WHO lists Glyphosate as carcinogenic in the same risk class as cell-phone radiation?

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Selvam Canagaratnam's Feature on  Glyphosate, WHO and Cancer




Chandre Dharmawardana, Ottawa, Canada


I have read Canagaratnam's articles in various news outlets and appreciated his insights, but I had also noted his remarks on GMO foods, nuclear energy, pesticides and fertilizers as being more an indicator of public fears rather than informed opinion.


 My professional  interests today are more in  topics not related  applied chemistry, nutrition or environmental issues. However, it was some forty years ago, when wearing a different hat as a Head of a Department of Chemistry that I spent many hours planning laboratory experiments, curricula and hiring young staff for setting up a food science and nutrition course at the Vidyodaya University, now known as the  Sri Jayawardana Pura University. It was my continuing  interest that led me to work on the problem of Kidney disease in Sri Lanka, and its alleged links with fertilizers and pesticides.


 The  systems of agriculture and  food distribution in Sri Lanka some 40 years ago were more regulated. The globalized free market had little to do in selling pesticides and fertilizers directly to small farmers. Agricultural technical services existed. The rural  environment had not yet become inundated with a human monoculture that suffocated the ecosystem, even though the Club of Rome had made its dire predictions. The book “Silent Spring” written by Rachel Carson had made a strong impact, making the Green movement of California a strong political force, and creating the eco- exremist fringe of the Green movement. Carson's book demonized the misuse of DDT by American agriculture.  


Let us examine DDT before we go to Glyphosate, sold under the name "RoundUP" by Monsanto, and under other names by other companies.


Richard Nixon took advantage of the politics of the Green movement in California  by banning DDT, well known in Sri Lanka for its eradication of Malaria when the mosquito was set to overwhelm the health services and  the country. Nixon's ban was complete with punitive sanctions on countries that used DDT even for mosquito control. The reason was that “DDT causes cancer ”.  A number of countries like India, Russia and China did not follow the USA  and adopted less restrictive controls on DDT.  Nations of the African continent, not having the strength to oppose the US position, still suffer enormously from mosquito diseases, and depend on US charities for mosquito nets!  This tragedy (which may have been Sri Lanka's own if timely action had not been taken before the ban), has been chronicled in a National Geographic article a few years ago.

National Geographic on Maliaria in Africa


In fact it is indeed true that DDT causes cancer, as do  Cloves and Citronella oil. The whole point is, cancer is caused by agents that induce mis-folding of proteins, mutations in the DNA itself and via all sorts of subtle physico-chemical processes. Carcinogenicity is, in the end,  a “generic” name that can be easily misused.  Almost all natural products or synthetic chemicals, and  life-giving sunlight at suitably high concentrations cause cancer. The dosage and  exposure jointly determine toxicity, and  experts find it  hard to set thresholds, especially for chemicals without  short-term effects on large organisms. Then toxicologists turn to microbes which are more sensitive as they lack advanced immune systems, and  because microbes  spell out the effects of exposure to many generations in a few days.  


In 2006,  the WHO reversed its ban on the domestic use of DDT  as it was  totally insane to declare it a carcinogen at the dosages required for domestic control of mosquitoes. A few drops of DDT emulsified into a billion times as much water and applied twice an year inside homes were deemed enough to  keep the mosquitoes away, with complete safety to humans and the ecosystem. I have advocated this for the control of Dengu, instead of the currently used ineffective fogging system.

Domestic use of DDT to control Dengu mosquitoes

But this reversal by the WHO is still not accepted by the public that is shielded from the truth by vocal “eco”-  extemists.


DDT was  too successful as an insecticide.  It eliminated insects indiscriminately, and  its general agricultural use remains banned, as it should be. This, and not carcinogenicity is the good reason for its control.


Glyphosate is  also a very successful herbicide. It has no action on animal organisms, but kills most plants with green leaves that use photosynthesis. Hence, instead of using hoards of labour for manual weeding, digging soils causing erosion etc., the farmer  simply sprays a bit of Glyphosate to  eliminate the weeds! After four decades of use and extensive testing, scientists could find no toxicity until more modern times, when sensitive analytical instruments that can even detect a needle in a haystack in the moon became common. Here again, cancer-like effects were found mainly in bacteria when subject to very high levels of glyphosate under controlled conditions.


