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Does herbicide kill more than weeds?

By Mark Andrews | Features | Published:

Lee Johnson is set to receive the equivalent of £64.4 million, but the 46-year-old former school groundsman can be forgiven for not cracking open the champagne. Because while Mr Johnson may be in line for money beyond most people's wildest dreams, he knows he is unlikely to live long enough to be able to spend it.

Agri-chemical giant Bayer faces thousands of lawsuits over reports of a link between weedkiller Roundup and cancer

He was awarded the money by a court in San Francisco, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer allegedly caused by the popular weedkiller Roundup.

"Before I got sick, life was pretty good," he says. "I had a good job, we were renting this nice house. I did not like using the chemicals, but I loved that job."

One day, his sprayer broke, leading him to be soaked in the spray.

"I didn't think that much about it, I washed up in the sink and changed my clothes," he says. "Later when I went home and took a good long shower, but I didn't think 'I'm going to die from this stuff'."

He is not alone. So far Roundup's manufacturer Monsanto has lost three court cases linking Roundup to cancer. In March this year the company was told to pay the equivalent of £66 million to Edwin Hardeman, and Monsanto is now facing 18,400 lawsuits in relation to the product. With considerable understatement, Monsanto's parent company Bayer recently admitted it faced a 'challenging environment'.

The risk is thought to come from the active ingredient glyphosate, identified as 'probably carcinogenic' in 2015 by the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer. Roundup was originally subject to international patents from its launch in 1974, but these had all expired by 2000, allowing other glyphosate-based herbicides to come onto the market.

But given that Roundup, and indeed other glyphosate-based weedkillers are still freely available, just how real is the risk to the public?

The short answer is we really do not know. Classifying the chemical as 'probably carcinogenic' does not mean the World Health Organisation is indicating the likelihood of contracting cancer as a result of using weedkillers containing the chemical. Indeed, it should be pointed out that red meat and shift work also falls into the same WHO category, while bacon and sausage actually fall into the more dangerous 'carcinogenic' category.

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The organisation adds: "The probability of developing a cancer will depend on factors such as the type and extent of exposure and the strength of the effect of the agent."

Weilin Wu, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, says: "There is some evidence that people who are exposed to very high levels of glyphosate, for example through their job, may have a small increased risk of certain types of cancer.

"But most people in the UK will never be exposed to hight levels of glyphosate and there's no good evidence that there's an increased risk for people exposed at low levels.

Concerns have also been expressed in the US that the use of the pesticide to spray crops is behind the rise in people suffering from gluten intolerances. A report by the Environmental Working Group in June this year found that 21 oat-based cereal and snack products popular with children contained traces of glyphosate.

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Oliver Cartwright, West Midland spokesman for the National Farmer's Union, says the chemical is safe providing it is correctly used.

“Independent regulatory bodies around the world, including the two main bodies in Europe – the European Chemicals Agency and the European Food Safety Authority – have reviewed all the evidence surrounding glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and concluded it poses no risk when used correctly.

“Glyphosate reduces the need to use other herbicides and helps to protect soil and cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the need for ploughing.”

Local authorities across the region are continuing to use products containing the chemical, although they say strict safety procedures are followed.

Councillor Maria Crompton says Sandwell Council has no plans to stop using them, adding that it would follow any guidance given by the Health & Safety Executive, the Environment Agency and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

“We only use very small amounts of products containing glyphosate in our parks and green spaces," she adds.

“Weedkillers are used strictly in line with the manufacturer’s safety information and control of substances hazardous to health assessments.

"Staff who use these products are issued with personal protective equipment and have received training on their safe use.”

Russell Griffin, of Telford & Wrekin Council, says the authority's contractor uses glysophate to spray the edges of paths and roads to control and prevent weed growth.

"Glyphosate remains the most cost-effective option for controlling amenity weeds and is licensed for use in the UK," he says. "We continue to monitor the market for effective alternatives.

"We also work hard to preserve and encourage the insect population and habitat, with an increasing number of wildflowers planted along our transport corridors and open spaces."

Danielle Taylor of Wolverhampton Council says the authority follows industry guidance on the use of glyphosate.

"The product is always administered by qualified staff or contractors following the application guidelines and wear all the recommended personal protective equipment. We will continue to follow the guidance and any advice issued by Defra or the Health and Safety Executive.”

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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