Living in a chemical stew
There are, by rough estimate, something in excess of 100,000 industrial and agricultural chemicals loose in the environment, of which no more than 5 percent have been tested for toxicity. Of that 5 percent, virtually none have been tested for synergistic impacts on human and environmental health, meaning that no one knows the effects of two or more chemicals in combination with each other on the host organisms and ecosystems they occupy.
We now know through recent bio-monitoring results that many, if not most of us, carry in our body tissue a large number of toxic chemicals.
In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a screening for 148 toxic chemicals in a cross section of Americans and found that a large majority of those tested had most, if not all, of the chemicals in their blood. We know a scientifically-trained writer living in the ecologically-pristine west-Marin enclave of Bolinas, who had a similar body assay done 10 years ago and was shocked to discover she was harboring more than 120 toxic chemicals, including PCBs.
Environmental toxins are suspected – but not proved – as contributing to epidemiological eruptions in the incidence of everything from breast cancer to autism.
Among the ingredients of the 100,000-chemical stew floating through the global environment, one of the most ubiquitous is called glyphosate, a broad-spectrum, systemic herbicide you probably know as Roundup.
In the U.S. alone, more than 90 million tons of glyphosate are used every year, making it an enormous profit center for Monsanto, the company that invented it in 1970. Roundup, and Roundup-related products such as glyphosate-resistant GMO seeds, are said to constitute as much as 50 percent of Monsanto’s annual revenue. It’s a big deal.
Glyphosate is also one of the most-heavily studied, carefully scrutinized, tested and re-tested chemicals in widespread circulation. Monsanto has called it “safe as table salt,” and it has won repeated approval from the U.S. EPA.
It has been argued, in fact, that Roundup is safer and better for you than tobacco, alcohol, gasoline, toluene, Superglue, jelly doughnuts or (quite possibly) a piece of ham carved from a pig fed with corn grown from Monsanto’s GMO and Roundup-tolerant seed.
It is probably safe to say, therefore, that the application of a long swath of Roundup along the Sonoma bike path – a swath that has now turned a sickly yellow-green – is not dangerous to your health, even though the dead and dying vegetation looks unhealthy if not slightly sinister. The Roundup that killed the bike path vegetation was applied in January and its minimal toxicity has since biodegraded.
What has not biodegraded is the lingering suspicion that, sooner or later, conclusive evidence will emerge that glyphosate isn’t such a benign substance after all, that there may be some long-term synergistic impacts we don’t yet know about. Some scientists already think glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor, and Roundup-resistant superweeds have evolved that look like herbaceous terminators. Are we tinkering too much with natural selection?
We don’t fault city staff for the chemical application. The City Council long ago blessed limited use of Roundup. But perhaps it’s time to explore some other options.