HEALTH SENTINEL: Weeds be gone — but at what cost to health?

The man-made chemical glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup weed killer, is coming under scrutiny after it was detected in pregnant women in a research study led by Indiana University and Franciscan Health in Indianapolis. Women with the highest levels had increased rates of premature births. (Photo by Jennifer L. Boen for News-Sentinel.com)
Shahid Parvez, assistant professor in the department of environmental sciences at IU’s Fairbanks School of Public Health. (Courtesy photo)

If you have a weed-free lawn, crop fields or flower beds, chances are you or someone you hired has sprayed a commercial herbicide to kill the weeds. Chances are also good that the main chemical in those weed killers is glyphosate, the most common active ingredient in herbicides such as Roundup. Glyphosate is increasingly raising red flags because of potential or probable health hazards.

Controversy over the use of products containing the man-made glyphosate is intensifying both in the United States and abroad. Depending on which research is presented and where the studies were done, results range from no scientific connection between glyphosate and cancer in the U.S. Agricultural Health Study to “probable carcinogenic” results found by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court judge in Chicago ruled that, despite scientific evidence being “rather weak,” expert testimonies linking glyphosate to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma will be allowed in trials in which individuals are suing Monsanto, maker of Roundup, the world’s most popular herbicide.

Now, joint research by Indiana University Fairbanks School of Public Health, IU School of Medicine, Franciscan Health and the University of California San Francisco is raising other concerns about herbicides containing glyphosate in pregnant women.

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Not only did researchers find that 93 percent of a group of pregnant women in central Indiana had detectable levels of glyphosate, those women with the highest levels had shorter-term pregnancies.

“It is surprising and very shocking that this chemical has been used for decades, but no one had looked at levels in pregnant women,” said Shahid Parvez, assistant professor in the department of environmental sciences at IU’s Fairbanks School of Public Health.

Though the study sample was small and a cause-and-effect for glyphosate and pre-term births cannot yet be concluded, the implications are significant in a state where one in every 10 babies is born prematurely, or before 37 weeks gestation, according to 2016 Centers for Disease Control data. Prematurity is the third leading cause of infant mortality. Indiana’s infant mortality rate is 27 percent higher than the national rate. “We literally fall in the highest levels in infant mortality,” Parvez said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set standards for what the agency deems is safe for agricultural usage of glyphosate, which is 3.6 grams per liter. For drinking water, up to .7 grams per liter is considered safe. The highest levels of glyphosate in water, soil and air are found in rural areas, where 70 to 80 percent of glyphosate is used in the Midwest, Parvez said.

“There are already studies in animals that have shown glyphosate is linked with DNA destruction,” Parvez said. After glyphosate was detected in the pregnant women, researchers set out to uncover the source. Surprisingly, glyphosate was not found in the subjects’ tap water, so other sources, particularly food and contaminated air, are the focus.

According to research on agricultural glyphosate use published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe in 2016, nearly 2 million tons of the chemical were applied to U.S. farm fields between 1974, when it became commercially available, and 2014. Worldwide, 9.4 million tons of the chemical were sprayed on fields in that time period.

The 71 pregnant women in the initial study did not live on farms. With that in mind and their drinking water cleared, Parvez said, “We suspect diet is the primary exposure,” though contaminated air is also a consideration.

Soybeans and corn, which have been genetically engineered to resist glyphosate’s herbicidal properties, are the main crops grown in this region, Parvez said, and are food or food ingredients “which are sent everywhere, so this is really then a national problem.”

The research on glyphosate exposure and its impact on pregnancy continues with a larger number of pregnant women now being studied. At the same time, a lawsuit in San

Francisco, filed against Monsanto by a school groundskeeper with advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is the first such case that has moved to jury trial.

Meanwhile, Parvez advises caution for pregnant women or those wanting to get pregnant: “They should avoid the use of glyphosate-containing herbicides on the lawn or around the house and consume more organic food, especially those containing corn and soybeans.”

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