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Weedkiller on trial

The World Health Organization identified glyphosate-based RoundUp weedkiller as 'possibly carcinogenic to humans.' Photo collage: Alec Smart


Sydney councils are considering suspending use of a notorious glyphosate-based weedkiller, RoundUp, in the wake of a US court case. A couple were awarded a record $AU2.9 billion after a jury agreed it caused their non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a blood cancer.

Fairfield Council has phased out the weedkiller and Georges River Council will too after using up their existing stocks, while others, including Sydney City, Randwick, Burwood, Ku-Ring-Gai and Waverley, are reviewing their options.

Mayor of Georges River Council, Kevin Greene, said, “As a proactive measure, Council undertook a trial of a range of products as suitable replacements for RoundUp during late 2018 and early 2019. The trial proved successful, and Council has moved to the use of Arsenal Super, which is an effective weed control product that has no carcinogenic properties.”

RoundUp glyphosate-based products are registered in 130 countries and approved for use on more than 100 crops. RoundUp is also the most ubiquitous home-use weedkiller in the world. Yet in 2015 the World Health Organization’s international agency for research on cancer identified glyphosate as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans.’

Monsanto, better known as the manufacturers of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant widely sprayed on forests, crops and people by US Forces in the Vietnam War, are the company behind RoundUp.

Although a Swiss chemist discovered glyphosate in 1950, a Monsanto chemist, Dr. John Franz, identified its herbicidal abilities in 1970, and a formula was soon devised and sold commercially as RoundUp in 1974.

The corporation presented the herbicide as a technological breakthrough, with claims it could kill most weeds without harming humans or the environment.

Monsanto, the agribusiness at the forefront of genetically modified (GM) crops, receive criticism because many of their patented cereals were created to resist RoundUp, thus encouraging farmers who plant GM crops to be reliant on their weedkiller.

According to Environment Science Europe, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called ‘Roundup-Ready’ genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996.

Stocks fall as litigation rises

The American court case, in Oakland, California, is the third and highest judgement against Monsanto on glyphosate, and the jury ordered the firm to pay $US1 billion to each of the two victims.

The landmark case follows on from a 10 August 2018 ruling where a former school groundskeeper with terminal cancer won a $289m victory in a US state court against Monsanto. Dewayne Johnson, 46, always wore protective clothing but his job as an integrated pest manager, responsible for spraying Monsanto-branded products RoundUp and Ranger Pro, exposed him to repeated contact with the herbicide.

On March 27 this year, a US federal jury awarded $US5.9 million in compensatory damages and $US75 million in punitive damages to another terminal cancer patient with non-Hodgkin Lymphona. Edward Hardeman, 70, had used the weedkiller on his property for three decades.

The jury found that RoundUp was defectively designed and that Monsanto failed to warn of the herbicide’s cancer risk, and that the company acted negligently.

Bayer, the German pharmaceutical giant, purchased Monsanto in 2018 for $US63 billion, but in the wake of the ruling their shares fell more than 12 per cent on the global stock market and have since plummeted 40%.

Hardeman’s lawyers said in a public statement that Monsanto “refuses to act responsibly,” and instead focused on “manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about RoundUp.”

An estimated 11,200 RoundUp lawsuits are set to go to trial in the US, with tens of thousands more expected worldwide. Australian law firms anticipate a class action here on behalf of non-Hodgkin lymphoma sufferers exposed to glyphosate.

On Tuesday June 9, a Melbourne landscape gardener, Michael Ogliarolo, launched Australia’s first legal action against Monsanto, claiming RoundUp caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Ogliarolo, 54, who used RoundUp regularly on his clients’ gardens, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2011, and was forced to retire in 2015 due to declining health.

Lymphoma is the 5th most common cancer in Australia and the most common blood cancer, affecting the white blood cells when their DNA is mutated. There are two main categories of lymphoma: Hodgkin Lymphoma and non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

According to the Cancer Council of Australia, “Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer that begins in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is an important part of the immune system and includes the various lymph glands around the body.

“Non-Hodgkin lymphoma most commonly occurs in a lymph node but it can also occur in the liver, spleen, stomach or bones. There are more than 60 sub-types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and they vary in how fast they grow and spread, and how sick people feel.”


Organic alternatives to glyphosate-based herbicides exist, which utilise ingredients such as vinegar, eugenol (clove oil) or acetic acid. They’re easily deployed, however, their increased cost might prove prohibitive to budget-constrained councils.

City Hub contacted several Sydney councils to enquire about their continued use of glyphosate and whether it was financially viable to convert sports fields, playgrounds and parks to synthetic turf, thus avoiding the spraying of herbicides.

Only two replied.

A spokesperson from Canterbury Council said, “We regularly review our use of all types of chemicals, including glyphosate, in line with the advice provided by the national regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), an independent body of experts.

“While synthetic surfaces may be an answer for sports grounds, at more than $1.5 million each they are not a viable option for majority of parks, even with significant State and or Federal funding, as we have more than 580 parks and 75 sporting complexes.”

A spokesperson from Canada Bay Council said, “The use of glyphosate (RoundUp) only occurs only when it is deemed absolutely necessary in order to eliminate weeds and we strictly follow the recommendations of APVMA and Safe Work Australia.

“Council also regularly reviews products that can suitably treat weeds, to ensure the most appropriate products are used in particular circumstances.”

The Inner West Council’s Weed Management Policy was revised and adopted on May 29, taking into account recent studies by the University of Washington and the University of California that indicate a link between glyphosate and cancer.

The council voted to: ‘Only use glyphosate as a matter of last resort where other methods cannot be applied and spot control of persistent weeds that resist other treatments occur.’

“Should Council resolve to discontinue the use of glyphosate and use only alternatives… the additional operating cost to council would be in the order of $1.9 to $5.2 million per annum…”

Independent Councillor for Stanmore, Pauline Lockie, opposed the continued use of glyphosate and declared, “I voted with the Greens and Councillor John Stamolis to defer the adoption of Inner West Council’s new weed management policy that sees us continue to use this chemical, particularly after the union representing Council workers wrote to us to say they were looking into this issue. We lost that vote, but I’ll continue to follow up with staff in regards to alternatives.”

Glyphosate kills bees too

Glyphosate also kills bees and other pollinators. In 2018 a University of Texas study found glyphosate targets enzymes long assumed to be found only in plants, which are also present in the guts of bees.

Nancy Moran, a biologist at the University of Texas and a co-author of the study, told Environmental Health News, “The bee itself has no molecular targets from glyphosate, but its gut bacteria do have targets.”

Glyphosate is an antibiotic and highly toxic to bacteria, so when bees are exposed to glyphosate-treated plants, the chemical reduces their gut bacteria, leaving them vulnerable to pathogens and premature death.

A third of our food relies on pollinators, and researchers examining why bee colonies have collapsed significantly in recent years may now identify the primary cause.

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