A recent study has found a link between exposure during pregnancy to glyphosate, the active ingredient in popular weed killer Roundup, and increased risk of low birth weight and time in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). This finding is the latest in a laundry list of health dangers associated with the controversial herbicide.
The small-scale study is the second on the subject by the Indiana University School of Medicine. The first, published in 2018, confirmed the presence of glyphosate in 93% of pregnancies associated with shortened gestation.
Roundup, originally manufactured by the infamous agricultural company Monsanto, is the most widely-used herbicide in the world. You may have a bottle in your garage; home gardeners and commercial farmers have used it to eradicate unwanted plants for nearly 50 years.
While any herbicide is dangerous if inhaled or swallowed, long-term exposure to glyphosate, even while used as directed, has been linked to cancer and other health problems by dozens of studies.
For the new study, researchers observed 187 pregnant women and collected urine during their first trimesters. One hundred eighty-six of them had glyphosate in their urine.
Dr. Paul Winchester, one of the study’s authors, said previous research had shown a strong correlation between pesticide exposure and pregnancy problems in animals, but more is needed on human fetal development.
“As a neonatologist, I’m seeing more and more infants with problems like low birth weight as well as mothers with issues like obesity or gestational diabetes,” he said. “We need to keep studying these herbicides long term to find out how they could be causing these issues and what we can do to prevent them.”
Another new study in Brazil suggests that Roundup exposure just prior to birth may result in an influx of calcium and iron, leading to oxidative liver damage and inflammation. Adverse changes to the enzymatic antioxidant system, which is responsible for breaking down and removing harmful free radicals, were also observed.
Pharmaceutical giant Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in 2018, has been plagued by Roundup lawsuits in recent years over their failure to disclose the health risks associated with glyphosate. Prosecutors uncovered internal documents proving the companies concealed or doctored decades of negative findings about the chemical.
The Controversy Surrounding Roundup
Humans are exposed to glyphosate in most of the food we eat, even organic or packaged foods; only GMO crops are immune. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), almost 10 million tons of Roundup were sprayed on fields worldwide over a single ten-year period – about half a pound for every cultivated acre of land on Earth.
Glyphosate has been scientifically linked to a wide variety of health issues, including infertility, hormone disruption, child development abnormalities, liver disease, gut health disorders and more.
In 2015, an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The EPA disputed these findings and staunchly refused to admit any risk to humans when using glyphosate as intended, even banning California from putting a cancer warning on Roundup products. But this past June, a federal appeals court ordered the EPA to reexamine its 2020 announcement that glyphosate poses no risk to human health.
The judges’ unanimous opinion stated that the EPA’s no-risk position “was not supported by substantial evidence” and that the agency had failed in its obligation to the Endangered Species Act by not looking at glyphosate’s impact on vegetation and animals.
At least ten countries have banned Roundup entirely, and Bayer announced it would remove glyphosate from Roundup’s residential (but not commercial) products starting next year.
Roundup Exposure and Cancer
While Roundup has been linked to many health problems, two specific types of cancer have been especially common.
The first is Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), a cancer of the lymph nodes and/or lymphatic tissue with a 73% overall five-year survival rate. Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, chest pain or trouble breathing, persistent fatigue, night sweats and sudden weight loss.
While the link between NHL and glyphosate is still disputed among researchers, a 2019 University of Washington meta-analysis of both human and animal studies found that exposure increased the risk of developing NHL by 41%.
A study performed by the University of California at Los Angeles in August found that exposure to glyphosate and another popular pesticide, paraquat, was a factor in more than 2,000 cases of thyroid cancer.
Paraquat is a commercial use-only herbicide praised for its efficacy and affordability. Because one sip of it is enough to kill a healthy adult, applicators must be trained and licensed through the EPA. Prolonged paraquat exposure can cause reproductive issues, heart failure and Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative movement disorder.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is the crux of most of the active Roundup lawsuits. Patients with Parkinson’s disease have filed thousands of paraquat lawsuits alleging that manufacturers failed to warn the public about the link between paraquat and Parkinson’s.
Roundup Lawsuits Update
After a rough start for Bayer involving consecutive multi-million-dollar losses and a defeat against the U.S. Supreme Court, the pharma giant is on a winning streak.
A Missouri jury in September ruled in Bayer’s favor against several plaintiffs, giving the company its fifth trial victory in a row. Chief Executive Officer Werner Baumann credits the turn of fortune to an adjustment in the company’s defense strategy, focusing on whether Roundup actually causes cancer.
Bayer lost three trials between 2018-2019, forcing them into more than $10 billion worth of settlements for current and future plaintiffs who said Roundup caused their cancer and that Bayer failed to warn consumers of the risks. The first lawsuit was filed the same year Bayer took over for Monsanto in a $63 billion acquisition. The German company’s share price has fallen about 50% since.
In June, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Bayer that might have halted most of the lawsuits.
The company said it had resolved about 108,000 of the 141,000 active Roundup claims.