Glyphosate: Health Concerns and Safer Alternatives

Glyphosate is a widely used herbicide. While effective against various plants, recent concerns have emerged regarding its potential health impacts. Lawsuits allege that exposure to the popular weed killer, found in Roundup and hundreds of other products in the U.S., has led to certain cancers including non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Last Modified: June 5, 2024
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What Is Glyphosate?

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is a popular non-selective herbicide effective against a wide range of plant species. It is used in agriculture, forestry, home lawn and garden, and industrial areas to control weeds and regulate plant growth. 

Despite glyphosate’s wide use, recent developments have cast a spotlight on potential health concerns linked to the ingredient. Multiple Roundup lawsuits filed against Roundup manufacturer Bayer allege exposure to the weed killer caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers.

Shannon Fitzgerald
“Glyphosate, a widely used herbicide, has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma in a myriad of studies and has cost its producer, Bayer, almost $11 billion in lawsuits. It’s unfortunately ubiquitous in the environment and poses potential health risks to a host of animals, including humans.”
Shannon L. Fitzgerald, Pharm.D. Pharmacist & Toxicologist

How Does Glyphosate Work?

Glyphosate stops plants from making certain proteins needed for growth. It inhibits the shikimic acid pathway, an enzyme pathway producing amino acids that plants and several other tiny living things — such as algae, fungi and bacteria — need to grow and live.

Users spray glyphosate on leaves, quickly affecting this pathway. It is a systematic herbicide that travels through the pholem and kills plants down to the roots. Some glyphosate-safe seeds and crops, like Roundup Ready crops, are modified to be resistant to glyphosate. This allows farmers to spray entire fields with glyphosate, which will kill only weeds without harming the crops.

Did You Know?
Glyphosate has been the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. since 2001 and is the most widely used herbicide in the world.

Glyphosate in Roundup & Other Products

First introduced in 1974 as the active ingredient in Roundup, more than 750 glyphosate-based products are now available on the market. Other popular weed killers containing glyphosate include Rodeo and Touchdown.

Bayer acquired Roundup from Monsanto in 2018. In 2023, Bayer pledged to reformulate its residential Roundup products to remove glyphosate. Roundup products formulated for agriculture and other large-scale applications still contain glyphosate.

Roundup Products Containing Glyphosate
  • Glyphomax Plus
  • Roundup UltraDry
  • Roundup UltraMax
  • Touchdown 5
  • Touchdown IQ

Glyphosate is also used in aquariums to control algae and weeds with brands like AquaPro Aquatic, Roundup Custom Herbicide and AquaNeat. Users should be cautious as glyphosate “is toxic to a variety of fish species,” according to a 2022 research article in Aquatic Toxicology.

A 2024 study published in Environmental Sciences Europe also describes its toxic nature in a variety of aquatic microorganisms, invertebrates, and even important terrestrial pollinators like bees.

Common Side Effects of Glyphosate Exposure

Interaction with glyphosate may lead to a variety of side effects, the severity of which depends on key toxicological variables, the amount and duration of contact. The most common health issues stem from inhalation or skin contact.

Potential health effects of glyphosate exposure include:
  • Asthma
  • Burns in the mouth and throat
  • Diarrhea
  • Eye irritation
  • Increased saliva
  • Nausea
  • Respiratory irritation
  • Skin irritation
  • Vomiting

While glyphosate does not readily pass through human skin, it can be fatal if swallowed. The National Pesticide Information Center studies show that glyphosate leaves the body soon after ingestion through urine and feces without changing its chemical composition.

Cancer Risks and Long-Term Effects of Glyphosate

In January 2024, a Philadelphia jury determined that glyphosate-based Roundup caused a Pennsylvania man’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma. While thousands of lawsuits allege a link between Roundup and cancer, some researchers and regulatory agencies disagree.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” in 2015, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disagrees. Recent studies suggest potential links, with a 2023 study in Leukemia and Lymphoma finding an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma because of exposure to certain herbicides like glyphosate. A 2019 study found a 41% increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma with high Roundup exposure.

Growing concerns about cancer and other health effects have led some European Union countries to ban glyphosate. In 2020, Bayer paid almost $11 billion to settle Roundup lawsuits in the U.S. that alleged glyphosate exposure caused plaintiffs’ cancer. 

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Sources of Glyphosate Exposure

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 81% of Americans over the age of 6 have recently had glyphosate exposure.

Exposure can occur through:
Diet
Researchers have found glyphosate in fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, grains and cereals.
Skin Contact
Direct contact with glyphosate-containing products can occur during application.
Inhalation
Spraying glyphosate can lead you to inhale particles of the chemical from the air.

“Sometimes, residue can end up on crops, which is damaging for both human and animal consumption,” Chrissie Handley, lawn care specialist at Turf Online, told Drugwatch.

You may be exposed to glyphosate if you eat meat from animals who consume grain or grasslands treated with glyphosate.

Glyphosate Exposure from Food & Water Contamination

The Environmental Working Group commissioned several rounds of testing in food to detect the chemical. It found glyphosate in 95% of the wheat samples tested. Glyphosate in food and drinking water raises concerns about its potential public impact.

Foods EWG found containing glyphosate include:
  • Chicken flour
  • Crackers
  • Dried pasta
  • Lentils
  • Oats
  • Pizza

The safe level of glyphosate in food varies based on the food type. The EPA sets the safe range of glyphosate in food from 0.1 parts per million to 400 parts per million, depending on the type of food.

Most food safety regulatory bodies say the levels of glyphosate found in food are safe for humans. But some experts question the long-term health effects of continuous exposure to such a potent chemical.

“Residue can also leak into groundwater sources and contaminate those, then potentially contaminating large drinking water sources,” Handley said. “If there’s been a significant amount of rain, residue can run off into lakes, rivers and other water sources also.”

Glyphosate is a primary contaminant under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, with a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) based on potential health risks and exposure, and a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) based on the MCLG set at 0.7 parts per million (ppm).

"An estimated 81% of the U.S. population has had recent exposure to glyphosate, a chemical found in some weed killers."

Tips for Reducing Your Glyphosate Exposure

To reduce exposure to glyphosate, consider natural Roundup alternatives. Opt for environmentally friendly weed control solutions like vinegar-based products, soap salts, essential oil herbicides and iron-based products. These alternatives effectively eliminate weeds without the potential health concerns associated with glyphosate. 

If you choose to use glyphosate, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and a mask for spraying to minimize skin irritation and other adverse effects. Always avoid direct contact with the herbicide.

While glyphosate remains popular, ongoing legal cases and growing awareness of health risks warrant consideration of safer alternatives. Always follow safety instructions when using any herbicides, and explore manual weed control methods for a holistic approach to gardening.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.