Mar 28, 2017
By Megan Kaun
What’s yellow and orange and dead all over?
Bright orange streaks pop from the verdant Sonoma County landscape this spring. These are poisoned plants, treated by glyphosate. If you are like me, you may have overlooked this phenomenon, but once you know, it is impossible to ignore.
Glyphosate (ɡlīf-ə-sāt), the active ingredient in products like RoundUp®, is the chemical of choice for weed control. Originally promoted for its safety compared to other pesticides, increasing evidence links glyphosate to cancer and other significant health issues1. However, these dangers are largely unrecognized by its users and the general public. In fact, the County of Sonoma alone sprayed over 3,800 gallons of glyphosate-based pesticides in public spaces in 20152; from Spring Lake in Santa Rosa to Sunset Beach in Guerneville.
For a long time, I didn’t notice the dead orange weeds along the sidewalks, nor did I think about how they might be affecting my family’s health and local wildlife. I avoided using pesticides at home, but I didn’t consider use at our parks and schools. I am an environmental engineer, who spent my early career cleaning up toxic waste, so I should have known better. Two years ago I was unaware. Then a personal experience woke me up.
The Catalyst: Pesticides in my Neighborhood Park
While playing with my kids at the neighborhood park, I learned from a neighbor that the parks department was planning a large application of weed killer. Due to scarring from sidewalk construction, weedsgrew next to the park’s long pathway that runs next to the sand box and play structure, and ends at our neighborhood creek. Would it be safe for my kids to roll around in this area after pesticide was applied, and could it harm the creek? For the first time, I felt compelled to do the research.
Background: Glyphosate and RoundUp® History and Myths
Monsanto first discovered glyphosate’s weed killing abilities in the 1970’s, at a time when the dangerous health effects of older pesticides were becoming known. It was found to have low acute toxicity, and was advertised to be “safe as salt”3. Glyphosate works by disabling a metabolic pathway found only in plants and some microorganisms. As a result, the pesticide was initially considered completely safe for humans and wildlife, so safe that some salesmen would actually take a drink to prove it. This catchy advertising still pervades general opinion. I have encountered multiple “RoundUp® drinkers” first-hand, people who believe, in theory anyway, that RoundUp® is safe to drink.
Another myth is that glyphosate quickly breaks down into safe components, a story that research and simple environmental testing disprove. Glyphosate and its also-toxic principle metabolite AMPA4 are reliably detected in our lakes and streams5, rain and snowmelt6,7, urine8,9, and even our beloved California wine10. When we consider that glyphosate is also patented as an antibiotic11, its potential for negative impact to our environment and food system become even more clear.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that glyphosate is a probable humancarcinogen. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has thus far not affirmed this finding, which has resulted in the continuation of the status quo. However, recent revelations put into question the EPA’s credibility. Previously unsealed court documents from an ongoing cancer lawsuit against Monsanto contain e-mails which show unsettling actions and relationships between Monsanto, EPA regulators, and academics responsible for glyphosate’s safety research and regulation12.
In the end, I was convinced that if low-dose exposure to glyphosate might cause birth defects13, liver and kidney14 disease, endocrine system disorders15, microbiome disruptions16, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I didn’t want it sprayed at my park.
Taking Local Action
After my initial research, I gathered the courage to cold call my city’s parks department, determined to find another way to manage weeds at my park. My concerns were not taken seriously and I encountered my first “RoundUp® drinker”.
However, after mobilizing a handful of other neighbors, we were able to cut a deal with the department. We would weed the park and they would keep pesticides out. With just a couple “weeding parties” each year, we’ve succeeded. This has not only been easy and effective, it has been a great opportunity for community-building.
Since then, I have made a similar arrangement at my neighborhood school, which provides me notice and an opportunity to take care of weeds before any spraying occurs.
How You Can Help
We talk a lot these days about the importance of civic engagement. If you are convinced that pesticides and your family should not mix, adopt your favorite park or school campus. Though they might be hesitant initially to change the way things are done, with persistence and a smile they will probably allow you to do their job for them.
It’s also important to contact your elected officials to express concerns and share ideas. Sonoma County ranks #4 in California for childhood cancer incidence17, so policies to limit exposure to carcinogens should be seriously considered. If enough people speak out about their priorities, our policy makers can support more permanent change.
