Position Statement: Glyphosate
Monday, 22 October 2018
In August 2018, a landmark US court case against Monsanto, the manufacturer of weed killer Roundup, ruled a chemical used in the product (glyphosate) was a substantial factor in causing a school ground keeper’s terminal cancer and that the company had failed to warn of the risk posed by the product. The jury ordered Monsanto to pay $US289 million ($A409 million) to the plaintiff who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.
While Monsanto vigorously denies the allegations and says the herbicide glyphosate is safe, the case prompted an ABC Four Corners report which aired in Australia on Monday 8 October 2018.
Glyphosate is one of the most used herbicides worldwide. It kills weeds by targeting a specific shikimic acid pathway that exists in plants and a type of bacteria (eubacteria), but not in animals or humans. In terms of short-term exposure, glyphosate is touted as less toxic than table salt. However, it is allegedly chronic, or long-term, exposure to glyphosate that’s causing the controversy.
The ABC’s Four Corners program showed US court footage, comment from Monsanto representatives and interviews with several Australian farmers who use Roundup as well as representatives from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), CropLife Australia, National Farmers Federation (NFF) and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA).
Pesticides and herbicides are periodically re-evaluated for their safety and several studies have been undertaken into glyphosate use, including Australia’s regulator, APVMA 2016 report which concluded that “based on current risk assessment the label instructions on all glyphosate products – when followed – provides adequate protection for users”. The Agricultural Health Study, published in 2018, also showed that if there was any risk of cancer from glyphosate preparations, “it is exceedingly small” and that the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma “is negligible”.
However, in 2015 an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report classified the herbicide as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
There were key differences between the IARC’s and other reports which revolve around the breadth of evidence considered, the weight of human studies, consideration of physiological plausibility and, most importantly, risk assessment.
The Leukaemia Foundation’s CEO Bill Petch said it was always important that users referred to the facts cited in these evidence based reports.
“Australia’s scientific approach to regulation ensures that agricultural chemical products are thoroughly and independently assessed. In alignment with the current regulatory system, we must have faith in this system that is tried and tested.
The Leukaemia Foundation encourages Australians who work with the chemical in both domestic and commercial situations to take the recommended health and safety precautions, including wearing relevant Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that meet Australian standards. In cases of domestic use, the Leukaemia Foundation suggested exercising caution and common sense and to follow the safety instructions listed on the product packaging at all times.
Mr Petch also said the Leukaemia Foundation would support further studies to look at any new evidence on the safe use and efficacy of glyphosate in both domestic and commercial situations.
Each year in Australia around 4000 people are diagnosed with a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is not a single disease; there are in fact more than 30 different sub types which are broadly divided into the following two main groups:
- B-cell lymphomas – arising from developing B-cells
- T-cell lymphomas – arising from developing T-cells.
B and T-cell lymphomas are cancers of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system forms part of the immune system. It contains specialised white blood cells called lymphocytes that help protect the body from infection and disease.
Lymphomas arise when developing B and T-lymphocytes undergo a malignant change, and multiply in an uncontrolled way. These abnormal lymphocytes, called lymphoma cells, form collections of cancer cells called tumours, in lymph nodes (glands) and other parts of the body. Common sub types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:
- Diffuse large B-cell Lymphoma
- Follicular lymphoma
- Mantle cell lymphoma
- Burkitt’s lymphoma
- Cutaneous T-cell lymphomas
- CNS lymphoma
The American based company Monsanto was bought out by German pharmaceutical manufacturer Bayer in June this year.
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