Ten million pounds. It’s hard to wrap your head around that number, but that was the amount of glyphosate, commonly known by its brand name Roundup, used in California in 2013.
As a result, when state officials add glyphosate to the list of known cancer-causing chemicals, as they’re expected to do soon, they will be unmasking a 5 million-pound environmental gorilla sitting on the backs of many of the state’s poorest residents, most of them minorities.
That’s because more than half of the 10 million pounds of Roundup sprayed across California in 2013 was on farm fields, lawns and gardens in the state’s eight poorest counties, according to a new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity. Given that five of those counties are in the south Central Valley, the disturbing findings are hardly surprising.
But as environmental officials around the world are finally starting to acknowledge the health risks associated with pesticides such as glyphosate, this analysis makes clear that we can no longer afford to ignore the disproportionate and unacceptable burden these chemicals place on those living in our poorest communities.
Taking the necessary steps to reduce the use of glyphosate will not be easy: It is the most widely used pesticide in California and in the United States. In 2012, more than 280 million pounds were used in U.S. agriculture. Since the mid-1990s its use increased more than twentyfold, largely due to the widespread adoption of crops genetically engineered to withstand what would otherwise be fatal doses. Glyphosate and its breakdown products are found on 90 percent of soybean crops and in air, water and soil samples in agricultural regions such as the Central Valley.
For years, the folks at Monsanto – the makers of Roundup – have done a masterful job of convincing people across the world that the benefits of using the most popular herbicide on the planet far outweigh the risks.
We now know better.
Full or partial bans on glyphosate have been adopted by France, the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, El Salvador and Colombia. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization concluded that there is enough scientific evidence to designate glyphosate a probable human carcinogen.
Even with this mounting evidence, no U.S. regulatory agency has determined that glyphosate is anything other than safe. But California officials are poised to once again set an important national example when the state EPA decides whether to add glyphosate to its list of known carcinogens under Proposition 65.
This is significant because it will potentially require that every bottle of Roundup sold in the state include a warning label. And with that warning, comes a reminder of what is at stake – especially for our poorest residents. When you’re dumping millions of pounds of chemicals in a limited area, exposure is difficult or impossible to avoid.
This is no longer just a human health issue, it’s a moral issue. We’ve long known that the most marginalized populations in our country are being disproportionately exposed to chemical toxins. Ignoring this reality is no longer an option. The only way to tackle this problem is to reduce our pesticide use altogether.
For the sake of all Californians – especially the most disadvantaged – we must do just that and take responsible steps to reduce our reliance on agrochemicals.
Jonathan Evans is environmental health legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity.