Chemicals, courts and cancer: the glyphosate conundrum
modern people look down on their “foolish” predecessors. History is full of
once popular notions that were beyond dispute, such as: The earth is the center
of the universe. Digging holes causes rain. Witches were as thick as gnats in
Salem. Women are less than men. Rodents spontaneously form. Brussels sprouts
contain evil spirits. The earth is flat. The moon landing was faked.
Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor recommended health care workers wash their hands
when delivering babies. He was scorned and committed to a mental asylum where
he was beaten severely as part of his treatment. He died due to this “advanced”
medical treatment within days. Birth mortality remained high until soap was
the future will see us as the first completely rational generation.
not. Every generation is guilty, including ours. Which of our ridiculous
notions will future generations mock?
Chemical vs. natural
the popular view that “chemicals are bad, natural is better” is not backed by
in the universe is made of matter, which are the chemical elements on the
periodic table. One of these chemicals is oxygen. Wait . . . oxygen is a
chemical? Yes, oxygen, which we all need to live, is a chemical.
also a chemical. And, like oxygen, is found in every human body. It’s natural
and thus, it must be good for us. Right? After all, it was used as a medicinal
product in the past. However, it is poisonous if the dose is too high. But, so
is water. Yes, if you drink too much water you will die. Too much of a
chemical, even water, is not good.
and oxygen are “natural” and, thus, good. Artificial chemicals, on the other
hand, must be bad (because natural sounds better and artificial is offensive).
For example, most soaps are not naturally occurring but, rather, are
artificially manufactured. Thus, soap = bad. Right? Dr. Semmelweis and a
mountain of scientific data would say otherwise.
arsenic, a heavy dose of weeds is bad for society. Invasive noxious weeds are a
global problem in native ecosystems. Weeds have a cost of ~4 billion (USD), but
an estimated 20 billion without herbicides. Science shows weeds hurt yields and
high yields are needed to provide the food, fuel, and fiber for the 7+ billion
people on this planet. Not only do weeds have an economic cost, but the
reduction of crop yields costs lives due to starvation and malnutrition,
especially in developing nations. Weed control saves lives.
So, how do
we control weeds? Hand pulling is one option, but do it and you’ll realize that
the weeds will win this battle. We’ve developed chemicals (herbicides) for weed
control. One of the most significant discoveries in the war of weeds happened
~40 years ago when glyphosate (RoundUp) was discovered. This very effective
broad-spectrum herbicide has been widely used in agriculture, the urban landscape,
and beyond. Very popular . . . until recently.
The wave of
public opinion against glyphosate is approaching tidal wave proportions due to
cancer concerns. It is an artificial chemical and, thus, it must be bad for us
is the conventional wisdom. Recent court rulings have decreed such. Thus, it
must be true . . . just as the courts convicted the witches of Salem. Courts
are never wrong. Let’s examine the overwhelming scientific facts ignored by
these courts (Figure 1).
turned against glyphosate recently due to court rulings in California in favor
of a fellow sports field professional and against glyphosate. This man
contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We join with him in his concern for health
and in no way want to minimize this terrible disease and its effects on him and
his family. However, we argue the ruling ignored facts and was injudicious.
The smoking gun
findings of this study are in contrast with a report by the World Health
Organization (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Let’s
examine this report that stirred the trouble for glyphosate.
is not a regulatory agency, issued its report in 2015, categorizing glyphosate
in their Group 2A, which is defined as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (i.e.
having the potential to cause cancer). The panel felt that the evidence of
carcinogenicity in experimental animals was sufficient, despite evidence in
humans being limited or non-existent. The IARC report did state there was no
evidence for harm from exposure through food.
context, other substances (and activities) that have received this same
classification as “probably carcinogenic” include emissions from high
temperature frying, red meat, very hot beverages, being a hairdresser, or
participating in shift work. Note that of over 1,000 items and activities evaluated,
this panel only found 1 to be “probably not carcinogenic to humans.”
that many items were classified in Group 1, which is “carcinogenic to humans.”
One of these is tobacco smoking, which isn’t a surprise. But another is
alcoholic beverages. We find it curious that about 70% of Americans report
annually ingesting a Group 1 carcinogen (according to IARC) and yet a lower
risk Group 2A chemical is resulting in near mass hysteria.
assessment has other significant problems, including:
exposure levels were not taken into
all the available data was not used,
reported conflict of interest by
those conducting the assessment,
failure to interpret research
reports correctly, and
lack of transparency when the
results were challenged.