Many schools and parks in Sonoma County are sprayed with glyphosate. However, noteworthy pesticide-free campuses include:Santa Rosa’s Hidden Valley Park, Hidden Valley Satellite Elementary, and theFrench-American Charter School; Sonoma Valley Unified School District; Petaluma City Schools; Cloverdale Unified School District; and most parks and schools within the city of Sebastopol. Students at Santa Rosa’s Piner High School are initiating a pilot project to kick pesticides off campus. All of these public spaces, without exception, are pesticide-free because a community member voiced concern and offered a better way. So can you.
This story is far from over. Entrenched interests argue that glyphosate is safe, and it’s convenient to believe. Budgets are tight, glyphosate is cheap and easy to apply, and the tension may continue to increase. Low water-use landscapes can require more pesticides than turf when large uncovered areas of wood chips inevitably fill with weeds.
Glyphosate is invisible once the spray trucks are gone and it’s pleasant, as I know, to live in ignorant bliss. We can and must do better. When we work together toward the goal of beautiful parks without pesticides, our elected officials and public land managers will listen.
To start a conversation, or for more information on how to get your park or school to pass on pesticides email me at email@example.com
Charry T. Monsanto recruits the horticulturist of the San Diego Zoo to pitch its popular herbicide. The New York Times. Published May 29, 1997. Accessed February 8, 2017.Click here for article.
4Kwiatkowska, Marta, Huras, Bogumila, Bukowska, Bozena. The effect of metabolites and impurities of glyphosate on human erythrocytes (in vitro). Pestic Biochem Physiol. January 24, 2014.
5Sirinathsinghiji, E. Widespread Glyphosate Contamination in USA. ISIS Report August 2014. Institute of Science in Society. 2014.
6Battaglin WA, Meyer MT, Kuivila KM, and Dietze. Glyphosate and Its Degradation Product AMPA Occur Frequently and Widely in U.S. Soils, Surface Water, Groundwater, and Precipitation.” Journal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA) 2014: 50, 275-290, DOI:10.111/jawr.12159
7Battaglin W.A., Rice K.C., Focazio M.J, Salmons S., and Barry R.X. The occurrence of Glyphosate, atrazine, and other pesticides in vernal pools and adjacent streams in Washington, DC, Maryland, Iowa, and Wyoming, 2005-2006. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment. 2009. 155,281-307.
8Adams, Axel, Friesen, Matthew, Olson, Alex, Gerona, Roy. Biomonitoring of glyphosate across high-fidelity LC-MS/MS method. University of San Francisco and UCSF-UC-Berkeley Joint Medical Program.
9Determination of glyphosate residues in human urine samples from 18 European countries. Study Completion Date: June 6, 2013. Test Facility: Medical Laboratory Bremen, Haferwende 12, 28357 Bremen, Germany. Sponsor: BUND, FoE. Report name: Glyphosate. MLHB-2013-06-06.
10ABC News I-Team Investigates Controversy Over Weed Killer and California Wine. May 10, 2016. Accessed February 8, 2017. http://abc7news.com/health/i-team-investigates-controversy-over-weed-killer-and-california-wine/1332495/
11Abraham William Wildwood. Glyphosate formulations and their use for inhibition of 5-enolpyrovylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase, US Patent 7,771,736 B2; 2010.
13Paganelli A., Glyphosate-based herbicides produce teratogenic effects on vertebrates by imparting retinoids acid signaling. Chem Res Toxicol. 2010;23:1586-1595.
14Larsen K, Najle R, Lifschitz A, Virkel G. Effects of sub-lethal exposure of rats to the herbicide glyphosate in drinking water: glutathione transferase enzyme activities, levels of reduced glutathione and lipid peroxidation in liver, kidneys, and small intestine. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol. 2012;34(3):811-818.
15Thongprakaisang, S. Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors. Food Chem Toxicol. 2013;59:129-136. June 10, 2013.
16Samsel A, Seneff S. Glyphosate’s suppression of cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesiss by the gut micro biome. Pathways to modern diseases. Entropy. 2013;15:1416-1463.
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