Whether you grow fruits and vegetables for a living, or simply like sitting in public gardens or having a beer, you are bound to be exposed to glyphosate-based pesticides, by far the most commonly used weed killers in Europe. The problem is some scientists claim they probably cause cancer, while others dismiss that possibility altogether.
After years of wrangling over whether to continue to allow or ban glyphosate the European Commission decided on June 29 not to decide until the end of 2017. Other tests need to be undertaken it said, so it begs the question of what is at stake here?
Hans Von der Brelie traveled to Germany, a large user of glyphosate-based herbicides.
Deadly for weeds…and us?
A corn field treated with herbicides containing glyphosate is full of the cash crop, and little else. Untreated fileds are a riot of colour as weeds add their palette to the scene.
Currently in Europe, manufacturers of glyphosate are preparing for another battle: they have asked to have their European Internal Market licence renewed. Initially, the European Commission proposed 15 years for sale – but EU States have only agreed on interim solutions.
It is a debate about the future of European agriculture, health and biodiversity.
Michael Rubin makes a living raising goats. Neighbouring farmers have used glyphosate on their fields. On a windy day sprayed weed killer can land on his farm.
“Have a look yourself: this is my hayfield, some 16 to 17 hectares. It is surrounded by cornfields treated with herbicides,” he says.
Today, 108 goats are waiting to be milked. The farm produces meat, milk, cheese – and even goat ice cream. The business had a good start 18 years ago. However, when the Euro was introduced, benefits halved. Rubin and his animals survived. But then came the glyphosate spraying, killing 34 goats.
“It happened shortly before the rapeseed colza harvest. In our region the colza is sprayed to death. My animals were harmed because at the very moment the colza was treated with glyphosate, they were exposed to the toxic mist. They got cramps, they got diarrhoea, they died within days,” says Michael.
Berlin is a battleground again: while center-right parties are in favor of glyphosate, center-left-wing parties oppose a renewal of the European glyphosate licence.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
In a Berlin park we meet with a spokesperson from glyphosate producer Monsanto.
Thoralf Küchler, spokesperson, Monsanto:
“There is negative activity and a major campaign against glyphosate. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a positive security assessment. Based on that, no other decision can be taken but a renewal of the glyphosate licence for the EU market – and I am confident that, in the end, this will happen.”
We move to the southern German region of Bavaria, governed by the conservative CSU party.
Weedkillers containing glyphosate are not just used in agriculture, but also in public parks and for private gardening.
“Well, glyphosate – such as Roundup and other brands – is sold almost everywhere. You can buy it without difficulty,” reports Hans Von Der Brelie.
Some 5,500 tonnes of glyphosate are sold in Germany each year.
Forty percent of German fields are treated with the weed-killer, from where it moves into water and the food chain. Karl Bär works for the “Munich Environmental Institute”: http://www.umweltinstitut.org/english.html. He proved the presence of glyphosate in the most popular beer brands. All of them contain the herbicide.INFOGRAPHIC #2 Worldwide Sales of Glyphosate
Karl Bär, Munich Environmental Institute:
“I have some specific doubts. I suspect the European Commission will make arrangements with the producers in order to push through the reapproval of glyphosate. There is a problem: the studies handed over by the producers to the European institutions are treated like business secrets. It is not those protesting noisily who lack credibility. The lack of credibility is elsewhere: those researchers getting money from people producing this stuff to be decided on, they lack credibility.”
In Berlin we have an appointment with the vice president of the Institute for Risk Assessment, an agency financed by the government and stressing its scientific independence.
After having issued a pro-glyphosate opinion, managers received death threats from people against the use of the herbicide.
Assessing the validity of glyphosate studies, the institute acts as a referee: the European Food Safety Authority, (EFSA), based their glyphosate-friendly recommendation on the Berlin findings.
Reiner Wittkowski, Vice president, German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment:
“Glyphosate in mother’s milk, for instance, or glyphosate in beer – those are not scientific studies, they are not matching the required quality levels. This goes also for those studies pretending glyphosate-triggered malformation of fetuses and so on. From a scientific viewpoint they are not valid. Every substance has to be used in an appropriate way: if you drink your hair shampoo, this would not be an appropriate use and you would not feel well afterwards.”
Off-camera, scientists working for the risk assessment institute accuse glyphosate-opponents of “Facebook-Science”. One has to drink 1,000 liters of beer a day to reach the maximum glyphosate threshold.
The environmentalists hace made most of the running on this issue: are they stoking fears?
“I do not want to stoke fears. I accuse the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment of smart PR spin-doctoring. This 1000 litre argument seems to hold up because this Institute excludes all scientific evidence that glyphosate could trigger cancer and that it is an endocrine disrupter. But we are talking about a substance that probably causes cancer. European law says that carcinogenic substances have to be minimised. And regarding pesticides: causing cancer is one of the three cut-off criteria we have in Europe,” says Karl Bär.
The scientific community is split and so are the politicians. Several times in fact EU member states postponed decision-making on the topic. Governments are getting nervous about a public opinion moving towards glyphosate-critical viewpoints.
