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Monsanto's Pesticide Kills Human Cells - Debate Intensifies Over So-Called 'Inert' Ingredients

  • Weed killer kills human cells.
    Study intensifies debate over 'inert' ingredients.
    By Crystal Gammon
    Environmental Health News, June 22, 2009
    Straight to the Source

Used in yards, farms and parks throughout the world, Roundup has long been a top-selling weed killer. But now researchers have found that one of Roundup's inert ingredients can kill human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

The new findings intensify a debate about so-called "inerts" - the solvents, preservatives, surfactants and other substances that manufacturers add to pesticides. Nearly 4,000 inert ingredients are approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Glyphosate, Roundup's active ingredient, is the most widely used herbicide in the United States.  About 100 million pounds are applied to U.S. farms and lawns every year, according to the EPA.

Until now, most health studies have focused on the safety of glyphosate, rather than the mixture of ingredients found in Roundup. But in the new study, scientists found that Roundup's inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells-even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns.

One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself - a finding the researchers call "astonishing."

"This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert," wrote the study authors from France's University of Caen. "Moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels" found on Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens.

The research team suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.

Monsanto, Roundup's manufacturer, contends that the methods used in the study don't reflect realistic conditions and that their product, which has been sold since the 1970s, is safe when used as directed. Hundreds of studies over the past 35 years have addressed the safety of glyphosate.

"Roundup has one of the most extensive human health safety and environmental data packages of any pesticide that's out there," said Monsanto spokesman John Combest. "It's used in public parks, it's used to protect schools. There's been a great deal of study on Roundup, and we're very proud of its performance."

The EPA considers glyphosate to have low toxicity when used at the recommended doses.

"Risk estimates for glyphosate were well below the level of concern," said EPA spokesman Dale Kemery. The EPA classifies glyphosate as a Group E chemical, which means there is strong evidence that it does not cause cancer in humans.

In addition, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture both recognize POEA as an inert ingredient. Derived from animal fat, POEA is allowed in products certified organic by the USDA. The EPA has concluded that it is not dangerous to public health or the environment.

The French team, led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a University of Caen molecular biologist, said its results highlight the need for health agencies to reconsider the safety of Roundup.

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