Glyphosate and the risks of cancer

  1. Glyphosate is the key ingredient in the world’s bestselling weedkiller

The EU Commission’s Appeal Committee agreed to renew the license for the use of glyphosate in Europe on November 27, 2017. The decision means glyphosate can continue to be used as a weedkiller for another five years. The ruling ended months of deadlock over a controversial substance at the center of health and environmental concerns.

Update: The government of the Brussels region will file a complaint against the European Commission with the European Court of Justice over its decision to re-authorise the use of glyphosate. Brussels believes the decision to renew the use of glyphosate does not outline adequate risk reduction measures and a strategy to phase out use.

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s cancer agency, the IARC, said glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Several international agencies, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), subsequently came to opposite conclusions. Agriculture company Monsanto, which produces glyphosate, has always insisted the substance is safe.

The commission says the new five-year license will be ready before the current one expires next month. The UK, Poland and Germany were among the states that voted in favor of renewing the license. France and Belgium were among the states that voted against. Portugal abstained.

There are many factors for and against the use of glyphosate as a weedkiller. It would seem as though European decision makers have made a ruling that defies advice from the WHO. So why would the EU approve a Group 2A carcinogen for use in Europe?

Group 2A carcinogens are categorized as “probable carcinogens,” an IARC grouping applied when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. A more dangerous category are the Group 1 carcinogens which are carcinogenic to humans.

Most of us are regularly exposed to considerable quantities of Group 1 substances. Ethanol is a Group 1 carcinogen found in alcoholic beverages. In heavily polluted cities such as Delhi, residents expose themselves to large quantities of another Group 1 carcinogen, “particulate matter in outdoor air pollution.” There is also growing evidence that perfume from scented candles reacts with air to produce another Group 1 carcinogen, formaldehyde.

Other common Group 1 carcinogens include particles from tobacco (both smoked and smokeless), dust from sandblasting and UV tanning devices.

We also regularly expose ourselves to a number of Group 2A carcinogens, including acrylamide, which is found in bread and other baked/fried products. Many of us also eat red meat or drink beverages that are too hot, some of us also have wood-burning stoves; which are all Group 2A activities.

So if the sole argument for banning glyphosate is that it features on the IARC’s Group 2A list, we should be consistent and stop eating bread (acrylamide in Group 2A) and drinking any alcohol in the Group 1 list.

This analysis is not a comment on how the IARC’s list was compiled. A good example of the debate on the subject can be found in this helpful Wikipedia article on the IARC. There is no doubt, for example, that ethanol contributes to some forms of cancer. But if used in moderation, ethanol is not considered a problem. The same applies to the burning of candles.

On the issue of glyphosate, the fact that the IARC has labeled it a Group 2A carcinogen is not something that should be ignored. But nor should it end all discussion there. The European group presumably concluded that the carcinogenicity of glyphosate is sufficiently low, the required precautions in use are sufficiently manageable and the quantities in our food chain are also so low, that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Next time you feel a substance should be banned, please spend a little time going through the IARC’s lists. The work is part of a general consensus over which chemicals are dangerous and why some are highly restricted.

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