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Councils across Australia are banning a popular weed killer, yet experts insist it's safe. What's the story with Roundup?

One by one local councils are dropping, caving to the fear that the most popular weedkiller in Australia could increase their constituents’ risk of developing cancer.

Roundup is the number one product used to keep playgrounds, footpaths, shop fronts, sporting fields, crops, and soil clear of unwanted growth.

In other words it’s everywhere, and fear of its main ingredient (glyphosate) has been bubbling away for years. But in 2019, the momentum is snowballing.

What’s glyphosate? Post continues after video.

Video via Bloomberg

“A number of NSW Councils, including Fairfield City, Georges River, Willoughby, Kur-ing-gai, Sutherland and Waverley have either banned or are considering banning the use of glyphosate,” reads the minutes from the June 25 Newcastle council meeting.

“While the Australian regulator has indicated the products are safe, the Andrews government has commenced a review into its use in Victoria. The Newcastle Council should apply the precautionary principle and commence a phase out of the product,” continues the motion put forward by no less than seven local councillors.

The minutes from various councils across Australia read similarly. Sometimes they have “urgent” in their submission, other times they’ve got thousands of residents’ signatures in the form of a petition to nudge action along. In Blacktown’s local area, 500 council workers went on strike in June demanding action on this issue.

In 2015, the World Health Organisation determined that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic”. This is when the fear started, but given pickles and Aloe Vera are also on that list, it’s safe to say it wasn’t taken too seriously on a mainstream level.

Glyphosate
This was the first we heard about the potential cancer risks of glyphosate. Image: Bloomberg.
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In February this year, a new study from the University of Washington looked at all of the studies that have been done into the chemical, focusing on people with the highest exposures to glyphosate. It concluded that exposure to the herbicide increases the risk of cancer by 41 per cent.

The new study, and the succession of court cases has spurred action in little pockets of the country, and it doesn't appear to be slowing down.

The latest lawsuit filed in the US involves a 12-year-old child.

Lawyers representing Jake Bellah said the child was exposed to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide products repeatedly over many years as he played in his family’s yard and around their garden area where his father frequently sprayed the chemicals. He developed B-cell lymphoma.

Jake-Bellah
Jake Bellah has Non Hodgkin's lymphoma and his family is among those suing Monsanto. Image: GoFundMe/ HopeforJake.

The four plaintiffs who have already had trials against Monsanto were all adults diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and all were victorious.

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Some are saying it feels like the new asbestos.

Similarly it's used on mass, and is inescapable if you live in a local area that hasn't banned it.

It took decades and multiple lawsuits and studies for Australia to completely ban asbestos use in 2003, and there are claims in the petitions and council submissions that have been changing local laws, that we're headed the same way with Roundup.

But Bayer, the German parent company of Monsanto thinks Aussie councils are reacting unnecessarily.

"There is no evidence that local municipalities who choose to move away from glyphosate for amenity weed management are enhancing safety," it wrote in a statement to Mamamia.

"There is an extensive body of research on glyphosate and Bayer's glyphosate based herbicides including more than 800 rigorous studies submitted to US, Australian and European regulators in connection with the registration process that confirms these products are safe to use as directed," the company wrote.

The Australian Department of Education is of the same opinion and stood its ground when asked by Mamamia about the treatment of school property and playgrounds. Parents have expressed concern because they lie outside of a local council's responsibility. So even if councils move away from Roundup, schools in that area don't have to.

"All chemicals used by the department, including glyphosate, are approved for use in Australia by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA)," a department spokesperson said in reply to our email.

"In June 2019, the department confirmed with the NSW Environment Protection Authority that the APVMA had no current plans to review advice regarding the use of glyphosate," it continued.

Ben Larson works for WeedTechnics, which provides an alternative to Roundup. They "steam" away weeds and their niche small business has experienced a huge surge of interest in 2019.

He told Mamamia even though the studies and lawsuits suggest it's the heavy users of Roundup who are mostly at risk, there's a real fear amongst his customers about schools and playgrounds, where kids come into contact with sprayed weeds.

"The catalyst for the majority of interest though [and movement from councils] is successful lawsuits more than anything," said Larson.

"The WHO advice has kind of been ignored... but now that people are starting to get sued over it and there's this money angle councils are wanting to mitigate the risks - but there's also a big push from residents," he said.

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While councils have the money motive, schools operate separately, and Larson says almost all still use Roundup as their weed killer of choice.

"There are schools with individual gardeners who will be making a personal decision to minimise Roundup use, but even in those instances they don't have an obligation to," he explained.

However, Ivan Kennedy, a Professor in Agriculture and Environmental Chemistry, thinks the banning of glyphosate in Australia would be a huge backwards step for crop production.

"My question would be, what would be used instead? Alternative chemical weedkillers (even organic in nature) are bound to be more harmful to animals since glyphosate is the least toxic herbicide available. Glyphosate - because of its high specificity for an enzyme unique to plants - is less toxic than common salt to humans," he told Mamamia.

"Concerning the claim that it [Roundup] is a 'probable carcinogen', in my opinion and that of my expert colleagues internationally, they were mistaken and were misled by the limited and partly faulty literature they used to make their assessment."

Monsanto Charged $2 Billion In Damages For Weed Killer Roundup Cancer Lawsuit
Professor Ivan Kennedy says Roundup is safe to use, and describes the backlash against it as "hysterical." Image: Scott Olson/Getty.
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"The International Agency for Research on Cancer has no competence to make a scientific conclusion that glyphosate is carcinogenic and the role of this part-time association of experts in cancer is to make recommendations for research from time to time to the World Health Organisation. In the past IARC has been effective but it has now probably discredited itself for future assessments," he said.

In Professor Kennedy's opinion this "poor judgement" has led to a hysterical reaction.

As the Professor explains, glyphosate has none of the chemical properties they associate with carcinogenicity such as heavy metals, halogens or aromatic structures. He also points out that the hazard rating that's been given to it is similar to that given to red meat.

Professor Kennedy also wants to make it clear for parents worried about their children coming into contact with treated weeds, "Its only negative effects would come during spraying".

"The most dangerous components in any product are the adjuvant chemicals added to make the herbicide more effective which shouldn't be inhaled or absorbed (but they aren't carcinogenic either)," said the Professor.

"Once glyphosate falls on soil, or decaying weeds do so, it is immediately inactivated by binding to soil particularly iron compounds. Thus it has no residual effect as a herbicide.  Nor is it volatile," he explains. "So it is one of the safest compounds for kids who may come into contact with any residue on soil."

In America, 12 states have banned the use of Roundup. French authorities have completely banned its sale in their country, as has Belgium, Bermuda, Netherlands (for everything that's not commercial), Sri Lanka, and El Salvador.

Australia is slowly moving in the same direction on a grassroots level, despite our Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) approving its use.

Perth, Byron Bay, Hobart, Cooktown - council areas around the country are starting to listen to the growing fears, and if they haven't banned it completely, they're either trialling it or are being pushed internally to consider it.

For schools - progress is slower, perhaps because there isn't the pressure from the whole community or councillors in the know.

But as far as Professor Kennedy, the Department of Education, and APVMA, are concerned - if you follow the label directions, you're fine.

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