Prof. Sarath Gunathilake
Manufacturers have added these toxic chemicals into Glyphosate and nobody is talking about them! Over the last 25 years, the pesticide industry had us hoodwinked by referring only to Glyphosate and not to the adjuvants
It’s a concern which divides governments, scientists and NGOs across the world, yet Glyphosate has the world’s highest production volumes of all commercial herbicides. The concerns over Glyphosate being a probable carcinogenic, among others, have not deterred agrochemical lobbyist and scientists from deeming it safe for commercial agriculture. Should consumers still be apprehensive about this weedicide?
Professor Sarath Gunatilake M.D., Dr. P.H of California State University, Long Beach, California broached the subject of various health aspects relating to Glyphosate at a guest lecture organised by the Sri Lanka Medical Association recently. The discussion explored Glyphosate Based Herbicides (GBH), Chronic Kidney Disease and cancer, elaborating on the current evidence and the possible implications of using GBH within the tea industry.
Prof. Sarath Gunathilake believes that the debate on Glyphosate has typically been limited to the discussions of the active principle in herbicides and pesticides which is Glyphosate. “It’s important to remember that when talking about a herbicide or pesticide, you’re not only talking about the active principle, but also about something we call adjuvants or added chemicals,” he said. Adjuvants play a pivotal role in herbicide formulations and spray mixtures to improve the herbicide’s performance.
“If you put a drop of Glyphosate on to a leaf, it will just slip off. But in order to make Glyphosate stick on the leaf while intensifying its actions, manufacturers of herbicides have added adjuvants, which are one thousand times more toxic than Glyphosate itself,” he revealed.
Prof. Gunathilake went on to present his audience with an experiment conducted to establish effects of Glyphosate and the role of adjuvants. In this controlled experiment, a number of tomato plants were treated with pure Glyphosate and three different commercial brands of Glyphosate with adjuvants. According to the experiment, the plants treated with adjuvants began to whither in 72 hours. In 120 hours, all plants treated with the commercial Glyphosate brands died while the plant treated with pure Glyphosate was alive.
“It is imperative we understand that the discussion on Glyphosate has been limited to talking about the active ingredient and not about these toxic chemicals. The point I’m trying to raise is that Glyphosate without adjuvants is not very useful. Therefore, manufacturers have added these toxic chemicals into Glyphosate and nobody is talking about them! Over the last 25 years, the pesticide industry had us hoodwinked by referring only to Glyphosate and not to the adjuvants or additives included in these herbicides,” the professor said.
What is Glyphosate and how does it work?
Glycine is one of the simplest amino acids in our body. According to Prof. Gunatilake, agrochemical manufacturers have replaced one of the hydrogen atoms in Glycine, with a phosphate molecule. “Monsanto, the company which created the chemical, came up with a very clever argument that Glycine is an amino acid present in the human body and phosphate is present plentifully in our skeletons. The addition of two ingredients that are already present in the human body is totally nontoxic, they said. “It’s a clever argument, but it is not the truth!” Prof. Gunatilake charged. “What happens in the synthesis of enzymes is that Glycine phosphate gets included by error. Instead of Glycine, we now have Glyphosate entering into the equation. This way Glyphosate has poisoned so many enzyme systems in our body.”
Glyphosate chelates or binds most chemicals and some of its first known uses were to clean blockades in lead pipes with calcium and magnesium deposits. “In 1970, Monsanto realised the importance of Glyphosate and registered it as a weed-killer. Within 10-15 years, Glyphosate became the world’s most used, most prevalent pesticide. But its action is very different from many other pesticides and weedicides. When sprayed on a plant, Glyphosate sticks on the leaves. It is then conducted from leaves, through the branches, down the stem, to the roots and to the soil.” But it does not stop there. Glyphosate contaminates soil and also contaminates the water supply and aquatic organisms.
Facts and Fallacies
“There are several enzyme system pathways in plants for the synthesis of amino acids similar to our body. This pathway is called the shikimate pathway. Glyphosate blocks one of these key enzymes in the shikimate pathway which is how it blocks the protein synthesis in plants. Here I will point to another falsehood presented by Monsanto. They said the shikimate pathway was present only in plants and therefore it did not affect human beings or animals. It’s a clever argument but once again is not true. Because that shikimate pathway is present in bacteria and it affects all the good, beneficial bacteria in the gut,” the professor explained.
