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What is Glyphosate? How This Common Pesticide Impacts Our Health

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What is Glyphosate? How This Common Pesticide Impacts Our Health

Glyphosate, a ubiquitous herbicide, has become an integral part of modern agriculture, revolutionizing how we manage weeds. Widely adopted globally, its popularity has soared, making it a cornerstone of contemporary farming practices. However, as its use proliferates, so does the need to understand the potential health implications of this omnipresent chemical.

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What Is Glyphosate?

Glyphosate, or N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine, is a widely used herbicide. It is an organophosphorus compound and consists of a glycine molecule attached to a phosphonomethyl group. Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide that disrupts plant and microbial growth by inhibiting the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS) in the shikimic acid pathway. This pathway is vital for plants to produce essential aromatic amino acids – phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan – necessary for protein and molecule synthesis. Glyphosate binds to EPSPS, hindering its function and disrupting amino acid synthesis. Consequently, the plant cannot produce these vital amino acids, initiating a cascade leading to its death. Proponents of glyphosate argue that the absence of the shikimic acid pathway in animals renders glyphosate safe to use around humans and animals. (4, 5

Glyphosate was initially created in 1950 by a Swiss chemist. In 1964, the first patent was issued for the use of glyphosate as a descaling agent. In the 70s, doctors Phil Hamm and John Franz, working at Monsanto Chemical Company, discovered the utility of glyphosate and other organophosphonate derivates as herbicides. Glyphosate was patented as an herbicide in 1971 and later registered as a pesticide under the name of "Roundup®" in 1974. (4

Glyphosate Usage and Exposure

Glyphosate is extensively used in farming and gardening, playing a pivotal role in weed management. Its effectiveness in eradicating unwanted vegetation has led to widespread application in conventional agriculture and the cultivation of genetically modified "Roundup Ready" crops engineered to tolerate glyphosate. As a result, when Roundup herbicide is sprayed on fields planted with Roundup Ready crops, the weeds are killed, but the crop plants survive. Roundup Ready varieties for major crops such as soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and alfalfa have been developed. This has contributed to glyphosate becoming the most widely used agrochemical in history. In nonagricultural settings, glyphosate controls weeds in conservation lands, pastures, aquatic areas, residential areas, and parks. (4, 7

Widespread glyphosate usage raises concerns about human exposure, which can occur through various routes. One primary pathway is through the consumption of food containing glyphosate residues. Crops treated with glyphosate can retain residues that may end up in the food supply. Drinking water can also be a source of exposure to glyphosate, as runoff from fields treated with glyphosate may contaminate water sources. Direct skin contact is another route of exposure, particularly for those involved in farming and gardening activities where glyphosate-containing herbicides are used. Additionally, inhaling airborne particles during herbicide application presents a potential exposure pathway. These multiple routes of exposure underscore the importance of comprehensively understanding how glyphosate enters the human ecosystem, emphasizing the need for a nuanced approach to assessing and mitigating potential health risks associated with its use. (13)

The Health Implications of Glyphosate

The potential health risks of glyphosate have been a subject of considerable concern. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified glyphosate as "not likely" to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization (WHO), has published an opposing statement. Based on a 2015 review of scientific literature and sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate in experimental animals, the IARC deemed glyphosate "probably carcinogenic to humans" through its ability to induce DNA damage and oxidative stress. (1

Numerous studies have investigated the potential health effects of glyphosate exposure, revealing associations with various health issues. Research has suggested a link between glyphosate and an elevated risk of certain cancers, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Furthermore, concerns have been raised regarding glyphosate's impact on hormonal balance, with studies indicating potential disruptions to endocrine functions. The herbicide's influence on the gut microbiome has also garnered attention, as it may adversely affect the balance of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. While the scientific community continues to explore these connections, the existing body of research underscores the need for a cautious approach to glyphosate use and a thorough understanding of its potential implications for human health.

Glyphosate and the Environment

Roundup has been linked to the loss of microbial biodiversity, which has significant environmental implications. Microbes are crucial in various ecological processes, including nutrient cycling, soil fertility, and plant health. One major consequence of this is the potential decline in soil fertility. Microbes contribute to nutrient cycling and organic matter decomposition, releasing essential nutrients for plant uptake. Disruptions in microbial communities can hinder these processes, impacting soil structure and fertility. (2, 11

Additionally, glyphosate's disruption of microbial communities may contribute to developing herbicide-resistant weeds. Changes in the soil microbiome can influence the selection pressure on weed populations, potentially favoring the emergence of weeds with resistance to glyphosate. The emergence of resistant weeds challenges the sustainability of glyphosate-based weed management strategies, requiring intensified efforts and resources to address the resulting issues. (9

The imbalance in microbial biodiversity may also lead to increased vulnerability to pathogens. Beneficial microbes often play a role in suppressing harmful pathogens through competition and producing antimicrobial compounds. Decreased microbial diversity could diminish this protective effect, potentially making plants and animals more susceptible to diseases. (14

Altered microbial communities may affect ecosystems' overall resilience and stability, making them more vulnerable to pollution and climate change. For example, glyphosate has been detected in surface water, raising concerns about its potential effects on aquatic life. The herbicide's presence is linked to a decline in the abundance and diversity of marine organisms, such as phytoplankton, which play an important role in water ecosystems. These compositional changes have cascading effects on higher trophic levels. (2

Regulatory Status and Debates

Glyphosate's regulatory status varies across countries and regions, reflecting the complex interplay between scientific assessments, agricultural practices, and public concerns.

