Professor Hanington’s Speaking of Science: The Science of the Herbicid…


This week the chemical giant Monsanto was hit with a staggering $289 million judgment as a result of its herbicide Roundup. Like the tobacco companies of the 1960s, Monsanto suffered the major blow when a lay jury awarded the amount to a terminally ill man who claimed his affliction was a result of using their product.

Lawyers for Dewayne Johnson, 46, proved in court that the corporation failed to warn him of the health hazards from exposure when he applied Roundup 20 to 30 times per year to pesky weeds while working as a groundskeeper for a school district near San Francisco. The jury further found that Monsanto “acted with malice and oppression.”

At the trial, Johnson testified that during his work, he had two accidents in which he was soaked with the product, the first happening in 2012. Two years later, in 2014, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Everyone has seen Roundup proudly displayed at hardware stores and many have used its weed fighting ability. So what is the product and is it safe to use? For this we have to journey back some years to trace the history of its development.

Chemical weed control began over a century ago with a few handy off-the-shelf inorganic compounds. Originally, lime (calcium oxide), was recommended for control of horsetail weed in Germany in 1840. Later, the use of ordinary table salt (sodium chloride) as a herbicide was tested for control of orange hawkweed in Vermont and in 1896 was used for weed control on highway and railroads in parts of New England. Copper sulfate was also used for selective weed control of charlock in wheat fields by the French about the same time.

By the early 1900s, more dangerous compounds such as arsenates were tested widely for weed control and gained general use as herbicides. Sodium arsenite was used extensively by the Army Corps of Engineers for control of water hyacinth from 1902 to 1937 despite the chemical’s toxicity to humans, livestock, and wildlife; and by the early 1950s many states were using arsenic compounds to control vegetation. One example of such proliferation occurred in 1953 when the Massachusetts legislature appropriated funds for aquatic plant control and subsequently dumped more than 8 tons of the arsenic into 12 lakes and ponds within the state.

As you can probably guess, the real drive for highly effective herbicides occurred during World War II when both our country and Great Britain were formulating ways to starve Nazi Germany out of action. Here in the United States, Franklin Jones and associates at the American Chemical Paint Company discovered an organic compound, 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) that could stop plant growth by mimicking the action of the plant growth hormone auxin, causing uncontrolled growth and eventually death in susceptible plants. Starting in 1945, that company brought 2,4-D to market as an herbicide called “Weedone.” It revolutionized weed control, as it was the first compound that, at low doses, could selectively control dicotyledons (broadleaf plants). This compound, 2,4-D is one of the ingredients in the notorious Agent Orange, an herbicide that was widely used during the Vietnam War.

Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, was first synthesized in 1950 by Swiss chemist Henry Martin, who worked for the Swiss company Cilag but he never published his work. Later on, Stauffer Chemical, an ore processing company located in San Francisco, patented the agent as a chemical chelator in 1964 because it can bind to and removes minerals such as calcium, magnesium, manganese, copper and zinc.

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Somewhat later, glyphosate was independently discovered at Monsanto in 1970 as an offshoot of an experiment where their chemists were looking at another compound, aminomethylphosphonic acid, as potential water-softening agents. One variation of this was found to have weak herbicidal activity, and John E. Franz, a chemist at Monsanto, was asked to try to make analogs with stronger herbicidal activity.

Glyphosate was the third analog he made, not knowing about the earlier work by Martin or Stauffer. In 1987 Franz received the National Medal of Technology of the United States and in 1990 the Perkins Medal for Applied Chemistry for his work.

Monsanto developed and patented the use of glyphosate to kill weeds in the early 1970s and first brought it to market in 1974, under the Roundup brand name. In 2008, United States Department of Agriculture described glyphosate as a “virtually ideal” herbicide. They also added that “glyphosate is a one in a 100-year discovery that is as important for reliable global food production as penicillin is for battling disease.”

But how quickly things change. By March 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans” but offered no proof.

It has been reported that more than 800 patients are suing Monsanto at this time claiming Roundup gave them cancer as well. After the verdict, Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, of the aspirin fame, issued a statement saying it stands by the studies that suggest Roundup does not cause cancer. While it was medically impossible to prove Roundup caused Johnson’s terminal illness, it’s also impossible for Monsanto to prove Roundup did not cause his cancer.


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