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Weed killer causes new cancer fears; under EPA review

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Glyphosate, the chemical in the world's top selling agricultural herbicide, Roundup, is being reviewed for safety. A nationwide ban could be possible by 2015.

Glyphosate is the key ingredient in the world’s top selling weed killer, Roundup. And it’s now being federally reviewed for safety – against a backdrop of lawsuits and demands for a global ban, Reuters reports.

For over three decades, the chemical has been hailed as safe and incredibly beneficial to the production of corn, soybean, and cotton.

But critics say it speeds the growth of super weeds. And still others say it raises health concerns like infertility and cancer.

"Glyphosate's days are numbered," says Paul Achitoff of Earthjustice, which sued the US Department of Agriculture last month in part over concerns about heavy glyphosate use.

Monsanto introduced the chemical in 1974 and has since made billions of dollars from Roundup and ‘Roundup Ready’ corn, soybeans, and cotton genetically engineered to survive dousings of glyphosate.

The chemical is found in more than 750 products in the US.

Last year alone, Monsanto made more than $2 billion in sales of glyphosate-based herbicides (and these numbers are much lower than before the patent expired and generics started appearing). The world spends more than $14 billion on herbicide a year.

The Environmental Protection Agency is examining the human and environmental health risks and has set a deadline of 2015 for determining if glyphosate should continue to be sold or limited in some way.

In the meantime, Monsanto and its corporate agricultural rivals are scrambling to roll out different herbicides and new herbicide-tolerant crops that they hope will halt the advance of weed resistance and silence critics.

Some study results circulating about glyphosate and being evaluated by US regulators:

  • Some users of glyphosate were observed to have a higher risk of multiple myeloma, a cancer affecting bone marrow, than people who never used the chemical.
  • The chemical could be contributing to spontaneous abortions and infertility in pigs, cattle, and other livestock, while causing malformations in frog and chick embryos.
  • Detectable concentrations of glyphosate have been found in the urine of farmers and their children in two states.
  • The Institute of Science in Society has called for a global ban, citing research showing the chemical has extreme toxicity, including indications it can cause birth defects.

The EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs is in charge of the review and has three main options: continued approval with no changes, canceling the registration to ban its use, or continue as an approved product but with some modifications for its use.

Via Reuters.

Image: weed by tobym via Flickr

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure