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Aromas of Black Plum and Licorice, With Lingering Notes of Roundup

The detection of herbicides in wines — even some organic wines — highlights the growing health impacts of chemical-farming practices.

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What United States regulators consider safe in terms of glyphosate intake is six times higher than the level set by the European Union. Researchers have recommended that these levels be drastically cut. Moreover, new research has found that even ultra-low intake levels of glyphosate — 0.1 parts per billion — could have health consequences for humans. A 2013 study from researchers in Thailand concluded that "the use of glyphosate-contaminated soybean products as dietary supplements may pose a risk of breast cancer." That research, published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, focused on intake concentration levels as low as parts per trillion.

The U.S. PIRG study found as many as 51 parts per billion of glyphosate in the wines they tested. Sutter Home, Beringer, and Barefoot contained the highest concentrations, topping out at 51 parts per billion, while even the organic brands Inkarri and Frey contained 5.3 and 4.8 parts per billion, respectively.

Another study, from the Environmental Working Group, found staggering glyphosate levels in Cheerios and Quaker oat products. The results, released late last year, found more than 2,700 parts per billion of Bayer's potent week killer in samples of Quaker Oatmeal Squares and hundreds of parts per billion in nearly every other sample tested — concentrations that could affect the small bodies of children more potently than larger adults. These results make glyphosate-tainted wine look like a health nut's preferred cleansing tonic.

While the EPA considers the compound safe for human use — and, in fact, little more than a mild skin and eye irritant — many experts distrust the agency's chemical evaluation process. In a published analysis, scientist Charles Benbrook broke down the EPA's and the IARC's opposite assessments of the chemical. He found that the EPA came to a conclusion favorable to glyphosate because the agency relied on unpublished studies from chemical companies themselves. Nearly 100 percent of those studies showed negative results for carcinogenicity. The IARC, however, made its assessment after reviewing 118 peer-reviewed studies, of which 70 percent found a causal link between glyphosate and cancer.

In recent court rulings, juries have essentially ignored the EPA's opinion on glyphosate. In 2018, a terminally ill man named DeWayne Johnson sued Monsanto after Johnson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. A San Francisco jury ruled in his favor and awarded Johnson $289 million, a sum that was later reduced to $78 million. The ruling held that his physical exposure to Roundup as a school groundskeeper caused his cancer and that Monsanto knew of the dangers of its product for years and chose not to disclose this information to the public. 

The ruling also opened the floodgates to many more similar lawsuits. The news group Reuters has reported that Bayer now faces 11,000 similar lawsuits in the United States. Already, juries have awarded billions to plaintiffs seeking compensation for damages caused by Roundup.

Benbrook reports that annual global glyphosate use has exploded by 15-fold since 1996 — the year that Monsanto began introducing genetically modified crops like corn, soy, and cotton that can withstand dousings of Roundup. That technological leap allowed Monsanto's flagship herbicide to be sprayed with abandon across vast fields of grains and legumes. Today, much of the world's staple foods are grown from "Roundup Ready" seeds. 

Meanwhile, the scientific evidence implicating glyphosate as a culprit in serious health issues has accumulated in volumes. Dozens of studies indicating the chemical as carcinogenic led to IARC's classification, and researchers continue to find strong evidence linking glyphosate-based herbicides to non-Hodgkins lymphoma. One such study was just published this summer by Luoping Zhang, with U.C. Berkeley's School of Public Health. She and her coauthors found a 41 percent increased risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in people exposed to high levels of glyphosate-based herbicides.

Other peer-reviewed research and case studies suggest that glyphosate and other chemicals associated with conventional agriculture are shortening human lives. After researchers tracked almost 70,000 people for four-and-a-half years in France, they concluded that eating a diet of primarily organically farmed food reduced the odds of developing cancer by 25 percent. They published their findings in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2018.

In Sri Lanka, an epidemic of chronic kidney disease has killed thousands and afflicted tens, and maybe hundreds, of thousand since the 1990s. Its causes remain unidentified, but scientists believe pesticide exposure to be a factor. One hypothesis holds that glyphosate has leached into groundwater, bonding with heavy metals already in the water and creating new and dangerous compounds.

Glyphosate has been implicated in rising rates of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, miscarriages and premature births, reduced gut microflora, and kidney diseases. At least one study found that intake of glyphosate at levels considered safe by the EPA had negative effects on sexual development and intestinal microbiota in rats. There is even speculation that the weed killer is responsible for the plague of cancer in domestic dogs

"It's a simple link — they run in the grass and lick their paws," Perro said.

She added that livestock are showing signs of a variety of chronic health effects suggestive of herbicide exposure. 

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