Mark Whitehead 10 July 2019

A war on pesticides?

A war on pesticides? image

Bury Council has been the latest authority to call for an immediate halt to the use of weedkillers containing a controversial chemical in the city's play areas.

It was prompted after protests by parents worried about the effect on their children's health after reports that glyphosate is carcinogenic.

In the US courts couple were recently awarded $2bn after successfully arguing that Roundup, the weedkiller at the centre of the dispute, caused their cancer.

Bayer, the German pharmaceuticals giant that bought US-based Monsanto, which launched Roundup in 1974, is appealing the ruling, saying the evidence does not support the claim. Environmental campaigners in the UK have urged councils to ban the use of Roundup.

Glastonbury was the first to do so, while others including Hammersmith and Fulham in West London have followed.

The Pesticides Action Network says at least 40 UK local authorities have so far banned its use altogether or in part.

Campaigners are encouraged by the Government's 25-year plan A Green Future, published early last year, which promised action on a wide range of issues including the use of herbicides, but say there is no sign of any action so far.

The debate is raging throughout the world, but it could be several years – if ever – before UK councils find alternatives to the chemical to freshen up their green spaces.

Last summer Dorset County Council launched a six-week 'war on weeds', spraying the whole county with 'the latest glyphosate-based product'.

The only response to the online announcement was a resident's complaint that only one side of their road had been sprayed.

The Amenity Forum, an industry-led group promoting 'best practice' says if chemicals are used properly they can offer effective solutions to the problem of unsightly weeds which can damage roads and buildings.

It says Roundup is subjected to extensive analysis in the UK – 'probably the most comprehensive in the world and certainly greater than for many household products.'

Further, the forum warns, deciding not to use chemicals is expensive. A research study in Kent said it might cost up to eight times more, while research by Oxford Economics warned it could add £228m to the UK’s council tax bill each year.

The debate goes back some time. A review by the European Food Standards Agency in 2015 concluded that glyphosate was 'probably' not carcinogenic. This was followed by a huge public debate over the 'Monsanto papers' amid accusations over the research methods involved.

The same year the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that glyphosate was 'probably carcinogenic to humans'.

In the latest developments campaigners won a victory when the European General Court overturned EFSA's refusal to publish its research on grounds of commercial confidentiality.

Bayer dismissed the research as 'flawed' and lacking evidence, but it is now facing a barrage of claims in the US from people saying it caused their cancer.

The company is sticking to its guns. Liam Condon, president of its crop science division told a recent conference: 'The key point is from a regulatory point of view, nothing has changed. We just need to get this litigation sorted out and move on.'

Moving on may be difficult, however. In February scientists in the US found exposure to glyphosate increased the risk of non-hodgkin lymphoma – a type of cancer – by 41%.

The debate is likely to continue raging. Industry argues glyphosate-based weedkillers help maintain a healthy and pleasant environment and there is no evidence they cause cancer, while campaigners point to research saying otherwise and argue there are better ways to control weeds.

The true arbiters may turn out to be the citizens of places like Bury – concerned parents concerned about their children's health – or Dorset, where they may decide a disputed risk is worth it for the sake of nicer looking verges.

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine

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