Once you start digging into this story, you get the feeling that all this is not just about science but is also about politics. It is time to get their point of view.
We meet Harald Ebner, a member of the German national parliament and one of the most fervent opponents of weed killers such as glyphosate.
Harald Ebner, Member of the German Bundestag, The Greens:
“In their report, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment mentions 1,200 studies that had to be assessed – but they admitted having copied of 850 of those studies, including their assessment results formulated by the applicants, the producers. This is, to put it mildly, a scandal. At the moment, a readmission of glyphosate is not acceptable: there is still the pending danger of cancer-risk.”
Reiner Wittkowski, Vice president, German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment:
“All the existing studies, all the existing knowledge was used and analysed for our assessment, really everything. We checked all evidence. And now we know the result: glyphosate is not causing cancer.”
Ariane Failer is a Saluki dog breeder in rural northern Germany. After chatting with a neighbour, she learned that the farmer was treating his plants with the weed killer Roundup.
One of her dogs, Manoush, is suffering from cancer and it is not an isolated case.
Failer started her Saluki breeding in 1992. Ten years after having moved to the countryside, the cancer-triggered death rate rose sharply: so far, 12 of her dogs have died of cancer.
There is still one scientific input missing: the European Chemicals Agency need another year to conclude their glyphosate assessment.
Ariane Failer, Saluki breeder:
“There is just 10 meters between the property line and the enclosure for my dogs. It is unavoidable that the wind carries glyphosate to us. We cannot do anything. Manouch had been operated on the lower milk line to remove tumours, but they came back. Two of them you can see: cancer is growing there, and there. Four tumours on the same milk line.”
But it’s not always as straightforward at it seems to be: Saluki dogs are known to suffer from high cancer rates in any environment. On the other hand, Ariane Failer traced the bloodline of all their Salukis back to 1920 and stresses that there was no cancer cluster before she moved here. She strongly feels that glyphosate should stop being used for commercial purposes.
“When everything follows nature’s rhythm, birth and death are both part of normal life. Somehow, dying is ok then. But early death triggered by glyphosate, that’s not ok. I still remember the death of Bushur. He was stretched out, his snout was covered with saliva and blood. The veterinarian worked on him with a cardiac massage, I did a mouth-to-muzzle blowing, I tried to get him back to life. Then Bushur cried out a last time, and then he was dead. He had not even reached the age of two. We do not have the right to poison their lives,” she says.
Caught in an information war
So is glyphosate dangerous or not? To find out euronews talked to Kurt Straif, a senior scientist with the International Agency for Research on Cancer based in in Lyon, France.
“Our evaluation was a review of all the published scientific literature on glyphosate and this was done by the world’s best experts on the topic that in addition don’t have any conflicts of interest that could bias their assessment, and they concluded that, yes, glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans based on three strings of evidence, that is clear evidence of cancer in experimental animals, limited evidence for cancer for humans from real-world exposures, of exposed farmers, and also strong evidence that it can damage the genes from any kind of other toxicological studies.”
“Why isn’t glyphosate banned considering these findings which are damning?”
“This is really an independent review of all the published literature that then leads to a classification about what we know about the substance and particularly its cancer-causing effects, but then it’s up to other agencies, the WHO internationally or other national agencies to turn that into a risk assessment and decide on the different exposures in our use, for farmers, from our diet, in cosmetics, wherever the substance can end up, to come up with conclusions.”
“Last May a joint Food and Agriculture Organization / WHO panel gave glyphosate a clean bill of health, Why this change of heart?”
“Our classification of the cancer hazards of glyphosate still stand. We are the authority to classify cancer substances worldwide for the WHO, and it was then this other panel that looked at a very narrow angle of exposure from daily food, and then came up with the conclusion on how much of that may be safe or not.”
“But as a consumer, as a farmer, as an occasional beer drinker, as somebody who likes to sit in parks that have been treated with glyphosate, what and who should I believe?”
“I think it’s important to understand the literature, that our assessment that glyphosate can cause cancer in humans still stands, and then you have to look at the other assessments for the specific scenarios, and that is not my authority to comment on these evaluations.”
“There were credible reports that emerged after this joint FAO-WHO panel back in May that some of the scientists had received payoffs by Monsanto, the number one producer of glyphosate. As a scientist are you disturbed by these kinds of reports?”
“It is an important topic that needs important scrutiny, yes.”
How safe are we? Earlier this year, a French consumer organization found that close to 300 cosmetic products contain chemicals that can be dangerous for the liver and affect hormones. Even worse, the same chemicals can be found in baby products. Serge Rombi reports.
Bringing up baby…healthily
Whether they are bought from the chemist or the supermarket, and whether or not they feature the mention “hypoallergenic,” “paraben free” or “dermatologically tested,” many cosmetics contain chemical and allergen substances, preservatives and especially endocrine disruptors, which can have an effect on the hormonal system.
Potentially, these chemical substances are dangerous, particularly for pregnant women and young children. Some doctors are even saying they carry a cancer risk.
