In 2015 an American Academy of Pediatrics’ report, Pesticide Exposure in Children, found “an association between pesticides and adverse birth outcomes, including physical birth defects”. Local schools had been evacuated twice and children sent to hospital because of pesticide drift.
Years earlier, whilst in America, a friend of the writer, who was in good health at the time, developed emphysema and died prematurely after being exposed to spray drift.
Carla Nelson, a pediatrician, pointed out that doctors need prior disclosure of sprayings: “It’s hard to treat a child when you don’t know which chemical he’s been exposed to.” Read her Guardian coverage here.
In the state legislature in Honolulu, Senator Josh Green, who then chaired the health committee, made his fourth attempt to curb pesticide and herbicide spraying, but ruefully commented that most heads of the agriculture committee have had “a closer relationship with the agro-chemical companies than with the environmental groups”.
A year later, Time magazine reported that there was growing evidence of glyphosate’s potentially dangerous health effects. It was judged a “probable human carcinogen” by the World Health Organization last year but despite this, on the Hawaiian island of Maui and elsewhere, sprayers simply sprayed and moved on; no one monitored the observance of the safety directions of their own product.
Hawaii environmentalists have used a little-known law, FIFRA, short for the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, which requires sprayers to follow the safety instructions on the product’s label down to the letter.
For products containing the herbicide glyphosate, that means keeping people away from the area where the product has been used for four hours after applications for agriculture, or until the product dries when sprayed for non-agricultural purposes. That can be difficult in places like long stretches of roads and highways where extended monitoring to keep people away from recently sprayed areas is virtually impossible.
Parents began to circulate photographs of government employees spraying Round Up, the primary commercial product containing glyphosate. Footage showed authorities spraying on highways, roads and near schools without any visible effort to keep people away.
Finally the uncertainty raised by activists over the labelling issue convinced Stephen Rodgers, who oversees pesticide application on Maui’s state highways to switch to organic pesticides. His department no longer purchases Roundup and will stop using the product entirely – but only when the existing supply has been used.
Significant exposure to glyphosate in farm workers has been linked to increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer. Nature magazine, which is sceptical of the impact on human health, at least reports a study showing a link between glyphosate and cancer in mice. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO), ruled last year that the pesticide is a “probable human carcinogen.”
Dr. Philip Landrigan, a Harvard-educated pediatrician and epidemiologist, Dean for Global Health at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, says, “For a long time glyphosate was viewed as an innocuous herbicide. A lot of things have changed”.
His colleague, Chuck Benbrook, an adjunct professor at Washington State University’s crops and soil science department, said “There is growing evidence that glyphosate is geno-toxic and has adverse effects on cells in a number of different ways. It’s time to pull back … on uses of glyphosate that we know are leading to significant human exposures while the science gets sorted out.”
Part 2: studies which conclude that glyphosate does not cause harm.