Weed killer traces in urine samples presaged WHO’s cancer claims

Nine out of 10 urine samples from people in Malta contained traces of the weed killer glyphosate, laboratory tests carried out by Friends of the Earth Malta had shown last year.

The confirmation by the World Health Organisation that the world’s most popular weed killer can “probably” cause cancer will be of shock to Maltese users, since the results provide a worrisome corollary to a 2014 study that found glysophate in urine samples.

Nine out of 10 urine samples from people in Malta contained traces of the weed killer glyphosate, laboratory tests carried out by Friends of the Earth Malta had shown last year.

The results in Malta were mirrored in results across Europe – with 45 per cent of samples from the 10 volunteers in each of the 18 countries found to contain traces of the chemical.

All volunteers who gave samples lived in urban areas, and none had handled or used glyphosate products in the run up to the tests. This was the first time monitoring was carried out across Europe for the presence of the weed killer in humans.

The WHO’s cancer arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, said glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and other herbicides, was “classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.” 

It also said there was “limited evidence” that glyphosate was carcinogenic in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. 

Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company and Roundup’s manufacturer, said in a statement that scientific data do not support the agency’s conclusions and called on WHO to hold an urgent meeting to explain the findings. 

Concerns about glyphosate on food have been a hot topic of debate in the United States recently, and contributed to the passage in Vermont last year of the country’s first mandatory labelling law for foods that are genetically modified.

Glyphosate is one of the most widely-used weed killers in the world, used by farmers, local government and gardeners, as well as being sprayed extensively on some genetically modified crops imported into Europe for use as animal feed.

The biggest producer is Monsanto which sells it under the brand name “Roundup”. Despite its widespread use, its presence in food or water is rarely monitored by governments.

In 2014, Martin Galea De Giovanni from Friends of the Earth Malta said of their study that most people would be worried that there is weed killer in their bodies. “These results suggest that we are being exposed to glyphosate in our everyday lives, yet we don’t know where it is coming from, how widespread it is in the environment, or what it is doing to our bodies.

“This is the most widely used weed killer in Europe and it is surprising that public authorities rarely test our food or water for it. Now that Friends of the Earth Malta has discovered that it is widespread in people’s bodies, it is asking the Maltese Government to immediately step-up their monitoring to make sure we are not being put at risk.”

The National Statistics Office figures for herbicide use in 2007 showed a possible increase in glyphosate usage in Malta, as compared to 2005. 

Fourteen glyphosate-resistant genetically modified crops are currently waiting for approval for cultivation in the European Union. Some estimates suggest that if given the go-ahead, glyphosate use could increase by as much as 800 per cent.

The weed killer has been detected in food, water and in the air after it has been sprayed, according to the WHO agency’s report. However, glyphosate use is generally low in and near homes where the public would face the greatest risk of exposure, the report said. 

Monsanto, in a statement, said the research was not new, and that each of the studies considered by IARC had been previously reviewed and considered by regulatory agencies – most recently by the German government on behalf of the European Union. “Relevant, scientific data was excluded from review. IARC received and purposefully disregarded dozens of scientific studies – specifically genetic toxicity studies – that support the conclusion glyphosate is not a human health risk,” Monsanto said. 

It also claimed that the conclusion is not supported by scientific data. “IARC’s classification is inconsistent with the numerous multi-year, comprehensive assessments conducted by hundreds of scientists from countries worldwide who are responsible for ensuring public safety.” 

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