Monday, May 12, 2014

The Dangerous Side of Herbicides

By Brianne Bishop

Spraying Giant Hogweed   (photo: NYSDEC)
The popular herbicide Roundup has been used on gardens, farms, and parks around the world. Ads state that Roundup guarantees a weed free season, which is appealing to many homeowners and gardeners. The Monsanto product has been in use since 1974, when it was introduced into the U.S. for industrial use only. The weed killing substance then became commercialized and available for the common citizen to use in 1976.

Since it’s allowed to be sold in a store that means it’s safe right? Wrong. Here’s why:

Monsanto’s formula for Roundup includes as the main ingredient a compound known as glyphosate, which inhibits the key enzyme that allows for plant growth known as EPSP synthase. Basically, inhibiting this enzyme destroys the plant’s building blocks of life by attacking the amino acids. It is also commonly mixed with other ingredients in order to create a higher potency that helps it penetrate the plants' leaves.

Human Health Concerns

Ultimately, the concern comes from its ability to accumulate in humans. This is due to the inert ingredients present in Roundup. The term inert implies that the compounds are biologically harmless. This is not true, in this case inert simply means that the added chemicals don’t kill insects and/or weeds, but they aid the main ingredient glyphosate in doing so.

The use of glyphosate has been highly debated and it has also been highly used, creating a chemical herbicide found in over 750 United States products. Approximately 100 million pounds of the pesticide are applied to farms and lands in the United States every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Health studies were initially focused on glyphosate and the inactive ingredients were ignored. However, newer studies are being done on the inert ingredients. Studies have shown that other chemicals in Roundup can kill human cells and negatively affect humans. These chemicals especially target embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells. Roundup specifically may cause pregnancy problems because the chemicals interfere with the hormones in the human body.

The inert ingredients in Roundup increase the toxicity on human cells even when concentrations were diluted. The mixtures that are available for commercial use have been proven to cause cell damage and possible even death, according to European studies cited by an article in Scientific American titled "Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells."

Monsanto claims that the product is harmless if it is used as directed.

The EPA classified glyphosate as a Group E chemical, meaning that it is not cancer causing. The federal agency is allowing higher concentrations of glyphosate to be used on crops and allowing there to be higher concentrations of glyphosate in humans. However, studies have shown that regardless of concentration, glyphosate is affecting humans by accumulating in bones and organs, creating a toxic environment for humans. Studies were being done on the substance as early as 1985 and concluded that glyphosate accumulates in animal tissue, fat, and is even present in eggs and milk. In the 90s, studies were done proving that the substance can pass through the animals’ guts into their bodies, settling in the bones.

In Argentina, where soybeans are the main crop produced, the use of glyphosate was temporarily banned. Argentina found that there was a higher rate of cancer, birth defects, and the development of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in people living near crop spraying areas.

Glyphosate is the most active ingredient in Roundup and is present in other herbicides as well, but there are other chemicals used on smaller scales in the formula that are harmful. In fact, there are almost 4,000 smaller scale ingredients used in the pesticide Roundup that are approved by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. These smaller scale ingredients are often added in order to make the main ingredient, glyphosate, more powerful and destructive.

One ingredient, called polyethoxylated tallowamine or POEA, is more potent and damaging to human reproductive cells than the herbicide itself.  Roundup needs to be re-examined because the other compounds that are present increase the substances toxicity. The combination of POEA, derived from animal fat, with glyphosate creates a truly dangerous combination.

Herbicide-Resistant Weeds

Meanwhile, “super weeds” have developed a resistance to Roundup. Plants began forming resistance to glyphosate, according to a 2010 New York Times report, “Farmers Cope with Roundup-Resistant Weeds.” 

Roundup was created to reduce the need of the labor-intensive and expensive practice of tilling. Tilling crops is necessary because certain weeds choke out the crops and farmers then lose profit because of it. Spraying herbicides was a quick and easy solution to this problem. The fear of  weeds’ ability to resist the chemical is causing farmers to go back to more labor-intensive practices such as tilling. This has a domino effect on production, because the more labor intensive, the more expensive production is. Not only will this increase food prices, but also tilling is more harmful to the environment because the lands are now subject to more erosion, and the increase of fuel use increases emissions of tractors.

In the early years Monsanto advertised focusing on the needs of large industrial farms. Monsanto informed these farms that Roundup is especially useful for farmers because it is eco-friendly. Monsanto states that the use of Roundup reduces the need for tilling. Monsanto claims that weed resistance is a manageable issue.

Scientists try to tell farmers to alternate using glyphosate with other herbicides in order to avoid weed resistance, but in many cases it was already too late, according to the New York Times report.

This is why the Earth is such an interesting and complex system. You would think that because humans study and understand theories such as survival of the fittest and evolution that this would have been expected. The excessive use of Roundup on farmlands has led to Roundup being overused and becoming ineffective. So chemical companies made a stronger substance. This stronger substance contains harsher and higher concentration of chemicals. These chemicals include the ones discussed earlier such as glyphosate and POEA. One can only begin to imagine the type of levels and effect this newly formulated and stronger weed killer will have on plants and humans.

Just as humans are heavily relying on and overusing antibiotics, farmers are relying on and overusing pesticides and herbicides. Humans make stronger medicines only to create an environment where germs then adapt and become resistant, creating supergerms. Monsanto made Roundup to kill weeds and when the weeds adapted and became super weeds, then they created a stronger Roundup formula. Humans are under the false impression that we can alter nature, but the truth is nature will always find a way to outsmart human actions. Scientists try to take short cuts, but these shortcuts sometimes prove to be harmful to human health.

Now scientists have figured out a way to genetically alter plants so that they are able to resist the glyphosate. This allows the plants themselves to be safe from heavy pesticide use and not affect the plant growth, but this means the plants are subject to being genetically modified in order to increase productivity. These plant seeds, referred to as terminator seeds, have made farmers dependent on them in order to have a higher productivity, which translates into a higher profit. These genetically engineered seeds are wiping out organic farms, because small organic farms cannot compete with large corporate farms, according to an article in Natural News. The Monsanto Company pushes these terminator seeds because they increase food production and this food can be grown in Third World countries to “feed world hunger.”

I hope this article makes you think twice about using Roundup to control those pesky weeds. Are killing weeds with harsh chemicals really worth the health risk?

Home Remedy Weed Killers

There are alternatives. Natural home remedy weed killers can be made without the harsh chemicals of commercialized products. Ingredients usually consist of vinegar, salt, liquid dish soap, and a spray bottle. If you want to remove dandelions specifically from your yard you can make a non-toxic dandelion killer that consists of apple cider vinegar, table salt, and dish soap. Users even claim the homemade concoctions have a higher success rate than Roundup and without the use of harsh chemicals.

Better for your lawn, better for your health, and better for the environment.

"Warning Signs: How Pesticides Harm the Young Brain." The Nation, 31 Mar. 2014.

"Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells." Scientific American. Environmental Health News, 23 June 2009.

"Glyphosate Toxicity to Humans: An Overview." Natural News, 2 Aug. 2013.

"Farmers Cope with Roundup-Resistant Weeds." The New York Times, 03 May 2010.

Brianne Bishop is a Sophomore at Ramapo College majoring in Environmental Studies.

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