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Journalist Explores Controversial Weed Killer in New Book

A chemical in the weed killer Round Up is the subject of Carey Gillam's book Whitewash. Harvest Public Media interviews Gillam about the controversy.

Gillam's book, Whitewash is out on Island Press

Glyphosate is a controversial ingredient in the popular weed killer Roundup.

Several lawsuits allege that the chemical causes cancer, though a recent scientific journal article says there is no statistically significant tie. Meanwhile, Monsanto, which makes the weed killer, has joined several agricultural groups to sue California over warning labels about cancer on Roundup.

Reporting for Harvest Public Media, Anne Kniggendorf spoke with journalist and author Carey Gillam about her new book on glyphosate:

GILLAM: Glyphosate is indeed the world’s most widely used agrochemical. In historic quantities we have been basically dousing our farm fields and parks and playgrounds and lawns and gardens and golf courses with this chemical since roughly 1974.

KNIGGENDORF: You write that the lawsuits which began in 2015 will most likely eventually rival the lawsuits over DDT, asbestos, and PCBs. Do you really think it’ll reach those heights?

GILLAM: If you talk to lawyers and independent observers and others, they do feel very strongly, and the evidence is pointing to the fact that this could be very similar to what we’ve seen in the tobacco industry for example, and with PCBs and asbestos and others because they’re all examples where giant industry, corporations, proclaim their products to be safe, over and over and over again for decades. We have thousands of people that have sued Monsanto, and millions of pages of documents that have been turned over through discovery. Just from what we’ve seen so far, the internal memos and emails and reports from Monsanto indicate a real effort to deceive the public for many, many, many years. And to manipulate the science and to cover up lots of dangers associate with this chemical.

KNIGGENDORF: What are the lawsuits alleging?

GILLAM: They all allege that Round-up caused them or their loved ones to suffer from non Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

KNIGGENDORF: You mention glyphosate in people’s urine. What does that indicate exactly?

GILLAM: The reason that it is in our body, that it is apparent in human urine, is that—

KNIGGENDORF: In everyone’s, right?

GILLAM: Well, pretty much, if you have it checked. It’s because we’re consuming food that contain glyphosate residues. It’s not only sprayed on genetically modified crops, it’s also sprayed on wheat, for instance, directly on wheat shortly before harvest. Directly on oats before harvest. Directly on barley and other things. Then it’s used in production of citrus crops: oranges and almonds and tea, tobacco. So, the residues are quite commonly found in food production and that’s how it gets transferred generally into our own bodies. Now, Monsanto and the chemical industry says No big deal. The fact that it’s in your urine, they say is a good thing, cause it means it’s getting flushed out of your body so it’s nothing to worry about.

KNIGGENDORF: Are the health problems that are starting to come out from these pesticides and herbicides going to cause enough health problems that it would be something on the scale of the health problems caused by people using tobacco products or the obesity epidemic or other things like that that the taxpayer ends up picking up the bill for?

GILLAM: Well, if you look at rising rates of cancer in our country, and childhood diseases, and autism and ADHD, neuro-developmental problems, you could say we’re not waiting for it, it’s already here. The World Health Organization, the United Nations, American Medical… all of these expert organizations in health and wellness and environment, even the EPA, agree that pesticides, which are considered environmental contaminants, that pesticides are contributing to a range of health problems and disease, and rising cancer rates, and autism, and ADHD and other problems. Where it gets tricky is trying to identify one pesticide tied to one particular disease.

KNIGGENDROF: So what can I do today to protect my kids and to protect them down the road?

GILLAM: You know, I think the answer is different for everybody. You need to have the information and you need to decide what’s important for yourself and if you want to avoid pesticides at all costs, and just do your best to have a diet that’s free of that, the only real answer right now is either grow it yourself, or buy organic that’s certified and they have to be very careful about things they use in production. Some people choose to just wash their fruits and veggies really good, or maybe you only buy organic fruits and vegetables because we know that those carry a lot of residue of chemicals. It’s a good idea to talk to your school board or your city council and say, Hey do we really need this stuff sprayed in our parks where my kids play? Do we really want this on the golf course? It’s a good idea to write to your lawmaker if you’re concerned. You know, it depends on your level of concern and the level of involvement and engagement that you want.
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This story comes from an interview on our podcast of author Carey Gillam speaking with Harvest Public Media contributor Anne Kniggendorf. Gillam’s new book is called Whitewash:The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, and is published by Island Press.

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