Councils defend use of controversial weed killer amid health concerns
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The county councils of Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex all control unwanted growth on roadsides and pavements through the use of glyphosate-based herbicides, which have been linked to causing cancer and harming insects.
The authorities are facing calls to ban their use with opponents urging local authorities to find alternatives but the councils say the weed killers they use have been approved and are safe if applied correctly.
In response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Essex County Council said that during 2018/19 its highways contractor used more than 5,000 litres of Roundup, the brand name of a glyphosate-based weed killer produced by a company called Monsanto, which is now owned by German pharmaceutical giant Bayer.
Norfolk County Council also uses Roundup, according to another FOI request, getting through 770 litres during 2018/19, as well as more than 3,000 litres of Trustee Amenity, which also contains glyphosate. On its website Suffolk County Council states it uses Monsanto Amenity Glyphosate systemic and that "the solution is not harmful to humans or animals".
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Much of the current controversy around the use of glyphosate stems back to 2015 and a finding by the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), that classified glyphosate as a "probable human carcinogen."
More recently Roundup has been the subject of several high-profile court cases in the US where the juries have found that Roundup has caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma in people using the weed killer.
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This has led to more than 18,400 people filing lawsuits against Monsanto alleging that exposure to Roundup caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The plaintiffs allege Monsanto refused to warn consumers despite knowing for decades that Roundup causes cancer. The company refutes these claims.
Bayer also point out that far this year the Canadian, Brazilian and US governments have published reviews of glyphosate safety and concluded that it does not pose any unacceptable risk to human health or the environment and that it is not linked to cancer.
On Essex Highways' use of Roundup, a spokesperson said: "Essex Highways uses this product, which is approved and licensed by the EU and so by the UK government for these purposes. However, so long as the scientific advice, as reflected through the official license approval process, is that it is safe for use in this way we, in common with many other councils and other organisations, may continue to use it."
A spokesperson for Norfolk County Council added: "We constantly review our use of pesticides to ensure we only use products that have been deemed safe for use by the government. We are currently working to develop a pollinator action plan, which will include consideration of our use of weed killer. A draft of this action plan will be considered by councillors in November."
Organisations to come out against the use of glyphosates include the GMB, Britain's general union, which last year demanded it be "banned before more lives are put at risk". This sentiment is echoed by the Soil Association, which champions organic farming. A spokesperson, said; "We urge the government to take action to support the UK to manage without potentially harmful chemicals like glyphosate."
In a statement Suffolk County Council said: "When compared with other available herbicides, Monsanto Amenity Glyphosate is considered to be one of the safer, least toxic options. It is currently not being considered to stop the use of this treatment, as it is currently the most effective, non-selective (i.e. treats most weeds) combatant to weeds.
SCC Highways will be working with our colleagues in the environment and ecology team to explore effective alternatives."
In Ipswich, local branch coordinator for the Green Party, Andy Patmore, has started an online petition on the Change.org website calling on Ipswich Borough Council to stop the use of glyphosate-based herbicides and "switch to a system that is not harmful to us, our pets and the environment".
A spokesperson for Ipswich Borough Council said: "There are many studies that claim the use of glyphosate herbicides is safe and environmentally friendly, there are also many studies that have linked the use of glyphosate herbicides to serious health issues such as cancer for those who have been involved in its application for prolonged periods of time.
"We do not consider it appropriate to try to interpret these various studies, but rather it is our considered opinion that by using a herbicide approved for use by DEFRA, in accordance with the HSE Code of Practice and guidance provided by BASIS, only using employees who have been specifically trained in this task and are certified to do so, that we are operating safely with due regard for the safety of people and the environment."