In addition to its use on omnipresent Roundup Ready crops, Roundup is also now used increasingly for cosmetic gardening purposes, by city park maintenance crews, for roadsides, railways, sidewalks, lawns, and as a Monsanto spokesman once put it, to "protect schools." It's even been used as a key weapon in the US government's global counternarcotics programs, such as in Colombia, where crop dusters have sprayed it over suspected coca and poppy fields, including UNESCO nature reserves, as part of our Plan Colombia offensive.
Roundup is used so much that scientists around the world are reporting with alarm the extent to which glyphosate is turning up in the food, water, and even the air around us. A German study this year, for example, even found glyphosate in all of the urine samples it took from nonagricultural workers in Berlin, at levels 5-20 times the limit for drinking water. Meanwhile, as Mother Jones' Tom Philpott has reported, glyphosate-resistant "superweeds" have sprouted and spread across millions of acres of US farmland.
While Bloomberg's administration defends the city's prodigious use of Roundup, it was New York's attorney general who back in 1996 sued Monsanto over the company's use of "false and misleading advertising" of it. That case ended with Monsanto agreeing to stop calling Roundup "biodegradable," and to pull ads claiming that Roundup was "safer than table salt" and "practically nontoxic." As one such ad put it, "Roundup can be used where kids and pets play." Monsanto has long claimed as one of Roundup's prime selling points that the chemical is effectively bound by the soil, and "stays where you put it."
A team out of a French national scientific research center has over the past few years published a series of studies reporting that Roundup provokes the first stages that lead to cancer, by inducing dysfunctions in cell cycle regulation. Last year, Earth Open Source—a nonprofit whose mission is to challenge Big Ag's chemical safety claims—conducted an extensive review of the studies in Roundup's regulatory approval dossier, and suggested that regulators should have noticed that Roundup was associated with an increased rate of birth defects in lab animals. Also last year, a microbiologist with the USDA warned that Roundup affects the root structure of plants and is suspected of causing fungal root disease.
A team of French researchers published a series of studies reporting that Roundup provokes the first stages that lead to cancer.
This year, an Austrian study connected exposure to Roundup UltraMax to DNA damage. The scientists noted that they saw damage even when Roundup was diluted 450 times more than its typical agricultural concentration.
In March, a study out of the University of Pittsburgh reported that tadpoles exposed to Roundup changed shape due to their stress hormones responding to Roundup as if to a predator—a study of particular note since Monsanto has long claimed that Roundup only affects plants, not animals, as it targets an enzyme present only in plants. And in April, scientists out of a Shanghai medical school reported that glyphosate had neurodegenerative impacts associated with conditions like Parkinson's.
Monsanto has dismissed all such critical studies as flawed, discredited, containing cherry-picked data, or as based on cells in a dish that don't approximate a living organism. When I asked Monsanto if it was appropriate to use Roundup in public parks given the number of new health concerns raised, a spokesman replied that "glyphosate has more than a 35-year history of safe use and regulatory agencies around the world have concluded that glyphosate herbicides pose no unreasonable risks to human health and the environment when used according to label directions." He added that "glyphosate is backed by one of the most extensive worldwide human health, safety, and environmental databases ever compiled for a pesticide product."
As proof of Roundup's safety, Monsanto pointed me to its website, which details the "authoritative sources" that vouch for it. These sources include regulatory agencies like the EPA, that rely on Monsanto-supplied data, as well as Monsanto-assisted scientific reviews.
The scientific consultancy firm that helped put together Roundup's primary safety review published in 2000, Cantox, advertises itself as a company whose job is to develop "strategic regulatory and compliance plans" that "facilitate timely global regulatory approvals" and "protect our customers [sic] interests." The Cantox-assisted key Roundup safety review was published in the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, an often controversial industry-friendly publication that a group of 40 scientists wrote a letter in 2003 to protest as having "corporate conflicts of interest," and serving as a "convenient venue for the publication of industry research" due to the journal's history of publishing the findings of paid industry consultants.
Another firm behind Monsanto-funded research backing Roundup's safety published within the past year is Exponent Inc., which promises clients "bottom line results." In the 2008 book Doubt Is Their Product, author and former government regulator David Michaels refers to Exponent as "one of the premier firms in the product defense business," famous for its ability to "manufacture uncertainty." Michaels details other chemicals whose risks Exponent has minimized, including atrazine, perchlorate, and MTBE. "While some may exist, I have yet to see an Exponent study that does not support the conclusion needed by the corporation or trade association that is paying the bill," Michaels wrote.
Mayor Mike has worked hard to cast himself as the pioneering public health-conscious and green mayor of the world, leading a global group of mayors fighting climate change and protecting New Yorkers from the dangers of overly large sodas. Whether Monsanto's ubiquitous chemical cocktails get raised to the level of concern afforded to sugar remains to be seen.
This article was reported in collaboration with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Photo Credit: ZeroOne, Lee J. Haywood, AlishaV, Flickr