Cities use glyphosate to control weeds in parks and along verges. Now that the WHO says the pesticide is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, is it time to stop?
In the front seat of his car, John Wilson passes me a dossier of scientific research reports and diagrams. At his feet are carefully curated ring binders of correspondence with city council officials, and albums with six years’ worth of photographs documenting brown patches of earth and scorched grass around trees, beside kerbs and along playground fences.
In the back of Wilson’s Toyota Yaris is colleague Lydia Koelmans and dog Kim, and we’re parked on a side street of Spital Tongues, a residential area north-west of Newcastle city centre popular with students and families.
We’ve met to view examples of the damage done by glyphosate, the world’s most widely produced herbicide. Glyphosate is used liberally in the streets and parks of many towns and cities to control grass and weeds, but was classified last month by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO), as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
If the document handover sounds like a spy novel, it is undeniably the case that anti-pesticide campaigners must often collate detailed, almost obsessive knowledge before they are taken seriously. Wilson and Koelmans, both retired, run a voluntary project that creates wildflower meadows in Newcastle, with the aim of halting or reversing the urban decline in bees and butterflies, birds, bats and other wildlife. For 10 years, Wilson has been asking Newcastle City Council to stop using glyphosate herbicides. He worries it is harmful to the local ecosystem, as it vaporises or enters water courses, and dangerous for the people of Newcastle, too. “This is the time of year when we should be savouring the greenery that surrounds us, not zapping it with toxic chemicals,” says Wilson, who claims that repeatedly sprayed patches take more than five years to recover.
There are many John Wilsons waging war with their town or city halls on this issue: Karoline Spence in Austin, Christopher Brown in New York, Kermit Myers in Greensboro and Christina Rock in Cape Town are just some of those, like Wilson, protesting the use of glyphosates through online petitions. Last year fashion designer Katharine Hamnett began a campaign to stop Hackney council using glyphosate in London Fields.
Unless you live in a pesticide-free city, there’s a good chance that next time you sit on a park bench, walk along a pavement or lean on a lamp-post, you’ll come into contact with glyphosate. You may not even see the pesticide at work, as it can take two weeks for sprayed plants to turn brown.
“In some cities and towns glyphosate is used indiscriminately, sloshed all over pavements and parks by council employees with backpacks or sub-contractors riding quad bikes at ridiculous speeds,” says Keith Tyrell of Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN-UK) which launches a national anti-glyphosate campaign next month.
Several European countries, including Holland, Denmark and Sweden, have banned or restricted the use of glyphosate herbicides by local authorities, because of alleged links with a variety of health problems – not just cancer – ranging from birth defects and kidney failure to celiac disease, colitis and autism.
Another study, in Argentina, suggests a correlation between glyphosate use and the decline in activity in honeybee colonies. And in New York, an environmental group is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for ignoring the dangers of glyphosate which, it claims, has resulted in the demise of the monarch butterfly population.
Defenders of glyphosate say it is biologically degraded over time by soil microorganisms into materials that are naturally occurring, including carbon dioxide and phosphate.
But in 2013, Friends of the Earth Europe commissioned an independent laboratory in Germany to test urine samples from people in 18 countries for glyphosate. The results showed traces of the chemical in 44% of samples on average.
Glyphosate has been a resident of cities since it started life in the 1960s as a pipe-descaling agent. In 1969, it was re-patented as a herbicide by biotech giant Monsanto. It’s now the main active ingredient in the world’s best-selling weedkiller, Roundup – available, most likely, at a garden centre near you.
But glyphosate is also used extensively in farming. Monsanto developed “Roundup Ready” crops in the mid-1990s, embedding an engineered gene into a seed that means the resulting plant can survive applications of the weedkiller. Monsanto’s patent expired in 2000, but the technology remains a key driver of its $16bn annual sales.