Prof. Gunatilake says there are two reasons why Glyphosate is the world’s most popular weed-killer, the first being genetically modified crops also known as GMOs. “Genetic modifications were actually a great discovery designed to address world hunger. In fact, Robert Fraley, the Monsanto scientist, even won the World Food Prize in 2013. His work was expected to lead to higher yielding crops that could resist insects, disease and extremes of climate. Their major discoveries were expected to eliminate world hunger. But did Monsanto try to eliminate world hunger?” questioned Prof. Gunatilake.
“Instead of creating such crops, they started creating GMO food or crops that would resist Glyphosate. Sugar beets, for instance, are made resistant to Glyphosate through genetic modification. Alfalfa that is used to feed cows are all genetically modified and these foods have only grown over the last decades, starting from 1996 until recent years,” Prof. Gunatilake said attributing the brand’s success to false advertising campaigns and genetically modified foods
In Sri Lanka, Prof. Gunatilake believes such false advertising has created what he calls a ‘Glyphosate Culture’ where people are completely ignorant of the toxic effects of chemicals. “Villagers today, just before uprooting a manioc plant, spray Glyphosate around it, so that the soil loosens making uprooting easy. Farmers divulge that they spray Glyphosate on gunny bags of rice, through and through, to store paddy for years.”
Glyphosate by the numbers
Statistics reveal that the indiscriminate use of Glyphosate has risen 15 fold since 1992 in the US alone. Alarming levels of Glyphosate contamination of food have been reported in the US, where tap water, cow’s milk and plants were not spared. Interestingly, a study citing test results that found trace amounts of Glyphosate in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream caused a stir in 2017. The trace levels reported at a rate of parts per billion (ppb) ranged from 0-1.74 ppb. However, Unilever owned Ben and Jerry’s in a statement instead pointed to similar studies which found organic whole wheat bread testing 78 times higher and a popular whole grain oat breakfast cereal which had 646 times higher levels of Glyphosate. In their statement, Ben and Jerry’s said they were “concerned, but not totally surprised. It’s everywhere – from mainstream food to natural and organic food, to rainwater,” the statement said.
Prof. Gunatilake puts these numbers and figures in perspective. He says harm to human health could begin at the ultra-low levels of 0.1 parts per billion of Glyphosate. “0.1 parts per billion alters the gene function, they have found over four thousand altered genes in livers and kidneys of rats. One part per billion causes severe organ damage in rats. Ten parts per billion, researchers have found severely toxic to the livers of rats. Bear in mind that the permitted level of Glyphosate in tap water in the US is 700 parts per billion. In the US, Glyphosate was even found in breast milk about 16 hundred times higher than what is allowed in European drinking water standards,” he revealed.
Meanwhile, a study by the US, published in the Journal of American Medical Association, looked at the Glyphosate excretion in urine of individuals. “As Glyphosate was used in a massive scale from 1996 until 2016, there was a 13 fold increase in the excretion of Glyphosate in urine samples. This is sufficient evidence to declare that Monsanto is wrong regarding the bio-accumulation of Glyphosate. The more you use Glyphosate, the more it contaminates our food system and the more it will bio-accumulate in our bodies,” he asserted.
Effects of Glyphosate at different levels:
- 0.5 parts per billion it disrupts human endocrine systems
- 2 parts per billion it becomes anti oestrogenic
- 5 parts per billion it causes DNA damage
- 10 parts per billion - completely cytotoxic
Consequences of indiscriminate use
Prof. Gunatilake describes the deadly chemical as an octopus with poisonous tentacles reaching far and wide. “Glyphosate exhibits its toxicity, in multiple ways. It interferes with the function of Cytochrome P450 (Cytochrome P450 enzymes are the most important enzymes in Phase-I metabolism in mammals.) There are so many ways it creates toxicity in the body that many experiments have been conducted to show how Glyphosate down-regulates systems. It chelates important minerals such as iron, cobalt and magnesium. As these peer-reviewed studies have shown, you don’t need 30 parts per billion of Glyphosate to cause harm to human health.”
The professor was referring to the world’s first research paper to show a causative link between consumption of Glyphosate at a “real world” environmental dose. Female rats were fed with an extremely-low dose of Roundup weed-killer (Glyphosate) in their drinking water over a two-year period and were found to suffer from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The dose selected by the researchers at King’s College in the UK was below what people are commonly exposed to in the everyday environment and thousands of times below what is permitted by regulators. The research was led by Dr. Michael Antoniou.
