At the end of a long day or an even longer week, something a lot of us enjoy is an ice-cold beer or fruity glass of wine to help us relax and ease into the evening or weekend. Beer has been around seemingly since time immemorial and viticulture – the growing and transformation of grapes into that most heavenly of liquids, wine – has a similarly long and noble history. And, in essence, there is little that’s more natural – after all, it’s possible to make such beverages from almost any cereal, fruit, or even some vegetables. So, apart from the usually nauseating and painful repercussions of alcohol excess, what could possibly go wrong? Well, that very much depends on whom you ask. But if you pose that question to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the answers may be sobering, and not for the reasons you might initially think. Read on to learn more.
Have you ever heard of glyphosate?
It’s certainly been in the news recently and for all the wrong reasons. An organophosphorus compound (explicitly, a phosphonate), it kills broadleaf weeds and grasses allowing for an increased yield in arable crops such as wheat, soybeans, and corn. It was first discovered by John E. Franz in 1970 a chemist at for Monsanto which introduced it to the world of agriculture as a branded product known as ‘Roundup.’ Absorbed mainly through the foliage and also the roots, it works by blocking the plant’s shikimate pathway thereby inhibiting the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS). This inhibition, which begins shortly after application, causes shikimate to accumulate in the organism’s tissues, diverting energy from the plant and resulting in its death within days.
And given its efficacy, the first fifty or so years were good for Roundup as farmers leveraged it and its sibling product the Monsanto-engineered Roundup-ready seeds that resisted the herbicide to which all neighboring growth fell prey. But those were halcyon days and as with most ‘too-good-to-be-true’ solutions, they were to come to an abrupt end. All because of one man: Dewayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper from Vallejo, Calif.
According to an interview with Time magazine, Johnson was employed by the public school district in Benicia, a small town east of San Francisco, as an ‘integrated pest manager’ or IPM.(1) One of his tasks was the application of pesticides – Roundup and another of Monsanto’s products, Ranger Pro – to a collection of local school grounds and sports fields. On a typical day he would spray approximately 150 gallons of Roundup and, although wary of the chemicals, he loved his job.(2) That is, until one day when the sprayer Johnson was using broke and he was bathed in the herbicide solution. Not thinking about it too much, Johnson says he ‘washed up in the sink as best I could and changed my clothes. Later I went home and took a good long shower but I didn’t think, “Oh my god, I’m going to die from this stuff.” Then I got a little rash. Then it got worse and worse. At one point I had lesions on my face, on my lips, all over my arms and legs.’(3)
And unfortunately for both Johnson and Monsanto the situation continued to worsen. In 2014, Johnson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a terminal form of cancer of the blood, which affects the immune system and causes skin lesions. It is also at times incapacitating and Johnson spent one whole month almost bed-bound, unable to walk or even to endure the contact of fabric with his skin. And this seemingly rapid deterioration in health was attributed by his medical team to the accidental coating he received of the Roundup solution.
In August last year the provenance of the diagnosis was accepted by a jury in a San Francisco court, which unanimously agreed that Johnson’s cancer was due to Roundup exposure. Awarding him an unprecedented $289 million dollars – a sum later reduced to $78 million on appeal – the jury found that Monsanto had not only failed to disclose Roundup’s carcinogenic compound, glyphosate, but also had discussed ghostwriting scientific papers promoting the safety of the product. And although Johnson may not actually live long enough to benefit from the financial award, his case has opened the judicial doors to other cancer victims taking action against Monsanto, now a unit of the pharmaceutical behemoth Bayer. And anyone following this story will be sure to keep an eye on the situation as it continues to develop.
However, although this is a shocking story from both a scientific and a personal interest perspective, you will be forgiven for wondering what it has to do with food.
After all, Johnson’s acute exposure was an accident and we also assume that no one out there is actually drinking this stuff. Well, although that’s probably true, it may well be that we are ingesting it without even knowing it. According to the University of California San Diego (UCSD) a urinalysis comparing the levels of glyphosate and its metabolite aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA) found a significant increase in test subjects between 1993 and 1996 and also from 2014 to 2016.(4) And if you eat cereal, if you drink soymilk, if you can’t resist that bread basket at the neighborhood Italian restaurant, you too might be risking similar exposure. According to an article in the Healthy Home Economist, ‘the pre-harvest application of herbicides as a (toxic) drying agent on wheat is an established practice on many conventional farms […and is] viewed as especially helpful for wheat that ripens unevenly.’ The practice of applying herbicides like Roundup 7 to 10 days prior to harvest is known as ‘desiccation’ but it constitutes the worst possible time to apply a toxic substance to what will become a food item. Given that the chemical becomes a part of the plant – and cannot be washed away after harvest – it is ingested and, with the broad range of produce items to which it is applied, it seems like a challenge to avoid exposure. From almonds to watermelons, lemons to spinach, glyphosate finds its way into our diet even as we strive to choose ‘healthy’ alternatives to processed foods.
