Glyphosate’s link to liver damage exposed

January 10, 2017 by Staff Reporter

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A newly published study shows that low levels of exposure to the weed killer Roundup over a long period of time can cause liver disease.

The findings are likely to bring further public attention to the Roundup’s controversial active ingredient, glyphosate.

The peer-reviewed paper published in Scientific Reports used cutting edge molecular profiling to explore the effects of Roundup and is unique in that it is the first to show a causative link between consumption of Roundup at a “real world” environmental dose and a serious disease condition.

Female rats were fed with an extremely low dose of Roundup weed killer in their drinking water over a two-year period and 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.

A growing health problem

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is an increasingly common condition that occurs in around one in three of the general population, and in the vast majority of people with type-2 diabetes. As its name suggests it is caused by a build-up of fat in the liver. Warning signs include fatigue and pain in the upper right abdomen as well as yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), red palms and in men enlarged breasts.

A healthy liver should contain little or no fat and this build-up if left unchecked can lead to serious and irreversible liver damage, including cirrhosis. Having high levels of fat in your liver is also associated with an increased risk of problems such as diabetes, heart attack and stroke.

In this study the rats received an ultra-low dose of Roundup, supplying a daily ‘dose’ of glyphosate of only 4 nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight per day. The US has set the ADI for glyphosate at 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight per day (mg/kg/bw/day) while the European Union has set it at 0.3, for instance.

This means that, according to this study, the dose needed to trigger NAFLD was 437,500 times below US permitted levels, and 75,000 times below permitted levels in the EU.

Adding to the evidence

Although one of the most in depth, the new study is not the first to show that glyphosate causes liver damage. In 2015 a study, also from King’s College, found that Roundup can cause liver and kidney damage in rats at only 0.05 ppb. Another UK study found that levels as low as 10 ppb can have toxic effects on the livers of fish.

Dr Michael Antoniou, who is a member of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College London and one of the authors of the paper, says: “The findings of our study are very worrying as they demonstrate for the first time a causative link between an environmentally relevant level of Roundup consumption over the long-term and a serious disease – namely non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Our results also suggest that regulators should reconsider the safety evaluation of glyphosate-based herbicides.”

An ubiquitous poison

Most people are exposed to glyphosate through water and through residues in foods, in particular cereals and pulses. Its use on farms has increased exponentially over the last 20 years since the introduction of genetically modified crops, which are engineered to withstand repeated sprayings with Roundup and not die.

Testing in the US at the end of 2016 revealed just how ubiquitous glyphosate is in foods. Campaigning groups Food Democracy Now and the Detox Project tested 29 common processed foods. Results showed glyphosate residues in General Mills’ Cheerios at 1,125.3 parts per billion (ppb), in Kashi soft-baked oatmeal dark chocolate cookies at 275.57 ppb, and in Ritz Crackers at 270.24 ppb, according to the report. Varying levels were found in other products such as Kellogg’s Special K cereal, Triscuit Crackers and several other products.

Most recently a PAN International monograph brought together the large body of research documenting the adverse human health and environmental impacts of glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides. Adverse human impacts detailed in the review include acute poisoning, kidney and liver damage, imbalances in the intestinal microbiome and intestinal functioning, cancer, genotoxicity, endocrine disruption, reproductive and developmental reduction, neurological damage, and immune system dysfunction.

Putting regulators on notice…

Glyphosate, the ‘active ingredient’ in Roundup was recently classified as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization. It has also been found to be an endocrine disrupter.

The furore over IARC’s assessment, orchestrated by the pesticide industry, led the European Commission to announce that it would extend glyphosate’s licence for 18 months rather than re-authorise it for another 15 years, until the EU has completed its own analysis of the herbicide’s toxicity.

This process, led by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is likely to be ongoing until at least June and possibly even September 2017.  The legal deadline for the adoption of IRAC’s opinion is November 2017. After this time it must still be officially adopted by a Commission committee composed of Member State representatives.

…but will they take notice?

It is anyone’s guess which way the EU will go. Some campaigners are, perhaps justifiably, concerned that the Agency could take the path of least resistance, and draw its conclusions based on industry funded research rather than independent data. Or they may simply let the time run out on the issue.

Others suggest that the EU could be using this time more wisely to prepare an ‘exit strategy’ for taking glyphosate off the market.

Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg comments: “The Commission is about to give glyphosate an unreasonable grace period, which will continue to leave people and nature exposed to the controversial weedkiller. It should use this time to draw up a glyphosate exit plan. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in Europe and has been linked to serious health concerns and loss of wildlife. It’s time for Europe to plan for a glyphosate-free future.”

Pat Thomas director of UK campaigning group Beyond GM, agrees but notes, “Glyphosate is a symptom of a bigger problem: our continued failure to envisage and put into action truly regenerative farming systems. We need to do more than simply tackle one toxic chemical at a time. Time and again we’ve seen this strategy result in one toxic thing being removed from the market only to be replaced by another toxic thing. The bigger picture is the need to invest – financially and philosophically – in agroecological solutions which move us away from chemical farming and in the direction of safe, sane, sustainable food production.”