Looking out of my window the other day I was greeted by an unexpected sight… a municipal vehicle spraying the weeds with herbicide. As our local council has spoken out strongly against this practice I was rather hoping this was a thing of the past. However, the maintenance of our streets is the responsibility of East Sussex County Council who seem determined to continue with this approach despite the outcry from local residents and councillors. 

The product being sprayed on our streets is glyphosate, the main ingredient of Roundup and the most widely used herbicide in the world. The chemical is toxic to all plants except those that have been genetically engineered to be resistant. Roundup was launched in 1974 and heavily promoted as safe and environmentally friendly. However, evidence followed from numerous studies showing harm to soil microorganisms, worms, fish, reptiles, bees, birds and mammals. 

Reproductive abnormalities from glyphosate exposure have been seen in many creatures, from fish and sea urchins to mice and rats. The effects observed include loss of fertility leading to extinction of worm populations. In bees the chemical caused disorientation in navigating to and from the hive as well as destruction of beneficial gut bacteria, potentially leading to immune deficiency. Glyphosate is also lethal to honey bee larvae.

The chemical has been shown to cross the placenta during pregnancy. Exposure to pregnant mice resulted in male offspring with low levels of testosterone and over 80% reduction in sperm count. Radical birth defects have been seen in mammals when the mother has been exposed to glyphosate, sometimes at very low levels.

In 2015 the World Health Organisation classified the chemical as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. The carcinogenicity to animals had been well established and there was an extra warning of “strong” evidence of genetic mutations, which could lead to cancers. Over one thousand studies had been reviewed in the assessment by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC]. There were subsequent reports that the classification had been retracted; however, a spokesperson for the IARC stated, “The classification has not been changed and is still valid.” 

Two years later in 2017 the UK government voted to renew the EU license for the herbicide until 2022. However, they indicated that post Brexit they could “take a very different approach to pesticides…” Presumably that meant tightening up the regulations, but we had better not hold our breath… unless of course, the ESCC weed controller happens to be passing. 

Tree with leaf burn and curl after being sprayed with glyphosate

The implication was that the UK had been obliged to vote ‘yes’ because we were in the EU. In fact nine countries voted against the chemical, including France and Belgium. Meanwhile, thousands of people in the USA were filing lawsuits against the manufacturer claiming the chemical caused them to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, b-cell lymphoma, leukaemia and other blood cancers. During the early proceedings it was revealed that Monsanto had inappropriately close interactions with the Environmental Protection Agency. Internal company documents showed that repeated attempts were made to manipulate scientific studies and media reporting to promote glyphosate as a safe product.

In 2018 the case of groundsman Dewayne Johnson became international news. Johnson’s was the first of many non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma [NHL] cases to come to court. A sum of $289 million was awarded in a landmark verdict against Monsanto. This was reduced to $20,000 after two appeals from Bayer. The corporation was in the process of buying up Monsanto and as a result inherited 125,000 glyphosate lawsuits. Further successful claims followed, including that of Alva and Alberta Pilliod who both developed NHL after using Roundup regularly. They had believed the product to be safe; there were no warnings about protective clothing or masks. Alberta often wore shorts for spraying as she had seen in the TV advert. The couple was awarded $2,055 billion.

Thousands of cases followed, and councils in the UK and around the world began to take notice. In 2019 Hastings Council agreed with contractor Idverde that glyphosate would no longer be used in parks and open places. A plant-based product would be used instead. However, the roadsides and footpaths are managed by ESCC who continue to carry out annual weed spraying in Hastings using glyphosate. More than 40 UK councils have banned or partially banned the use of glyphosate, according to Pesticide Action Network UK, including Brighton and Hove Council.

Young tree with roots sprayed with glyphosate

Meanwhile, the streets of Hastings are showing signs of the recent spraying. Birds unwittingly carry off toxic dried-up foliage to line their nests. Dogs and cats sniff around with their usual curiosity. Damage to trees is evident. The chemical having been sprayed around their roots has been taken up systemically and is now evidenced by curled up, blackened leaves.

Children are particularly at risk. And there is no advance warning of imminent spraying for expectant mothers or those with small children. When I first spotted the weed control worker he was busily spraying the pavement in front of a local nursery school. This is concerning given that glyphosate has been linked to birth defects. It has also been found in human breast milk. A US study found levels of glyphosate 760 to 1,600 times higher than the EU allows in drinking water. There is currently no regulatory limit for glyphosate in human breast milk anywhere in the world. The chemical is sold and used prolifically on the basis that it is not bio-accumulative. However, these findings suggested that glyphosate might indeed be accumulating in women’s bodies.

• Glyphosate is part of a cocktail of chemicals found in Roundup and other herbicides.

• Scientists found many of these substances to be more toxic than glyphosate. They included petro-chemicals, arsenic and other heavy metals.

• Glyphosate is also patented as an antibiotic drug and as such impacts gut bacteria. Unfortunately, it is particularly effective against beneficial bacteria.

• Glyphosate was patented in 1961 as an industrial descaling agent. It binds metals and minerals such as calcium. As such, it also binds minerals in the soil, making them unavailable to crops.

Studies have found glyphosate almost everywhere
• In 70% of US drinking water.
• In 60% of British bread, cereals, crisps and crackers.
• In 19 out of 20 beers and wines tested.
• In 75% of urine samples in Germany and 93% in USA.
• In breast milk samples tested in the US and Europe.
• In non-organic baby formula.
• In non-organic tampons and pads.

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