According to the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) over 750 commercial products contain glyphosate, including those designed for non-agricultural usage. Weed control products for residential gardens will likely contain the compound and, in the hands of those not-trained in poison prevention, exposure may result in eye and skin irritation, burns to the nose or throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Pets exposed to the chemical may exhibit these symptoms along with drooling and sleepiness.(5)
According to a study reported by the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) glyphosate has been found in ‘almost all adult beverages.’
Which brings us back to our opening remarks regarding the consumption of alcohol at the end of a perhaps challenging day. Enjoyed as a means of winding down, a glass of wine or pint of beer may well induce somnolence but it could be due to glyphosate toxicity rather than intoxication. According to a study reported by the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) glyphosate has been found in ‘almost all adult beverages.’ Testing brands as well known as Miller Lite, Coors, Sam Adams, Budweiser (for beers) and Sutter Home, Beringer, and Barefoot (for wines), the research confirmed the ubiquity of the chemical in our end-of-week celebratory tipples. And although the levels were found to be low, one study cited in the report indicated that ever 1 part per trillion of the chemical ‘has the potential to stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells and disrupt the endocrine system.’(6)
So what is the position of the regulatory bodies on the detection of what the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, categorizes as a ‘probable carcinogen’ in our food sources? Here in the U.S., the approval of pesticides is overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with a ‘tolerance level’ assigned to each product. Glyphosate comes in with a level of between 200 and 400 parts per billion (ppb) and, given that the highest level detected in the beer-wine study was 51 ppb, a consumer ‘would have to drink more than 140 glasses of wine or beer daily before causing a real problem.’(7) So presumably the sheer volume of alcohol would kill the drinker way before the glyphosate had a chance to get a hold…
And this is why science writer Ed Yong, quoted in Forbes magazine, has described the IARC’s labeling of the chemical – probable carcinogen – as ‘confusogenic.’(8) The classification is ‘based on strength of evidence not degree of risk’ and this can lead to flawed decisions being made. As Guy-André Pelouze writes in Slate.com, the toxicology report issued by the IARC depended to a certain extent on extrapolating the results of animal studies to humans, which can be problematic. ‘Animal studies can be a tool for gauging a biocide’s carcinogenic potential, but they can only provide hazard signals, as multiple studies have shown that simply extrapolating research conducted on rodents to humans rarely produces accurate results. Animal testing therefore has limited value in determining carcinogenicity, because it does not necessarily allow researchers to draw conclusions of causation between a given substance and the occurrence of cancer in test animals, let alone in humans.’(9)
So where does that leave us as consumers? In the wake of the landmark award against Monsanto in San Francisco, lawsuits have been filed against manufacturer General Mills for the use of the weed killer as a desiccant on oats for its Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios cereals. Claiming deceptive business practices, one plaintiff, Mounira Doss, is seeking compensation via the disgorging of profits gained from the sales of those specific products through both a nationwide Class action lawsuit and a Class of Florida suit, the state in which she lives.(10) The basis of her complaint is the alleged failure of the manufacturer to disclose the presence of a ‘probable carcinogen’ in the food items she purchased, an omission that violates several state consumer protection laws.
However, according to Steve Gardner, formerly Director of Litigation for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, ‘Deception by omission […] is a hard thing to prove, and usually requires proof of intent to deceive or knowledge that people will rely on the claim.’(11) With that said, the allegation in the Johnson case that Monsanto discussed ‘ghostwriting’ papers to support their claims of safety could speak to the intent to deceive and may well be the key to unlocking a wave of similar consumer suits against manufacturers using ingredients they know to have been treated with Roundup or similar glyphosate-containing toxins.
As always, it will be some time before we see the full scope of lawsuits brought against users and manufacturers of glyphosate-based products but we are reminded of the popular adage cited by philosopher Sextus Empiricus in the 2nd century. In his Adversus Grammaticos, he quotes: ‘The millstones of the gods grind late, but they grind fine’ and this sentiment can certainly be applied to the turning wheels of justice. We may have to wait for the final decisions on the safety or otherwise of this product and the associated compensatory measures, and we can only hope that the plaintiffs – like groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson – are still alive to learn the outcome.
Are you concerned about herbicide residue in the foods or beverages you are consuming? Have you been following the glyphosate controversy? We’d love to know your thoughts!