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Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is easily the most heavily used agricultural chemical in the U.S., according to a 2016 study in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe. And that’s starting to look like more and more of a problem.
“Roundup is widely used in gardens and commercial spaces, as well as in agriculture,” says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group. It’s so widely used that it occasionally turns up in drinking water, Lunder says. That’s frightening because, since Roundup first hit the market in 1974, it has been linked to a bevy of health issues.
The latest report ties the chemical to fatty liver disease—at least in animals.
French and U.K. researchers found exposure to even “ultra-low” doses of glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) like Roundup caused a spike in liver disease among rats. While there’s no data linking Roundup to liver issues in humans, “this needs to be looked into as a matter of urgency,” says Michael Antoniou, PhD, coauthor of the study and head of the gene expression and therapy group at King’s College London.
Like many of the scientists who have investigated the health impacts of GBHs, Antoniou says it’s tough to pinpoint exactly how the chemical may do its damage. “The mechanism of how the liver disease we observed arises is currently unknown,” he says. “But given the extremely low level of GBH that caused the disease, one plausible mechanism is endocrine disruption.”
Endocrine disrupting chemicals are substances that can throw off your body’s delicate internal balance of hormones in ways that promote disease.
So, what other health issues have researchers linked to Roundup? Keep reading to find out.
Lymphoma And Other Cancers
Multiple studies, including a recent paper in Environmental Research and Public Health, have linked herbicide exposure to higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But that research mostly looked at farm workers who were working with the GBHs—not with people eating Roundup-treated crops, or using the product at home. Even in agricultural workers, the evidence linking glyphosate to lymphoma is mixed—though at least one recent study found that while glyphosate alone may not be so bad, the other inactive ingredients added to Roundup increase its toxicity.
Research from the journal Organic Systems has also tied glyphosate exposure to cancers of the thyroid, liver, bladder, pancreas, and kidneys. The authors of that study, like Antoniou, say glyphosate’s potential endocrine-disrupting actions may be to blame. But it’s important to note that a World Health Organization report concluded that eating foods treated with glyphosate is “unlikely” to pose a cancer risk to people.
A 2015 study from an Ohio-based research team found an increase in the use of GBHs coincides with a surge in healthcare costs related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The study team says use of GBH could increase a crop’s nitrous oxide emissions, and exposure to nitrous oxide is associated with greater risk for ADHD.
Research shows glyphosate herbicides may deplete a crop’s uptake of the nutrient manganese. Particularly when it comes to corn and soy, glyphosate seems to “severely deplete” the plant’s manganese levels, per a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Certain strains of essential gut bacteria need manganese to thrive, and those same strains knock out the kind of oxidative damage research has linked to anxiety disorders, as well as brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis.
Again, there’s no direct link between these health issues and Roundup. But more research links all of these brain disorders with GBH.
Along with brain disorders, gut bacteria imbalances have also been linked to escalating rates of obesity, per a study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. While the study authors don’t pin higher rates of obesity specifically to GBH, they say chemicals like glyphosate may be damaging many of your body’s “natural weight-control mechanisms.”
What You Can Do To Lower Your Risks
While a lot of the research on glyphosate and Roundup is inconclusive or conflicting, it seems prudent to take steps to lower your risks. How can you do that? “As with all pesticides, the only way to minimize ingestion of GBH is to eat organically grown food, and not use it in your own garden,” Antoniou says. EWG’s Lunder agrees, and also recommends avoiding processed foods that contain corn oil, corn syrup, and conventional forms of soy, wheat, and oats—all crops that tend to be treated with GBH.
Finally, gripe to your elected officials. “Persuade local authorities not to use them in parks, schools and other public places,” Antoniou says. Experts say that government regulators—namely, the Environmental Protection Agency—allow 50-times more glyphosate on corn crops today than they did in 1996. The more we use these chemicals to grow our food, the harder they are to avoid.
Cornucopia’s Take: Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is the active ingredient in many herbicides since its debut in agribusiness. Scientists have yet to determine exactly how glyphosate is causing health problems, but studies show that specific ailments arise in animals even with exposure to low doses of the chemical. Glyphosate is not allowed in organic agriculture.