Weed Killer That ‘Probably’ Causes Cancer Is Sprayed Near Schools
The summer I was 14, I woke up before dawn every morning, dressed in pants and long sleeves, and headed out for the high school parking lot, a frozen gallon jug of water in each hand. It was the first summer I was legally able to work, and being an Iowan, I took part in an unofficial rite of passage in the state that doubles as an initial introduction to working life: detasseling.
For the unfamiliar, the tassel is the top part of the plant, which is male, and usually its pollen drops down onto the female silk, which eventually turns into a cob of corn. To make a hybrid variety of corn, which is far and away the preferred kind of seed for commodity GMO corn production, you need to have the tassel of one variety pollinate the silk of another—which necessitates pulling out the tassels from millions of corn stalks.
We wore gloves in the fields to better grip the tassels. We wore neckerchiefs over our faces too, to keep the sharp-edged leaves from making small crisscrossing red cuts across our necks and cheeks. What we did not wear was any kind of gear to protect us from exposure to any of the chemicals used to protect the corn from pests or keep weeds from overtaking the fields. As such, I was undoubtedly exposed to glyphosate, the widely used herbicide that the World Health Organization recently said is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
In light of the WHO announcement, glyphosate use—and its potential impact on rural residents—is undergoing new scrutiny.
For the most part, the scientific understanding of ag chemicals’ effects on human health is based on scenarios where farmworkers are directly exposed to pesticides, herbicides, or other sprays directly. However, there’s another problem: drift. In rural communities in Iowa or California’s Central Valley, farms can run right up against residential properties or schools. On fruit and vegetable operations in California, where a wider range of potentially hazardous chemicals are used to keep crops bug- and disease-free, there’s an array of rules and regulations designed to keep drift to a minimum. Even so, many believe that higher rates of autism and cancer in nearby farming communities are linked to pesticide exposure.
According to an analysis released Friday by the Environmental Working Group, there are 3,247 elementary schools in the country within 1,000 feet of a corn or soy field—and nearly 500 that sit less than 200 feet from crops that are sprayed with glyphosate.
While the notion of a carcinogenic chemical being sprayed so close to schoolkids is highly disconcerting, no research has shown a spike in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—the cancer WHO researchers said may be linked with glyphosate—among corn belt residents over the last 20 years. In Argentina, however, there has been concern that ag chemicals, including glyphosate, have led to a precipitous spike in cancer rates and birth defects in some parts of that country.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, a leading producer of corn and soy, the concern over drift is focused solely on the damage suffered by nearby crops, not people.