Is glyphosate carcinogenic to humans? The WHO says it probably is.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialised cancer agency of the World Health Organisation
It’s in our food, it’s in our water and it’s even been found in mother’s milk – the world’s most widely-used chemical herbicide, glyphosate, has permeated our everyday lives.
That’s why it’s especially troubling that The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialised cancer agency of the World Health Organisation, came to the conclusion that glyphosate should now be classified as a carcinogenic substance in Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans), based on “limited evidence” in human experiments and “sufficient evidence” in animal experiments.
Should I really be worrying about ‘probably’?
Yes. ‘Probably’ means it has caused cancer in laboratory animals and that there is enough evidence to surmise that it will probably – not maybe or could, but probably – cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in humans. The most vulnerable are children, developing babies in uterus, pets and people who use glyphosate products.
So what does this mean for councils, farmers and land care practitioners who continue to use glyphosate for weeding?
This announcement will have an impact on how glyphosate is perceived and dramatically alter the tolerance for its continued use.
While some parties may argue against the validity of the WHO’s re-evaluation of glyphosate, the reality is that either way, it will have an impact on how glyphosate is perceived by Australians and dramatically alter their tolerance for its continued use in their environment.
In fact, we have recently heard from a few councils who have already been contacted by concerned residents, asking the councils to justify their continued use of glyphosate in the face of the WHO’s findings and the availability of so many compelling non-chemical alternatives. Unfortunately, these councils were caught off-guard with no plan in place to move away from the use of chemical herbicides and are scrambling to put together responses to their communities.
The WHO’s announcement will also have a deep impact on the operators tasked with spraying the glyphosate. Until now, they have been repeatedly assured that glyphosate is safe and therefore, many operators do not wear sufficient protective gear when conducting applications. In addition to the health concerns of operators who have been exposed to repeated applications of glyphosate in the past, there will also undoubtedly be a strong call-to-action to enhance the OH&S requirements to protect these workers into the future.
Adding to this increased complexity, the costs associated with administering ‘No Spray’ zones may also increase, with glyphosate likely to be deemed as unsuitable for use in more locations than ever before.
How can councils, farmers and land care practitioners get on the front foot with this issue?
Get educated on the alternatives
Glyphosate (and other chemicals) are not the only answer. There are numerous non-chemical weeding alternatives that you can leverage. Last year, I dedicated time to review large amounts of scientific research on each of these various methods and compiled an Urban Weed Control Methodologies Matrix which weighs the costs and benefits of leveraging these weeding methodologies. Click here to download the outcome of this review and to evaluate your options for yourself.
Develop a strategy
Going chemical-free is hard to do overnight. This is especially so in the municipal situation, with numerous stakeholders, large areas and chemically subsidised budgets. But rather than being discouraged by this, there are a number of steps you can take right now to develop a strategy and move away from chemical weeding:
- Determine tolerance levels for weed presence. Called ‘presentation standards’, they define the tolerable level of weed growth in a specific location. The higher the presentation standard, the more inputs will be required to control the weeds.
- Identify ‘no toxin’ zones. These are areas that are environmentally or socially sensitive, where the hazards of toxins represent higher risks to the environment, community and decision makers.
- Design to reduce weeds. Hard surface finishes, soil and mulch types, watering regimes, fertilisers, plant species selection and planting densities can all be optimised to reduce the level of weed proliferation.
- Adopt a variety of weed control methods. There’s no silver bullet to weed control. Having knowledge, skill and a range of methods at your disposal will allow for long-term cost efficiency in weed management.
- Record, analyse and review the methods employed and their efficacy in managing weed species over time. Nature will always fill a void. With local knowledge, we will be able to manage more effectively what appears in the void.
Highlight your savings
Despite the common perception that chemical weed control is cheaper than most non-chemical weed control methods, there are actually a number of significant costs associated with chemical weed control – but unless you look at chemical weeding from a whole-of-life point of view, these costs may be hidden.
So, when developing your non-chemical weed management budget, don’t only consider the upfront costs of capital purchases and higher labour inputs. Instead also take into account the benefits of long-term weed abatement and the indirect cost savings achieved by mitigating the risks associated with chemical application – especially following the WHO’s findings.
A final thought
Reducing public and operator exposure to probable carcinogens is an imperative, while also creating a catalyst for green employment opportunities. At a time when the government are actively promoting green initiatives and job creation, it would seem that the problem has become a solution.
If you are concerned about any of the issues discussed please contact us.
Jeremy Winer has 30 years of practical experience in assisting councils, farmers and businesses implement an integrated, holistic approach to weed management across urban landscapes, recreational parklands and wetlands. He is principal at Weedtechnics, Australia’s only specialist network of companies providing chemical reduction and non-toxic weed control programs to municipalities across Australia. He has developed, patented, manufactured and commercialised the Steamwand method of creating saturated steam for vegetation control, which is one of a variety of recommended modes of weed control in the non-chemical weed control toolbox.