Field experiments attempting to correlate parts per billion or trillion of glyphosate with cancer or any other  health condition of humans have no credence. A recent discussion on TV-Ontario featured Dr. McLaughlin who  studied  cancer caused by glyphosate since 2001. This TV program gave a balanced analysis that readers of Selvam Canagaratnam's article should listen to :


TV-Ontario "Round UP (Glyphosate)" debate


Their conclusion is that  Glyphosate cannot cause cancer if used according to the instructions. The European Union has also dismissed any concerns for the public. In fact, the “cancer risk” of Glyphosate indicated by the WHO is in the same class as the “cancer risk” from the use of cell phones, Wi-Fi devices etc., that the WHO ascribed to them. But, with billions of Wi-Fi devices in use for decades, no definite cancer cases have been identified!


Dr. Jayasumana in Sri Lanka and his California anti-Monsanto colleagues have claimed that Glyphosate causes kidney disease in humans.  They recently presented  well-water data that they claim  support their conjecture. No other scientists have found any link between Kidney disease and Glyphosate. In fact, the Jayasumana  data better support our proposal that kidney disease in the Rajarata is caused by the use of drinking water containing high amounts of inorganic salts, some of which (e.g., fluorides) may be geochemical in origin, while  phosphates and ammonium salts etc., may be originating in the run-off from the excess  fertilizers used up-stream. Jayasumana et al had not recorded the fluoride concentraions although their importances has been highlighted by a number of workers, esp. Prof. Oliver Illeperuma. Inorganic salts may act on protein layers in the kidney via the Hofmeister mechanism and initiate damage (Environmental Geochemistry and Health, volume 37, pages 221-231 , 2015).

Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown aetiology and ground-water ionicity:
study based on Sri Lanka. by Dharmawardana et al. 2014.


If there is a reason to restrict the use of Glyphosate, it is because  it, like DDT, is too effective.  A farmer must allow for “weeds” and insects that may be useful to bees, butterflies, beetles, spiders  and other insects and birds. The soil is not just a container for the inorganic nutrients, but also a home to a living  microflora that cannot be dispensed with. Thus a knowledgeable farmer should have sufficiently large regions in his farm where untreated reserves of soil and growth are left to the “needs of nature”, and properly understand the ecology of the farmed part of his soil.


Interestingly, the fight against Glyphosate has been launched not because glyphosate is carcinogenic, but for political reasons. Glyphosate  is  a main component in the use of Genetically modified (GMO) foods and these are opposed by many   “eco”-activists.  The agricultural and health scientists generally favour GMO foods and ask for a case by case evaluation. The fight against glyphosate is seen by the “eco”-NGOs as a mere first step against GMO foods. This great divide between the public and the scientist regarding GMO foods cannot be discussed in this article.


Seeds can be genetically modified so that they are not affected by “Round up” while the weeds are.  Seed companies sell seeds  coated with insecticides, pesticides, starter fertilizer, growth regulators, humectants, surfactants, binders etc. The seed  is a high-tech machine designed to sprout on a planned time table and deliver a bumper harvest with little danger from pests, weeds and even a short drought. Unfortunately, the birds do not know about high-tech seeds, and when they eat them they die!


Such high-tech seeds should be used only in controlled environments, without birds or insects! But today, profit-motivated farmers demand such seeds from their all-too-willing agro- business giants. The prevailing neo- liberal political philosophy which supports business interests and globalization is also based on industry funding and hence there are  no adequate  corrective mechanisms in place as yet.  


With increased urbanization and the  cost of land, future agriculture has to  move away from the farms, when the farm lands can revert back to nature. This will probably become a reality with the development of new high-tech high-yield farming methods that work directly from designer DNA and nutrient solutions reacting in large vats to produce meat, vegetables, cereals, diary etc. This cuts out expensive transport from farm to city, land use,  or  using animals to produce proteins. This technology will also solve the contentious political problems of Halal labeling, Kosher foods, vegetarian sensitivities etc.


But such “industrial food” will be quite  cheap, and the very wealthy will turn their noses and  want the personalized and expensive “real meat”, complete with  raw milk from the cow's very udder.