says glyphosate is low in toxicity.

Yet precautions are still recommended.

“Precautions are stated on the label,” Doty said. Wear rubber gloves, long-sleeved shirts and eye protection.

Wear pants, shoes and socks, too, said Janice Degni, field crops specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Cortland County.

Also, avoid inhaling the mist, she said. “They’d say that about any chemical.”

There’s a ton of hype on the internet, Degni said. “It’s not entirely scientifically based,” she said.

Safe or dangerous?

Glyphosate is surrounded by controversy. “Twenty years ago we thought it was one of the safest out there,” Degni said. She has used the chemical selectively around her home over the years. “For really obnoxious weeds,” she said.

Now questions about it being linked to cancer have risen.

In low amounts it may not be bad, Degni said. “What’s in question is the long term,” Degni said.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled glyphosate as a carcinogenic chemical, despite what some have called thin evidence, for two reasons:

• Animal studies, specifically studies of mice and rats, demonstrated a possible link between glyphosate and cancerous tumors.
• Laboratory studies of the damaging effects of glyphosate on DNA showed evidence the weed killer can damage human DNA.

Other agencies however are at odds.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority found glyphosate was probably not carcinogenic, according to consumersafety. org.

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment on the other hand lists the chemical as a known carcinogen, largely based on the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s classification.

Even an article from the Critical Reviews in Toxicology journal did not find support in the epidemiologic literature for a causal association between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

Government investigating

The federal government now has plans to investigate the chemical.

A new report by the Environmental Working Group — an American activist group that specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of agricultural subsidies, public lands and corporate accountability — shows the presence glyphosate in everyday foods like breakfast cereals, granola bars and oatmeal.

Following that report, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) revealed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had been studying the chemical and its presence in everyday foods for about two years.

“Startling headlines about glyphosate are popping up like weeds themselves, giving root to lots of serious questions and concerns for the government to act,” Schumer said in a news release. “So I am making it known today that the federal government is in fact investigating this chemical, and I am here today to ask them to provide us all with an update on their work so that concerned parents and consumers can get the answers they seek.”

Schumer is pushing the FDA to tamp down new public panic and deliver fact-based answers to worried parents and consumers.

The chemical may or may not do harm. However, agencies are investigating. “I think it’s being investigated because there is a lot of interest,” Degni said.

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