Christopher Portier, an activist for the Environmental Defense Fund, was
elected chair of the IARC Glyphosate Monograph Advisory Panel. Shortly after
participating in the IARC panel he signed a contract with two firms suing
Monsanto. Dr. Portier claimed later that “no one had paid him a cent” and that
he “had no conflict of interest whatsoever.” It is possible that Dr. Portier
did nothing wrong in his work as chair, but to say that there was no conflict
of interest and that he had not been paid is untrue.
panel was biased in their selection of data used in their report. Members of the
committee knew of data that showed a lack of correlation between glyphosate and
cancer. Yet, these data were omitted from the evaluation. As a result, the
committee did not arrive at a conclusion corroborated by science.
the IARC committee also chose to change the conclusions of some scientific
reports. In some of the original research papers, authors concluded their work
saying that glyphosate was not carcinogenic, but the IARC provided a different
conclusion stating that these studies could not be evaluated for various
reasons. Research showing glyphosate was not carcinogenic was downplayed and
minimized in the IARC report.
combination of these actions by the IARC Working Group adds up to a compromised
report. After the glyphosate report was released, many independent scientists
were surprised, and challenged the IARC to provide greater transparency as to
how the link to cancer was established. The IARC responded by claiming the
scientists involved had no responsibility to answer any additional questions .
. . a surprising change to the scientific method that normally embraces critique.
Trouble in WHOville
left out of media coverage of the IARC report is that there were four separate
WHO programs that evaluated glyphosate. The IARC report was in contrast with
the other three, which include:
Joint Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) and WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues,
International Programme on Chemical
Guidelines for Drinking-Water
programs determined that glyphosate is “not carcinogenic.” Only one of the WHO
evaluations, the IARC report, found glyphosate to be potentially carcinogenic .
. . along with doing shift work and being a hairdresser.
In God we trust, all others bring
studies showing that glyphosate is unsafe? Yes, but there are very few of these
and a careful vetting by unbiased experts suggests these studies are flawed.
For example, one study claimed a 41% increase in cancer, but an excellent
analysis of the methods showed this to be a faulty study where significant
amounts of data were omitted, as documented at
of high quality, independent research has been done showing glyphosate is not
carcinogenic. There have been more than 800 independent studies on glyphosate.
It is one of the most studied chemicals in history. Yet none prove
carcinogenicity or other deleterious effects if used according to label.
Perhaps the most robust study is the Agricultural Health Study. Over 54,000
workers from Iowa and North Carolina participated in this study. The authors of
this research were able to control for exposure to other pesticides. They found
no positive association between glyphosate and cancer.
Regulators and Advisory Groups, as well as others (approved in over 160
countries), have ruled glyphosate neither carcinogenic, mutagenic, nor
reprotoxic. Recently, Health Canada stated that concerns about glyphosate
safety are not supported by science when considering “the entire body of
relevant data.” Shortly after, the US EPA reaffirmed that glyphosate is not a
carcinogen. They state that their evaluation was “more robust” and “more
transparent” than the IARC report. They stated, “There is no risk to public
health from the application of glyphosate.”
contrast to the lack of transparency surrounding the IARC report, the EPA
evaluation is freely available to the public. Panel members and procedures are
listed. The report addresses and summarizes all the available scientific
findings. The EPA report also lists questions and concerns that were raised by
2019, the EPA issued labeling guidelines to ensure clarity stating that they
will no longer approve labels claiming that glyphosate causes cancer (due to
Proposition 65 in California making such claims and requiring their own labeling).
Fact or fiction?
overwhelming evidence and near full consensus by unbiased experts, recent court
rulings relied heavily on the IARC classification, which has caused this frenzy
against glyphosate. Advertisements are widespread asking for anyone exposed to
this chemical to join the throngs of class action lawsuits. Insurance companies
are beginning to deny coverage for those who use glyphosate. Etc.
Stop using glyphosate and use natural or organically certified herbicides, such
as household vinegar. Unfortunately, vinegar is not really natural. And, it
doesn’t work very well as an herbicide. And, you have to use the concentrated
form (acetic acid) for it to have any effect. And, the scientifically measured
toxicity of vinegar for human exposure is actually worse than glyphosate. Many
common chemicals have higher toxicity than glyphosate. Just like we use water
appropriately, we use chemicals with toxicity according to safe instructions at
the right dosage. For example, antibiotics are pesticides (chemicals that kill
pests) and safe when used appropriately. The actual facts show that countless
lives have been saved by these medicines and, yet, even these are being falsely
scrutinized because they are not “natural.”
regulatory agency in the world that examined the link between glyphosate and
cancer concluded there is no link. Yet, the people who manufacture and market
this important chemical are struggling and we are at risk of losing the use of
this valuable resource because of the foolish notions of the masses and a
single misguided report that gets more press than all of the others combined.
will be better served when the general public is well informed by facts. The
scientific method is not without flaws or bias, but the truth is eventually
ferreted out. We need to understand that not all artificially manufactured
things are bad for us. The fact is that pesticides and fertilizers have been
among the most important contributors of the Green Revolution of the past few
decades, resulting in great increases in lifespan and quality of life. We do
need to exercise caution by properly evaluating chemicals and then using them
according to safe instructions. Let’s not be the generation that regressed from
innovation. Or the next thing might be beatings for shift working hairdressers
that use soap.
Bryan G. Hopkins, PhD, is a professor at Brigham Young University, Provo, UT; Jeff S. Miller, PhD, is president of Miller Research, Rupert, ID; Emily Neilson is a research assistant at BYU; and Bradley D. Geary is a professor at BYU. For references see www.sportsturfonline.com