Prof. Gunathilake further elaborated on several diseases which have been linked with exposure to and consumption of Glyphosate. These diseases include diabetes, dementia, kidney disease and even autism. “I’m not saying that association causes causation. But the strength of these associations makes you very suspicious. The fact that there is biological plausibility makes you suspicious,” he warned the medical professionals present.
Distressingly, Prof. Gunatilake also revealed that general exposure to pesticides during the third trimester of a woman’s pregnancy appears to be the riskiest. In one study, the odds of having a child with autism were higher; the closer a family has been living to pesticide application. There have been co-relations made between the critical shortages of neurotransmitters in the brain (Neurotransmitters control communication throughout your body and brain).
“When Glyphosate gets incorporated into enzymes, it could cause a cascade of metabolic and haemostatic changes that result in kidney injury while amplifying harm from repeated episodes of acute kidney injury induced by harsh occupational conditions that includes conditions like dehydration which occur during working in the open paddy fields,” he said.
“People who were exposed to Glyphosate had DNA damage, according to comet testing, a technique used for the detection of DNA damage. What happens to a cell that is exposed to Glyphosate and has this kind of damage? One of three things can happen to such a cell. If the damage is very severe the cell will die. If the cell is able to repair the DNA damage, it is restored to its normal function. If the DNA changes continue, it will end up as a cancer cell. Glyphosate now has been shown to down-regulate or get incorporated into these enzymes that do the repair of damaged DNA, causing the cells to become cancerous.”
Glyphosate and Tea
“I won’t speak on the use of Glyphosate in tea plantations as an expert. But I would advise the tea industry with the limited information I have as an occupational medicine physician. As you spray Glyphosate in and around weeds in tea plantations, their resistance will rise. More spraying means more Glyphosate will be added to the environment that will get drained downed the river and will contaminate many of our water supplies. If you want to bring Glyphosate to the tea industry, I advise them to research the effects of commercial weed control. For instance, in a case study in Hapugastenna estate, results show that 20 out of 23 weed species have already developed resistance and cannot be controlled by herbicides such as Glyphosate,” he cautioned. “Monsanto’s patent expired in 200. They wanted to keep Glyphosate for themselves and they patented it as an antibiotic. With all the members of the SLMA and the Health Minister present here, I ask you; can the registrar of pesticides prescribe something that is registered as an antibiotic?”
In a concluding note, Prof. Gunatilake said the total evidence amassed by researchers worldwide cannot be ignored. “What matters is that we look at the total evidence here. In occupational medicine, that principle is called the weight of evidence. What I have presented to you is the weight of evidence on how toxic Glyphosate is. Some 25,000 have already succumbed to kidney disease in Sri Lanka. How many years will it take for us to prove that Glyphosate is the exact cause of these illnesses?” he queried. “When there is mounting evidence of damage to human health, you need to take preventive measures, which were the reason we urged for the ban of Glyphosate in 2015. That evidence has doubled and tripled over the last few years but what did we do as a nation? We took away that ban. The precautionary principle for environmental decision making must be exercised.”
During the lively Q and A session that followed, a member of the audience posed several criticisms to the professor adding that there was not enough evidence to establish a link between Glyphosate and its adverse effects to human health, especially in the case of CKD. Prof. Gunatilake in response said that one requires a holistic view to understand the issue.
“We have to look at animal and human evidence, biological plausibility, scientific evidence and the art of policy-making. The argument that Glyphosate is necessary for paddy and tea cultivation is a myth. Some studies from China can show you where they reduced the use of fertiliser and increased food production by 15 per cent,” he said.
Echoing Prof. Gunathilake’s comments, Nutritionist Dr. Damayanthi Perera also present in the audience voiced her concern over the making of public health policies. “In making public health policies, you don’t have to wait for conclusive evidence. In the case of the mad cow disease in Europe, when a few people were diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), they didn’t wait to prove cause and effect. There was a British beef and milk bank that followed. You can’t prove absolute cause and effect. Authorities have to make policy decisions with available data,” Dr. Perera opined.
Sarath Gunatilake, M.D., MPH, Dr. PH, is a Professor in the Health Science and a Public Health physician who is American Board certified in Public Health and Preventive Medicine in Occupational Medicine.
Prof. Gunatilake is a reviewer for many journals in occupational medicine and environmental medicine. He has won the ‘Research Accomplishment for the Year’ award in 2014 for research on CKD and also an international award of the ‘American Public Health Association’ in 2015 for work on CKDu. He won the ‘Ruth and Milton Rome’ award for excellence in Public Health Practice in 2008 and ‘Community Service’ award of the State University College of Health and Human Science in June 1999.