Here at the Green Living Gurus, we’ve often discussed the environmental effects of various chemicals on us and our children, from preservatives to pesticides. One in particular stands out — and it’s become a household name for all the wrong reasons.
Infamously used in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides, glyphosate is the world’s most commonly used agrochemical. It is also the center of many legal battles as both scientists and concerned citizens and parents have observed its apparent connection to cancer, celiac disease, and other serious illness. While the official line is that glyphosate is safe for us and our children, a scratch below the surface reveals years of coverups, tainted studies, and alarming lab results.
Let’s take a look.
Glyphosate’s Apparent Health Risks
The Environmental Protection Agency insists that glyphosate presents no significant risk to human health. Although they admit that traces of glyphosate are present in many of our produce and grain products, they do not consider these residues harmful. They also state that glyphosate-containing pesticides such as Roundup are safe when used as directed.
However, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) came to a different conclusion. They reported that glyphosate is a likely human carcinogen, with a possible increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Since then, multiple studies have attempted to determine glyphosate’s health risks on us and our children, one way or the other. One meta-review of several papers found no causal relationship between glyphosate exposure and cancer. However, the study was funded by Monsanto, who also planned a PR campaign to discretions the IARC report.
It’s worth noting that several of these papers that allegedly disproved the link were simply observational studies of farmers, who are the most exposed to glyphosate. Animal studies, though, have found “mechanistic evidence” that glyphosate causes DNA damage. That was sufficient for the IARC to declare glyphosate a “2A”-level probable human carcinogen. Monsanto pushed back against this, asserting that everything from coffee to cell phones fell into Category 2. The “A” level of category 2, though, indicates a higher hazard than 2B (which is where coffee and cellphones are listed).
In any case, Monsanto has maintained a large, vocal presence in many health reviews and studies of glyphosate’s health risks. Despite their insistence that glyphosate is non-carcinogenic, their parent company Bayer set aside billions of dollars to address lawsuits from people who alleged that using Roundup had caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Meanwhile, as outlined in the Monsanto papers, the company hired ghostwriters to publish articles in both peer-reviewed journals and popular press outlets. These articles doubted the IARC’s findings and argued that glyphosate has no carcinogenic or other negative effects when “used as directed. As they clearly have a profit motive, it’s hard to know for sure how many studies indicating glyphosate’s safety are legitimate and unbiased. Without more research, we may be missing the larger picture of glyphosate’s harmful effects.
Glyphosate and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
As mentioned above, glyphosate has been linked to a higher risk of cancer, in particular non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. This common blood cell cancer is extremely debilitating and causes enlarged lymph nodes, chronic pain, and skin lesions. Both human studies and animal research have shown that lymphomas may emerge after glyphosate exposure. The chemical appears to disrupt the gut microbiome and cytokine production, thereby suppressing immunity. As non-Hodgkin Lymphoma is a cancer of our white blood cells, glyphosate’s immunosuppression could be a major risk factor for NHL.
The famous Monsanto papers were obtained when lawyers began preparing cases against the company on behalf of plaintiffs who claimed Roundup had caused their cancer. The first case was for DeWayne “Lee” Johnson, who took Monsanto to trial in 2018. His lawyers argued that Monsanto had knowingly hid its product’s carcinogenic risks. After several rounds of court orders and appeals, Johnson ultimately won, and Bayer paid him $20.5 million in damages.
Two other lawsuits resulted in Bayer awarding millions of dollars to plaintiffs. Most recently, Donnetta Stephens took her case to trial in 2021, also claiming that Roundup exposure had caused her to develop non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Unfortunately, Monsanto prevailed as the jury decided against Stephens’ claim. Still, more than 100,000 plaintiffs have filed similar suits, so the battle is anything but over.
Glyphosate and Celiac Disease
While some skeptics have raised an eyebrow at the rise of gluten-free diets, gluten sensitivity is anything but a fad. We have seen an overall shift in our species’ ability to process gluten. This protein, found in wheat, barley, spelt, and rye, may exacerbate symptoms of diabetes, Hashimoto’s, and even depression.
However, about 1 percent of the U.S. population has a complete intolerance to gluten, called celiac disease. It is an autoimmune condition in which the body perceives gluten molecules as foreign invaders. Symptoms include everything from intestinal distress to rashes to depression. Our increasingly refined-grain diet may be contributing to the rise of celiac — but there may be something more insidious at hand.
Glyphosate is the most commonly used herbicide to treat crops, especially wheat and other grains, which are susceptible to weeds. Yet the Food and Drug Administration did not test consumer goods for traces of this chemical. The Guardian obtained internal documents showing that FDA chemists not only found glyphosate throughout various crackers and granola, but also struggled to find any groceries that didn’t contain it! (Notably, Monsanto attempted to prevent these findings from being used in court.)
Research from MIT discovered links among glyphosate exposure, celiac disease, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (which is more likely among those with celiac). The common denominator is a dysfunctional gut microbiome that impairs both digestion and immunity. Celiac patients also demonstrate lower levels of iron, cobalt, trace metals, all of which are chelated (bonded) by glyphosate.
For years, Monsanto has claimed that glyphosate only targets plants by disrupting the shikimate pathway, which synthesizes tryptophan, tyrosine, and other amino acids vital to mood regulation and metabolism. Because we don’t have this pathway, we rely on our gut microbes to break down plant material. As glyphosate decreases these amino acids and kills our probiotics, our gut has a much harder time digesting our food — and that could lead to perceiving gluten as harmful invaders.
The dysfunctional microbiome associated with celiac is also a major risk factor for comorbid conditions, including NHL, anemia, birth defects, vitamin B deficiency, and even mental illness (which is also linked to vitamin deficiency). Our gut is the center of our health — and notably, glyphosate disrupts virtually every aspect of our GI tract.
We may be exposed to glyphosate by coming near or working with plants treated with Roundup, but more often than not, we’re absorbing it from our food. One of Roundup’s selling points is that it breaks down slowly and lingers in the soil around the plants. Given that scientists have found traces in most food products, we may be able to trace the rise of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, celiac, depression, anxiety, and even autism to glyphosate. (However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declined to implement widespread testing for glyphosate residues in our food.)
What can we do? It is immensely difficult to avoid glyphosate exposure, given its widespread use. Our best course of action is to keep the pressure on Monsanto and our regulatory agencies to disclose the risks of glyphosate, cease its use, and perform robust, unbiased research to determine how it affects our and most importantly, our children’s bodies. We deserve better clean living, than to live as unwitting consumers of this toxic chemical.
This article was inspired by an interview with Kelly Ryerson, founder of the Glyphosate Girl blog.