Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Monsanto’s popular Roundup herbicide, and when I learned that I could affordably have my body tested for glyphosate residue, I immediately jumped on board. People get tested all the time to see if their vitamin levels are deficient, and some pay big bucks to test hormone levels and genetic history. Why not see if you’re playing landlord to a toxic tenant?
Before we get started, I think it’s important to point out that I’m not a scientist or a doctor; I’m a journalist. This glyphosate testing is something that I voluntarily chose to participate in as a concerned consumer, and the test results, below, are accompanied by my conclusions based off hours of research and investigation. I encourage you to leave comments with any thoughts, concerns or ideas; the point of this article is to ignite a conversation surrounding glyphosate in U.S. drinking water. Here’s my take:
I’ve eaten an all-organic diet for years, and filter most of my drinking and cooking water. With the exception of occasional restaurant meals, I consume organically-grown, local-when-possible, whole foods. This goes a long way toward avoiding glyphosate and other non-organic pesticides and herbicides; however, I live in Kansas, where the rolling fields are overrun with “Roundup-Ready” crops. If there was ever a part of our nation where glyphosate pollutes the water and unavoidably creeps through the air, it’s my prairie homeland.
The glyphosate test that I took part in was conducted by Moms Across America, and participants could choose to have either their urine, breast milk or home’s tap water tested. I chose urine, because I wanted to see how my organic diet and agriculture-heavy location factor together. About a week after I sent off my sample, I received a short email, “Your test results are <7.5 ppb.” To which I thought, “OK … Is that good?”
I went to the Moms Across America website to compare my results with others across the nation. It turns out that 7.5 ppb (parts per billion), is the lowest detectable limit that the test is capable of finding. I thought this sounded pretty good and I was ready to start celebrating, but as I scrolled further down the page I discovered that 7.5 ppb is still way higher than anything deemed “OK” by the standards of many other countries.
The European Drinking Water Directive has set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for pesticides in groundwater at 0.1 ppb (ug/L). That’s about as close to zero tolerance as you can get. In contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) MCL for glyphosate alone in U.S. drinking water is 700 ppb. That’s 7,000 times higher than the European standards, and it doesn’t even account for the dozens of other pesticides and herbicides that are also present in our water at any given time.
Looking at my test results of <7.5 pbb, I could be anywhere between 0.1 pbb and 7.4 pbb (this large range is a limitation of the study that I hope to see addressed in future tests.) According to the EPA’s standards, I’m doing great and am way below levels of concern. According to European standards, however, I could be almost seven times higher than what they recommend. For additional perspective, the highest glyphosate level found in urine in the EU was 1.82 ppb in Latvia. In the U.S.? A California resident had glyphosate levels in their urine of 15.6 ppb. We’re clearly exposed to very high levels of glyphosate, especially when compared to European countries. As concerned citizens, we need to pressure the EPA to significantly lower the MCL for glyphosate in U.S. drinking water so that it’s more in-line with the regulations of European countries.
Glyphosate in Breast Milk
The EPA’s MCL regulations are based on the assumption that glyphosate isn’t bio-accumulative. Glyphosate is water soluble, so it’s been assumed that if you eat a peach with glyphosate on or in it, then within a few days your body will expel the toxin, it won’t gather in fat cells, and everything will be peachy keen. However, the Moms Across America testing found high glyphosate levels in three out of 10 breast milk samples submitted.
This discovery questions the assumption that glyphosate is not bio-accumulative, and it points to the idea that this toxic chemical may indeed be building up in our bodies after all. We’re passing glyphosate along to our sensitive infants via breast milk (and even umbilical cords) before our children even have a chance to be exposed firsthand via pesticide drift, drinking water and non-organic foods.
What Is Glyphosate?
OK, so there’s glyphosate in our bodies; but why are people concerned? Glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor, which means that when it’s absorbed by the body it either mimics or blocks hormones and disrupts the body’s normal functions, leading to increased rates of infertility and prostate or testicular cancer, as well as low sperm count. The EPA clearly states that glyphosate leads to reproductive difficulties, here. Studies have also linked glyphosate exposure to celiac disease and gluten intolerance, as well as an increased number of children born with autism spectrum disorder and developmental problems. Last, but certainly not least, the World Health Organization announced in March, 2015, that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans.
Glyphosate is detrimental to animals, as well. For example, honey bees were tested in 2014 to see how field-realistic doses of glyphosate would affect their behavior – sadly, they were noticeably less sensitive to nectar rewards and they experienced impaired associative learning. It goes without saying that for a delicate and declining species, these skills are necessary to both their survival, and, from a pollination standpoint, our own.
Infertility, honey bee deaths, cancer; these aren’t small concerns. To make matters worse, many of the studies mentioned above tested glyphosate in isolation. For real-world application, however, this toxic chemical is mixed with solvents and surfactants, legally considered “inert ingredients,” that work together to amplify the toxic effect of the herbicide – and as a result amplify its toxic effects on human cells.
There’s been tremendous growth in the amount of glyphosate sold and used within the past two decades. The increased use of glyphosate is due largely to the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. These “Roundup Ready” crops, including soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton and sorghum, are specifically engineered to withstand heavy sprayings of glyphosate, while nearby weeds wither and die. "Weeds" have been outwitting humans and natural disasters for years, so they’re quickly becoming resistant to the sprays, and, as a result, farmers have to douse crops with larger and larger amounts of the toxic chemicals each year. Because genetically modified crops are more likely to be doused with glyphosate, choosing to eat organic foods and voting to label genetically modified ingredients are two ways you can work toward avoiding this toxic pesticide.
As you can see, glyphosate isn’t a product I want to mess around with. Even without factoring in the societal impacts of its largest promoter (Monsanto) unnecessarily suing small farmers and tampering with the world’s seed supply, I simply don’t think the benefits of using glyphosate outweigh the costs. Organic market farmers are proving left and right that it’s possible to grow bountiful crops without the use of toxic pesticides or herbicides. Plus, in response to the “we need to feed the world” argument, we first need to address what to do with all the food we’re already wasting. (Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption each year, approximately 1.3 billion tons, is wasted, and that’s a problem.)
In conclusion, we need to pressure the EPA to lower the MCL for glyphosate in our drinking water. We need to push for the labeling of genetically modified foods so that informed consumers are able to avoid glyphosate at the grocery store, and we need to vote with our dollars to support small, organic farmers who are continuously proving we can grow healthy, abundant crops without the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides.
Photo by Foltolia/jolopes: St. Louis-based Microbe Inotech was the laboratory used for the glyphosate testing mentioned in this article.
Hannah Kincaid is an Assistant Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. She is an enthusiastic student of herbal medicine, organic gardening and yoga.
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