By Chris Reed
The Environmental Sustainability Committee (ESC) wants the city to ban Roundup (glyphosate). This may sound like a good idea, but it is wrongheaded. Roundup is no more toxic than household bleach. If used according to directions, both Roundup and bleach can be used safely.
People are easily scared by chemicals. In a recent Indy guest column, Ramin Pejan compared Roundup to DDT. This is pure fearmongering. DDT is a proven human toxin and is extremely persistent in the environment.
Dilute Roundup is only a suggested toxin, not a proven toxin. Moreover, it typically decomposes in soil within days. USDA Forest Service’s herbicide informational profile on glyphosate is a good source, among others, that can be found online.
The success of billion-dollar lawsuits against Monsanto, now Bayer, is often taken as proof that Roundup is a deadly toxin. However, class action lawyers are a relentless bunch, and juries often don’t have a clue about science. Sure, if a barrel of concentrated Roundup spills on your head, expect problems. But if you get a rare cancer and blame it on using diluted Roundup decades earlier, you’re just playing the system. I do not believe Roundup has significant toxicity when used in diluted form. It may be Monsanto’s greatest invention.
People love to criticize chemical and pharmaceutical companies. As in every business, I am sure there are bad players. However, we all need household chemicals and cosmetics from chemical companies and medicines from pharmaceutical companies. Better living through chemistry.
Have you heard of hormesis, whereby a low dosage of a toxic chemical is actually beneficial?
Think oxalic acid, that delightfully sharp taste of rhubarb where one piece of pie is a delight, but eating dozens of stalks would make you very sick. The assumption of a linear relationship between the concentration of a substance and its toxicity is problematic in many EPA and FDA rulings.
People like to quote a single scientific study that they have found to support Roundup toxicity. This is classic confirmation bias, the tendency to favor information that supports a prior belief. If every Roundup experiment was repeated with bleach replacing glyphosate, people might not jump to conclusions so readily. The World Health Organization (WHO) is notorious for listing chemicals as potential carcinogens after a single suggestive scientific study is published. This is fearmongering.
As a lover of nature, I used to make substantial donations to the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice, but on finding that my donations are being used to pay their lawyers to proclaim Roundup is a deadly toxin, I have withdrawn my support.
I did the same with Greenpeace when they called for a ban on “anything with chlorine in it.” Common salt has chlorine in it. So does bleach. These organizations harm their cause when they distort science, and they do not deserve my support.
Being against Roundup is like being on a crusade. You feel a solidarity with like-minded warriors. You sign petitions. You feel your cause is noble and just. But like the crusaders of old, who made war on those of another religion, history now views crusader glory in a rather different light.
The ESC boasts of its unanimous decision to ban Roundup. This looks to me more like a classic case of groupthink.
If I was on the ESC, instead of promoting chemophobia, I’d concentrate on making Laguna sustainable and beautiful with native plant gardens. I’d spray invasive species, go solar, go electric and organize trash sweeps in open spaces (like LBCAC director Rick Conkey is doing for beaches). Laguna’s city parks are persistently weedy with invasive plants and not nearly as beautiful as they could be. Roundup would help a lot.
Otherwise, more maintenance workers need to be hired.
My message to city council is to find other solutions that allay the fears of those who think Roundup is a deadly toxin, perhaps by using hand crews to clear fuel modification zones where people go frequently. But please, do not accept that dilute Roundup is a toxic chemical that must be banned. It is no more harmful than household bleach.
Chris Reed is a retired UC Riverside chemistry professor who now grows native plant gardens in Laguna Beach.