Climate & Energy Blog

First-of-its-kind testing shows weed-killer found in people across Europe

Posted Jun. 18, 2013 / Posted by: Adam Russell

Monsanto's Roundup chemical linked to breast cancer cell growth

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Test results released last week reveal that people across Europe are contaminated with world’s best selling weed-killer, glyphosate. The unprecedented tests, commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe, found the herbicide in 44 percent of volunteers in 18 European countries. [1] Neither the U.S. government nor the European Union track glyphosate levels in people, despite its widespread use, so these test results show for the first time that there may be widespread presence of glyphosate in the general population. 

The biggest producer of glyphosate is U.S. biotech giant Monsanto [NYSE: MON], which sells it under the brand name “Roundup,” in combination with other chemical ingredients. 

“The presence of glyphosate and a glyphosate breakdown product in people suggests that many Europeans are exposed to the world’s most widely used herbicide. Further evaluation of the ingredient glyphosate would be wise, as well as the Roundup product, especially since the herbicide is used so pervasively in U.S. farm fields, schools, parks and homes,” said Emily Marquez, PhD, endocrinologist and staff scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America.

A study published June 8 in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology suggests that low levels of glyphosate can induce growth in estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells, adding to the growing body of evidence raising concerns about widespread, chronic low-level exposures to Roundup. [2]

“This new information  is a warning bell telling us that we need to know more about how this weed-killer is polluting people and what the health consequences are of repeated, low level exposures to this potential hormone disruptor, particularly for vulnerable populations like women of childbearing age and children.” said Lisa Archer, Food and Technology program director of Friends of the Earth U.S. “Friends of the Earth is calling on governments around the world to ramp up investigations on the safety of Roundup and its presence in people and restrict its use until it is proven safe to ensure people and the environment are put before the interests of a Monsanto and other chemical corporations.”

Glyphosate is one of the most widely-used weed killers in the world, and its use is increasing in the United States due to the extensive use of genetically engineered crops. Weeds and insects in the nation’s agricultural fields are now resistant to glyphosate and Monsanto’s pervasive Roundup Ready products, causing farmers to use increasing amounts of glyphosate as well as even more toxic pesticides such as 2,4-D and dicamba. According to a peer-reviewed study published in 2012 in Environmental Sciences Europe, genetically engineered crops have increased pesticide use by 404 million pounds in the United States since they were introduced in 1996. [3] 

Two 2011 U.S. Geological Service peer-reviewed studies revealed that glyphosate use is so widespread that it is commonly found in rain and rivers in agricultural areas. [4]

“What’s happening in the U.S. should be a cautionary tale for the rest of the world. GE crops in the U.S. are creating a scourge of super-weeds and super-bugs that are keeping us on a pesticide treadmill, driving up the use of more hazardous pesticides. The new tests show that Roundup contamination may be widespread in people across Europe, and due to the heavy use of GE crops here in the U.S., our population is likely also being exposed at higher rates,” said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, PhD, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America. 

Herbicide-tolerant and Bt-transgenic crops are the dominant crops grown in the United States covering roughly half of cropland -- roughly 95 percent of soybean and cotton acres, and more than 85 percent of corn acres. [5] In Europe, GE crops have been largely rejected, with only one GE crop grown commercially. However, 14 applications to grow glyphosate resistant crops are in the pipeline and a 2012 study predicts glyphosate use will increase by up to 800 percent in the EU if these crops are put into production. [6]

This recent study comes amid a spate of bad news for the poorly regulated biotechnology industry. Recent developments include:

The discovery of an experimental strain of Monsanto’s genetically-engineered glyphosate-resistant wheat in an Oregon farm has caused Japan and Korea to block U.S. wheat exports -- threatening billions of dollars of income for U.S. farmers. The genetically engineered wheat was grown in open field trials between 1998 and 2005 but has never been approved or marketed. [7]

A peer-reviewed long-term feeding study published June 11 in Organic Systems Journal found that pigs fed a combination of genetically modified soy and corn suffer more frequent severe stomach inflammation and enlargement of the uterus than those fed a non-GE diet.

Also last week, Connecticut became the first state in the United States to require labeling for genetically engineered foods. The bill will go into effect only after other states pass similar laws. This November, Washington State will vote on a ballot initiative to require labeling of genetically engineered foods in that state.

On May 29, Friends of the Earth U.S. announced that major supermarkets including Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi, Giant Eagle and others -- totally more than 4,000 stores -- have agreed to not sell genetically engineered salmon if it is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

A peer-reviewed study published the same day in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, provides evidence that genetically engineered salmon can breed with wild trout, creating offspring that grow even faster that GE salmon and can outcompete wild fish.  

###

Contact:
Lisa Archer, Friends of the Earth U.S.: 510-900-3145, larcher@foe.org
Paul Towers, Pesticide Action Network North America: 916-216-1082, ptowers@panna.org
Adrian Bebb, Friends of the Earth Europe: + 49 1 609 490 1163, adrian.bebb@foeeurope.org

Notes:

[1] Friends of the Earth Europe test summary, test results, methodology and all background briefing papers: http://foeeurope.org/weed-killer-glyphosate-found-human-urine-across-Europe-130613 

[2] Thongprakaisang S et al (2013) Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors Food Chem Toxicol. 2013 Jun 8. pii: S0278-6915(13)00363-3. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2013.05.057. [Epub ahead of print] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23756170. For more information on glyphosate and Roundup safety, see Friends of the Earth Europe briefing: Growing doubts about the safety of glyphosate (briefing 3) http://foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/press_releases/foee_3_growing_doubts_glyphosate.pdf 

[3] Reuters story “Pesticide use ramping up as GMO crop technology backfires: study” at http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/02/us-usa-study-pesticides-idUSBRE89100X20121002

[4] USGS (2011) Press release: “Widely Used Herbicide Commonly Found in Rain and Streams in the Mississippi River Basin” at http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=2909 

[5] Reuters story “Pesticide use ramping up as GMO crop technology backfires: study” at http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/02/us-usa-study-pesticides-idUSBRE89100X20121002

[6] Benbrook CM (2012) Glyphosate tolerant crops in the EU: a forecast of impacts on herbicide use.
http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/publications/agriculture/2012/GI_Herb_Use_FINAL_10-18-12.pdf

[7] Reuters Story: “U.S. discovery of rogue GMO wheat raises concerns over controls” at http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/31/us-wheat-control-idUSL2N0EB0WF20130531

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