I’ve never even taken a chemistry course, so how am I qualified to judge whether Roundup is safe? But I was curious about the question because some of the enemies of St. Louis-based Monsanto accuse that corporation of everything but necrophilia and brand Roundup as practically the next DDT. Well, my husband uses it in the garden. We have an acre of lawn. No, strike that. We have 2/3 of an acre of lawn. The rest is plantings and gravel paths. Oh, he pulls weeds, sure. Loads of them. But he can’t keep up with them all. He thought Roundup was safe because he’d heard the advertising: “safer than mowing” and “environmentally friendly”.

But an article headlined “France Finds Monsanto Guilty of Lying” put Monsanto in a bad light:

France’s highest court has ruled that U.S. agrochemical giant Monsanto had not told the truth about the safety of its best-selling weed-killer, Roundup. The court confirmed an earlier judgment that Monsanto had falsely advertised its herbicide as “biodegradable” and claimed it “left the soil clean.” Roundup is the world’s best-selling herbicide.

French environmental groups had brought the case in 2001 on the basis that glyphosate, Roundup’s main ingredient, is classed as “dangerous for the environment” by the European Union.

So what? George W. Bush would tell you that those Frenchies don’t always know as much as they think they do. Nor the European Union either. But a certain faction here in the States as well agrees with France. Some websites run by the ecologically minded hate Roundup.

Here’s a sample of what one, Dr. Mercola, reports:

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, is the most commonly reported cause of pesticide illness among landscape maintenance workers in California. Additionally:

  • The surfactant ingredient in Roundup is more acutely toxic than glyphosate itself, and the combination of the two is even more toxic.
  • Glyphosate is suspected of causing genetic damage.
  • Glyphosate is acutely toxic to fish and birds and can kill beneficial insects and soil organisms that maintain ecological balance.
  • Laboratory studies have identified adverse effects of glyphosate-containing products in all standard categories of toxicological testing.

Monsanto responds to some of the reports about Roundup by casting doubt on the investigators’ methodology. On the question of whether or not Roundup causes human cell damage, for example, the corporation’s website reports:

“These Petri dish experiments, like the previous related experiments from Seralini’s group, have no relevance to a living animal and provide no information about real-world risks to humans,” Donna Farmer, Monsanto’s chemistry stewardship lead, said. “Instead, they tell us what we already know; that substances can injure unprotected cells in a test-tube.”

“The experiments were conducted in very artificial conditions and the results are not relevant for proving toxicity in humans,” Farmer said. “Caffeine was used in a similar Petri dish experiment with the same results. The surfactant effects are also not surprising-surfactants found in a variety of personal care products and household detergents can alter the function of cells in Petri dish experiments.”

Where’s a referee when you need one? What? Roundup is no more dangerous than a latte? So I went to Wikipedia, in hopes of finding someone knowledgeable and objective. The writer was certainly cool in his analysis, but his conclusions were damning enough. Introducing the subject of Roundup’s toxicity, he called into question Monsanto’s honesty:

By 2000, a review published in a Monsanto sponsored journal,[10] conducted by Ian C. Munro (a member of the Cantox scientific and regulatory consulting firm whose role is defined as to “protect client interests while helping our clients achieve milestones and bring products to market”[11]) concluded that “under present and expected conditions of new use, there is no potential for Roundup herbicide to pose a health risk to humans”.[12] Monsanto uses that study as the main source to support Roundup safety for humans.[13]

A 2008 scientific study has shown that Roundup formulations and metabolic products cause the death of human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cells in vitro even at low concentrations. …[14] Deliberate ingestion of Roundup in quantities ranging from 85-200 ml has resulted in death, although it has also been ingested in quantities as large as 500ml with only mild or moderate symptoms.[15

–Sources for the footnote numbers are at the end of the Wikipedia article.

So it is more dangerous than drinking a latte, but then who drinks Roundup? Still, the Wikipedia writer backed up Mercola’s reference to genetic damage.

A 1998 study on mice concluded that Roundup is able to cause genetic damage. The authors concluded that the damage was “not related to the active ingredient, but to another component of the herbicide mixture”.[19]

A 2009 study on mice has found that a single intraperitoneal injection of Roundup in concentration of 25 mg/kg caused chromosomal aberrations and induction of micronuclei.[21]

A 2009 in vitro experiment with glyphosate formulations on human liver cells has observed DNA damages at sub-agricultural doses, where a Roundup formulation showed to be the most active formulation. The effects were more dependent on the formulation than on the glyphosate concentration.[18]

But he did not lend full support to Mercola’s assertion that “[g]lyphosate is acutely toxic to fish and birds and can kill beneficial insects and soil organisms that maintain ecological balance. The writer agreed that Roundup damaged aquatic environments:

Fish and aquatic invertebrates are more sensitive to Roundup than terrestrial organisms.[22]

(…) Although Roundup is not registered for aquatic uses[24] and studies of its effects on amphibians indicate it is toxic to them,[25] scientists have found that it may wind up in small wetlands where tadpoles live due to inadvertent spraying during its application. A recent study found that even at concentrations one-third of the maximum concentrations expected in nature, Roundup still killed up to 71 percent of tadpoles raised in outdoor tanks.[26]

But there was no reference to harm for birds. In fact, the only reference to anything besides humans and aquatic life was earthworms:

One study has shown an effect on growth and survival of earthworms.[32] The results of this study are in conflict with other data and have been criticized on methodological grounds.[22]

Hmm. Roundup isn’t in the same league, then, as DDT. On the other hand, although it is helpful, it isn’t as safe a technology as, say, solar power. No word yet on whether the gardener I live with will use any more of it. He might. After all, he raises flowers, not food, and we don’t have a creek running through the yard. But we don’t feel so comfortable about using it anymore.

I followed a link to a website that claimed to know of a safe alternative, and I left a phone message for them asking what it was. I’ll let you know if and when I hear something.