Monsanto’s well-oiled rebuttal machine has been quick to condemn the IARC report. “IARC’s conclusion conflicts with the overwhelming consensus by regulatory bodies and science organisations around the world,” it contends, pointing to a US Environmental Protection Agency declaration that “glyphosate does not pose a cancer risk to humans”, along with endorsements from agencies in Canada, Australia and Argentina.
Yet in Argentina, which is one of the biggest cultivators of genetically modified soybeans, the Physicians Network of Sprayed Towns has been mapping cancer incidence since 2010. Co-ordinator Dr Medardo Ávila-Vázquez, a paediatrician at the National University of Córdoba, published a report in February suggesting 30% of deaths in the most intensive agricultural areas of the country are from cancer, compared to a national average of 20%. He also noted that cancer death rates had increased since 2000. “Significantly, the date coincides with the expansion in the use of glyphosate and other agrochemicals massively applied in those areas,” he wrote.
Is glyphosate to blame? Is it really carcinogenic? No one can say with certainty. Because long-term human feeding trials would be unethical, the evidence has been mainly limited to studies of agricultural exposures. But other evidence, including from animal studies, led the IARC to its “probably carcinogenic” classification. Glyphosate has been linked to tumours in mice and rats – and there is also what the IARC classifies as “mechanistic evidence”, such as DNA damage to human cells from exposure to glyphosate.
The totality of the evidence has been enough to convince some cities, including Chicago and Paris, to make their public spaces glyphosate-free. The City of Vancouver has gone a step further, banning the public and private use of herbicides including glyphosate, aside from the treatment of invasive weeds like Japanese knotweed.
Vivienne Westwood (pictured) supports EU proposals to suspend the use of what she considers to be bee-killing pesticides Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Vivienne Westwood (pictured) joined Katharine Hamnett and other fashion designers in 2013 to support EU proposals to suspend the use of what they consider to be bee-killing pesticides. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty
Alternatives to glyphosates include more hand-weeding and strimming to the use of hot foam and even electrocution. But at a time when many local authorities are being forced to make big budget cuts, the issue is cost, says John Moverley, chair of the Amenity Forum, a voluntary horticulture body whose members include local authorities and subcontractors, as well as pesticide manufacturers and their distributors. “Many local authorities are taking a more enlightened view of weed control and adopting a more integrated approach of using different methods. But we have to control weeds in urban areas and pesticides remain essential,” he maintains.
Arguments about cost are a red herring, claims PAN-UK’s Keith Tyrrell, who points to the London borough of Wandsworth which recruits teams of volunteers to help with hand-weeding. “It simply needs someone at the top with vision,” says Tyrell who admits that few political parties so far have shown interest in glyphosate bans. “It’s not a vote winner and the pesticide and farming lobby is very powerful. But if there is a groundswell of grassroots support, politicians will act.”
Back in Newcastle, the city council, which will begin this year’s spraying activities in mid-April, says it follows Public Health England’s advice that glyphosate, if used in accordance with standard practice, is not a risk to public health.
“We have a duty to maintain the infrastructure of the city,” says Michael Murphy, director of communities. “Weeds can cause trip hazards and physical damage to surfacing as well as block sightlines, trap litter and look unsightly.” According to Murphy, the council now deploys infra-red technology to detect and spray only weeds. “Alternative options to chemical application such as burning, steaming or physical removal are time consuming and, in many cases, short-lived,” he argues.
John Wilson is not convinced. “Other councils, equally cash-strapped, don’t spray anywhere near the level we see in Newcastle,” he says. “It’s a culture, a dogmatic mindset that refuses to change in the face of abundant evidence that glyphosate herbicides are harmful. Infra-red detectors cannot make a harmful substance safe.”
There have been small victories in Newcastle. Wilson says the council no longer sprays around trees – after the practice killed some trees in nearby Westerhope, he claims. And Kingston Park, to the north of the city, is a glyphosate-free area, thanks to intervention by its local councillor.
But so far, there’s been no change in Spital Tongues. Lydia Koelmans shows me where she recently handcut the edges of her wildflower meadow to avoid the need for spraying. But when she returned, the council had sprayed it anyway.