In the United States, the EPA regularly reviews and updates its risk assessments for glyphosate. Currently, the EPA maintains its stance on glyphosate's safety and approves its use. (7)  

The European Union (EU) has experienced significant debates and controversies over the reapproval of glyphosate. Currently, glyphosate is approved for use in the EU until December 15, 2023, while scientists review its safety. (6)  

Since the IARC found glyphosate probably carcinogenic in 2015, several countries have taken a more precautionary approach to glyphosate use. In 2019, Austria became the first EU country to ban glyphosate. Other countries that have legislation around glyphosate include Germany, Vietnam, France, and the Netherlands. (15

Functional Medicine Lab Testing for Glyphosate Exposure

Functional medicine offers a unique approach to assessing glyphosate exposure through specialized laboratory testing. Tests measuring glyphosate levels excreted in urine, such as the one offered by Mosaic Diagnostics, quantify the level of recent glyphosate exposure. This diagnostic tool contributes to a more personalized understanding of the potential health risks caused by environmental toxic exposures, empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their lifestyles and dietary choices. Repeating test panels can ensure that interventions applied to eliminate glyphosate exposure have been successful. 

Reducing Exposure and Mitigating Risks

Reducing personal exposure to glyphosate involves conscious choices in daily life. Opting for organic food choices can significantly decrease the risk of ingesting glyphosate residues, as organic farming practices prohibit synthetic herbicides. Thoroughly wash all produce before eating. Buy foods with the "Glyphosate Residue Free" label. Safe gardening practices, such as avoiding the use of glyphosate-based herbicides and opting for natural alternatives, contribute to minimizing environmental impact. If you use a glyphosate-containing product, always wear protective clothing and eyewear, do not stand in the spray line, and always wash your hands after applying. (8, 12

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Glyphosate and Our Health: Key Takeaways

Glyphosate's pervasive presence in our agricultural and environmental landscapes necessitates a thoughtful examination of its impact on health and ecosystems. As debates surrounding its safety and regulation continue, individuals must stay informed and consider the implications of glyphosate in their daily lives. By understanding the potential risks, adopting mindful practices, and supporting ongoing research, we can navigate the intricate web of glyphosate-associated health and environmental considerations. In doing so, we contribute to a more sustainable and health-conscious future.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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References

1. Benbrook, C. M. (2019). How did the US EPA and IARC reach diametrically opposed conclusions on the genotoxicity of glyphosate-based herbicides? Environmental Sciences Europe, 31(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-018-0184-7

2. Cardenas, S. (2020, March 2). Widely used weed killer harming biodiversity. McGill University. https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/widely-used-weed-killer-harming-biodiversity-320906

3. Christie, J. (2023, January 5). How to Personalize a Detox Program For Your Patients With Labs. Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/how-to-medically-detox-from-environmental-toxins

4. Glyphosate. ScienceDirect. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/glyphosate

5. Glyphosate. (2019). PubChem; National Library of Medicine. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Glyphosate

6. Glyphosate. (2019). European Food Safety Authority. https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/glyphosate

7. Glyphosate. (2019, August 28). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/glyphosate

8. Howell Jr., M. C. (2023, May 9). Glyphosate in Food: Avoid These Contaminated Products. Consumer Notice, LLC. https://www.consumernotice.org/environmental/pesticides/glyphosate-in-food/

9. Nandula, V. K., Reddy, K. N., Duke, S. O., et al. (2005). Glyphosate-Resistant Weeds: Current Status and Future Outlook. Outlooks on Pest Management, 16(4), 183–187. https://doi.org/10.1564/16aug11

10. Puigbò, P., Leino, L. I., Rainio, M. J., et al. (2022). Does Glyphosate Affect the Human Microbiota? Life, 12(5), 707. https://doi.org/10.3390/life12050707

11. Soil Association. The impact of glyphosate on soil health A summary of the evidence to date. https://www.soilassociation.org/media/7229/glyphosate-and-soil-health-a-summary1docx.pdf

12. ToxFAQsTM for Glyphosate. CDC. https://wwwn.cdc.gov/TSP/ToxFAQs/ToxFAQsDetails.aspx?faqid=1489&toxid=293

13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, & Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. (2020). ToxGuide for Glyphosate. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxguides/toxguide-214.pdf

14. van Bruggen, A. H. C., Finckh, M. R., He, M., et al. (2021). Indirect Effects of the Herbicide Glyphosate on Plant, Animal and Human Health Through its Effects on Microbial Communities. Frontiers in Environmental Science, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2021.763917

15. Which Countries and U.S. States are Banning Roundup? (2020, July 7). Carlson Law Firm. https://www.carlsonattorneys.com/news-and-update/banning-roundup

16. Zhang, L., Rana, I., Shaffer, R. M., et al. (2019). Exposure to Glyphosate-Based Herbicides and Risk for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: A Meta-Analysis and Supporting Evidence. Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research, 781. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mrrev.2019.02.001

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