Hawkeye Flowers and Health Risks

Originally published in The Living Land column in The Hawk Eye on Mar. 25, 2016.

Spring has arrived. The days are longer. The temperatures are climbing, plants are growing and flowers are starting to bloom. It’s a time of rebirth, regeneration and new life.

It’s also a time of death. Death to all the various plants, fungi and insects we so hatefully refer to as weeds and pests. It’s kind of ironic that we probably spend more time and money celebrating spring by killing things than we do promoting their growth.

Why do we hate dandelions so much? How much do we spend on chemicals to fight an edible, short-lived plant sporting the color of Iowa’s most popular university? If the dandelion were called the Hawkeye flower, would we still hate it so much? I’d guess not, unless you’re a State fan maybe.

The disturbing thing about all this is the fact that there’s a gap between what science knows and what we the public thinks. This same gap existed back in the 1950’s with a chemical called DDT. Type the phrase “DDT safe for humans” into Google and search the images. There are all sorts of pictures of these big fog-spewing chemical trucks spraying beaches and pools and streets lined with people. Some of the trucks even sport signs that read, “DDT. Powerful Insecticide. Harmless to Humans.”
DDT use peaked in 1959. Rachel Carson’s now-famous book, “Silent Spring” was published in 1962 and began to close that knowledge gap. Yet it still took another ten years for that scientific knowledge to inspire public action. In 1972 DDT was finally banned for use in US agriculture.

Fast forward four decades and now the USDA estimates the US applies roughly 16 million pounds of herbicides to soybean fields and 30 million pounds of herbicides to cornfields according to data from 2012 and 2014, respectively. Another million pounds of insecticide and fungicides are applied each year, further adding to the total.

Add to that all the off-the-shelf and professionally applied chemicals we put on our lawns, golf courses, parks and sports fields and it’s no wonder Iowa is ranked 48th nationally in water quality.
The most common chemical both on the farm and the second most common on the lawn is glyphosate, otherwise known by Monsanto’s brand name, Roundup. The EPA estimates about 100 million pounds of glyphosate are applied in the US every year. But it doesn’t all stay put. A USGS study across 38 states found glyphosate in the majority of the rivers, streams, ditches and wastewater treatment plant outfalls it tested.  Globally, about 1.4 billion pounds of glyphosate are applied annually across 160 countries.

Glyphosate is used so widely because, when applied properly, it is relatively safe. It’s been sold since the 1970’s and many studies have shown, with EPA concurrence, that glyphosate itself has relatively low toxicity to humans. But while many studies have focused on the direct toxic effects of glyphosate, very little research has looked at the indirect effects or the possible problems with the other ingredients in a chemical’s formulation.

A 2008 study in Sweden identified Roundup exposure as a risk factor for people developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Scientists in Argentina, one of the world’s largest soy exporters, found birth defects and cancers to be higher in people living near sprayed crop fields and have linked glyphosate to genetic malformations in amphibians. In 2009, an international study found that Roundup’s inert ingredients did exhibit toxic effects on human cells, even at very low concentrations.

Roundup gets a lot of attention because it is so widely used. But studies published in places such as the American Journal of Public Health and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute have also linked other common lawn weed killers such as 2,4-D, dicamba, and MCPP to birth defects, kidney and liver damage, neurotoxicity, reproductive effects and of course, cancer.

Now, some are attempting to close the knowledge gap yet again and take action. In 2008, Canada banned the cosmetic use of lawn pesticides resulting in an 80 percent reduction of those chemicals in streams. In 2011, the state of New York banned the cosmetic use of lawn pesticides at all of the state’s K-12 schools.

All-out bans might be a bit extreme. Agricultural experiments right here in Iowa have shown that simply using diverse crop rotations such as rotating oats then alfalfa after a corn-bean rotation not only reduce the need for herbicides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer but they also increase average yields and per-acre income. At home, we can keep our own yards green through aeriation, re-seeding and mechanical weed control. Considering the health and environmental lessons we keep learning, maybe our focus should be less on developing better chemicals, and more on developing a better alternatives to needing them.

For me, the choice between a few Hawkeye flowers in my yard and getting lymphoma is an easy one. Even if I am an Iowa State fan.

August 2017 update: If you Google "Roundup lymphoma" you'll find tons of ad links for law firms pushing the lawsuit that's apparently being brought against Monsanto.