So what are the real risks? Why are some pharmaceutical companies still using these substances? insiders investigates.
A natural start to life
Augusta is four months old. For Bozena, her mother, there is no question of her using any products containing these chemicals.
For example, the body lotion she uses is an oil and calcium liniment; a mixture based on olive oil, 100 percent natural.
“Companies tend to add a lot of useless products, like preservatives, containing lots of endocrine disruptors, and I think that not only are they unnecessary, they are harmful to health, for adults and even more so for young babies,” said Bozena.
Bozena is one of the small majority of mothers who actually read the labels on cosmetics.
It is precisely by examining the labels that the consumer association UFC-Que Choisir has compiled a list of 250 products that contain substances that could be considered as worrying.
Featured on this list is the much-talked-about Methylisothiazolinone – known as MI or MIT. In 2013 this substance was given the unenviable label of “allergen of the year.”
On the list also are those products containing parabens and phenoxyethanol, which is another preservative that specialists claim is dangerous for the liver and blood.
Even more worrying is the fact that some chemical substances can affect the hormonal system. These are the endocrine disruptors.
“With an allergen, you develop spots and the next day you stop and put the product to one side. With a product that contains endocrine disruptors there is no visible side effect. It is even more worrying as the effect will only become apparent 30 years later,” said Gaelle Landry, a Chemist at UFC-Que Choisir.
For some doctors, the use of endocrine disruptors should be eliminated at all costs, particularly for children and pregnant women. Specialists are also warning about the cocktail effect. These endocrine disruptors are also present in food, the air and sometimes even in the water.
“They, (the endocrine disruptors), affect everyone’s body, particularly women who are pregnant. This is a crucial time as women are transferring their toxins to the baby,” said Professor Pierre Souvet, of the Association Sante Environnment France. “Potentially, they are going to affect the programming of the baby’s cells, and this could lead to various illnesses later on, particularly different forms of cancer, because it is a known fact that the most frequent cancers are those that depend on hormones, like prostate or breast cancer.”
Cancer, the word has been said. Others talk about diabetes, infertility and even a link with pathologies like autism.
So what opinion can be drawn from the results of the UFC-Que Choisir study? We asked Doctor Anne Dux this question. She represents the industries from this sector which, she says, respect the obligatory safety regulations, including safety checks.
“This safety assessment evaluates all the ingredients used in the products, and they are all safe. Normally no cosmetics are put on the European market if they are dangerous, and the conclusions from the study you are quoting are, at the very least, exaggerated,” said Anne Dux, from the French Association of Cosmetics Professionals, (FEBEA).
In any case there are endocrine disruptors in most cosmetics. Everyone agrees on that. The controversy comes over the amount used.
The industry says it is tiny. But others say it does not make them any less dangerous.
“The amount defines whether it’s a poison, that’s not the case any more for these disruptors. It’s been demonstrated that with a smaller amount, the effect was sometimes more negative than higher quantities,” said Pierre Souvet.
Anne Dux insisted: “The German Safety Agency brought together scientists and experts from different sides of the world very recently – and experts concluded that there was currently no scientific evidence that this phenomenon existed. In other words, it’s an exaggerated phenomenon, that no-one is sure actually exists.”
No rules for childrens’ cosmetics
As strange as it might seem, there are no specific rules covering the use of chemical ingredients contained in childrens’ cosmetics.
But the industry insists it already addresses this, by limiting the number of substances for example.
“The skin of a baby, in terms of permeability, which in terms of how molecules pass through the skin, behaves exactly like the skin of an adult,” said Anne Dux. “After a few weeks of life, very very quickly, there is no difference between a baby’s skin and the skin of an adult.”
Chemist Gaelle Landry said: “Scientifically, this is wrong. The little ones have more fragile skin, it is thinner. So if it is thinner, the molecules will pass through more easily. Then it is more fragile because it’s not as protected as adults. Adults secrete sebum, sweat, toddlers sweat very little. So they do not have the sebum or sweat. They have a hydrolipidic film, which is not completely protective.”
Natural versus chemical
So why do manufacturers not replace chemicals with natural materials?
Some say it is because they do not want to change their process; others say it is because chemicals are very effective. But it seems that there are alternatives.
After a career in the chemical industry, Celine Couteau became a mum and launched a range of natural cosmetics for babies.
Typical nappies contain 80 percent plastic. But she has some that are 100 percent natural.
“We assume that today natural materials are as good as a material derived from petrochemicals,” explained Couteau, co-founder of “Love and Green”.
“It delivers exactly the same efficiency, the same care results, the same cleaning qualities as a petrochemical molecule. You can achieve exactly the same efficiency results and performance with a natural product as with a product derived from petrochemicals.”
The European Commission has given its definition of endocrine disruptors, describing them as substances that have adverse effects on human health, which act on the hormonal system, and the link between them is proven.
But it is not enough for the consumer associations, who also want more debate over industry lobbying and animal testing.
If you too want to be an Insider and keep digging beyond the headlines join us next week. Until then, you can share your thoughts on euronews.com/insiders.