Thanks to the internet, there are entire galaxies of scientific information available to us that we can find in a matter of seconds. If you type “new study finds” into any search engine, you will be rewarded with countless articles featuring scientific claims covering every aspect of our lives.
Our challenge as modern consumers of the news is to recognize the difference between good and bad information, and to think about announcements of new discoveries critically and in context of the bigger picture. For example, CBS News recently reported on a new government study that found glyphosate in more than 80% of urine tested from a representative sample of U.S. children and adults.
Out of context, many people would find this news alarming. Let’s take a closer look.
What is glyphosate?
Glyphosate, a glycine derivative, is best known as the active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup. It is one of the most popular herbicides in commercial and personal use and is widely used in agriculture, forestry, industrial weed control, and lawn, garden, and aquatic environments. Many farmers support the use of glyphosate, as it is effective and eliminates the need for tilling, which is better for the environment.
What did the study find?
A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found glyphosate in 1,885 of 2,310 urine samples representative of the U.S. population at large. Nearly a third of the samples came from kids ages 6-18.
The amount of glyphosate found in the urine samples indicates very low exposure levels for the participants of the study. There is no evidence those levels of glyphosate are putting them at risk. Even the highest level of glyphosate recorded in the urine samples corresponds with exposure levels below 0.14% of the safety threshold determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The findings of this study tell us that glyphosate can be present in our bodies. They do not, however, tell us how the presence of the low levels of glyphosate detected in the samples may or may not impact health.
Does glyphosate cause cancer?
The controversy surrounding the use of glyphosate began in 2015 when the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the chemical as “probably carcinogenic.” This classification has been contested by several national and international agencies and scientific research:
- The WHO Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues and United Nations (U.N.) Food and Agriculture Organization determined that glyphosate is unlikely to be a carcinogen
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that glyphosate does not pose a serious health risk and is not likely to cause cancer in humans, and recently took action to allow for the continued use of glyphosate without a cancer warning label
- The European Food Safety Authority also determined that glyphosate is unlikely to be a carcinogen
- More than 800 studies have been conducted over the last 40 years to determine the safety of glyphosate products, along with several meta-analyses and systematic reviews published in peer-reviewed journals to examine the quality of the data
To bring further clarity to the issue of glyphosate safety, the Center for Truth in Science recently funded an independent critical review of eight meta-analyses, which was conducted by SciPinion and published in the Journal of Toxicology and Risk Assessment. SciPinion also presented a scientific poster of these findings at the Society of Toxicology meeting in March 2022.
For the critical review, the panel of six senior scientists (with expertise in epidemiology, biostatistics, and toxicology) found low confidence that any of the studies showed a causal link between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
When we put this work in the context of the entire body of existing scientific research on the safety of glyphosate use, consumers can be confident there is no evidence of a relationship between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and that glyphosate is likely to be safe when used as directed.
As techniques for determining exposure advance, there will likely be additional studies to further explore the effects of glyphosate exposure, asking questions such as:
- What is the extent of human exposure to glyphosate?
- What are the potential human health effects of exposure at various levels?
- What are the most effective ways to mitigate any harm from exposure to glyphosate at the levels found in water and food?
These questions are worth asking. As researchers work to find the answers, it is the responsibility of all those producing and sharing the news to put those findings in context.