Monsanto’s Roundup, used in yards, farms, and parks around the globe, has been a top-selling weed killer, despite the controversial claims against it, which include its main ingredient, glyphosate, being declared by an international agency to be a “probable human carcinogen.”
The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has since followed suit, labeling glyphosate a carcinogen, while Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich announced that Russia had “made the decision not to use any GMO in food productions.”
A French court found Monsanto guilty of lying in 2009, having falsely advertised its Roundup herbicide as “biodegradable” and “environmentally friendly,” and claiming it “left the soil clean.”
Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), revealed an even more disturbing truth: glyphosate is possibly “the most important factor in the development of multiple chronic diseases and conditions that have become prevalent in Westernized societies.” Autism, gastrointestinal diseases, allergies, cardiovascular disease, depression, cancer, infertility, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and ALS are just some of the diseases and conditions mentioned.
Now researchers believe Roundup’s inert ingredients can kill human cells, specifically embryonic, placental, and umbilical cord cells. The findings intensify the extreme debate regarding ‘inerts,’ which are solvents, preservatives, surfactants, and other substances added to pesticides by manufacturers.
Health studies have mainly focused on the safety of glyphosate as opposed to the mixture of ingredients found in Roundup, but this new study discovered that Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells, even when the concentrations were more diluted than the ones used on farms and lawns.
Among the inert ingredients is polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, which the study found to be more deadly to human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself.
“This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert,” explained the study authors from France’s University of Caen. “Moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels” commonly found on Roundup-treated crops, like soybeans, alfalfa, and corn.
The team of researchers believe Roundup may cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production. This could result in abnormal fetal development, low birth weights, or miscarriages.
Nevertheless, Monsanto, Roundup’s manufacturer, says that the study’s methods don’t reflect realistic conditions.
“Roundup has one of the most extensive human health safety and environmental data packages of any pesticide that’s out there,” announced Monsanto spokesman John Combest. “It’s used in public parks, it’s used to protect schools. There’s been a great deal of study on Roundup, and we’re very proud of its performance.”
Meanwhile, the EPA touts glyphosate as having low toxicity when used at the recommended doses, and says there is strong evidence that it doesn’t cause cancer in humans. “Risk estimates for glyphosate were well below the level of concern,” noted EPA spokesman Dale Kemery. The EPA has also classified POEA as safe to public health and the environment.
But the French team behind this new study begs to differ: “The authorizations for using these Roundup herbicides must now clearly be revised since their toxic effects depend on, and are multiplied by, other compounds used in the mixtures.”
Inert ingredients are typically less scrutinized than active pest-killing ingredients, but it doesn’t make them any better. Caroline Cox, research director of the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland-based environmental organization, says the term itself is often misleading, since federal law classifies all pesticide ingredients that don’t harm pests as ‘inert.’ But this only means they don’t kill insects or weeds, not that they are necessarily biologically or toxicologically harmless.
Some inert ingredients have even been found to potentially harm human health. A Croatian team recently discovered that an herbicide formulation containing atrazine caused DNA damage, which can lead to cancer, though atrazine alone did not.
“POEA helps glyphosate interact with the surfaces of plant cells,” noted Negin Martin, a scientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina. It causes water’s surface tension to lower, thus aiding glyphosate in dispersing and penetrating the waxy surface of a plant.
For the French study, researchers tested four different Roundup formulations, all of which contained POEA and glyphosate at concentrations below the recommended lawn and agricultural dose. They even tested the two separately in order to distinguish what caused more damage to embryonic, placental, and umbilical cord cells. They discovered that glyphosate, POEA, and all four Roundup formulations damaged all three cell types. Umbilical cord cells were especially sensitive to POEA, glyphosate became more harmful when combined with POEA, and POEA alone was the deadliest to cells in comparison to glyphosate.
The researchers found that the two ingredients work together to “limit breathing of the cells, stress them and drive them towards a suicide,” according to Seralini.
Monsanto scientists claim the cells in the study were exposed to unnaturally high levels of the chemicals, however. “It’s very unlike anything you’d see in real-world exposure. People’s cells are not bathed in these things,” explained Donna Farmer, another toxicologist at Monsanto.
But Seralini’s team did multiple concentrations of Roundup, and still saw cell damage at all concentrations.
Dan Goldstein, a toxicologist with Monsanto, claimed the study didn’t use very good models of a whole organism, such as a human being, but Cox says it is lab experiments like these that help determine if a chemical is safe or not.
“We would never consider it ethical to test these products on people, so we’re obliged to look at their effects on other species and in other systems,” she explained. “There’s really no way around that.”
Other researchers have found results similar to those of the Seralini group’s. In 2005, University of Pittsburg ecologists put Roundup in ponds filled with frog and toad tadpoles, ensuring they used the manufacturer’s recommended dose. Two weeks later, they discovered 50 to 100 percent of the populations of several species of tadpoles were dead.
Now, a group of more than 250 environmental, health, and labour organizations has petitioned the EPA to alter their requirements for identifying pesticides’ inert ingredients. The decision for the agency to grant the petition is due this fall.
“It would be a big step for the agency to take,” Cox noted. “But it’s one they definitely should.”