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Post-emergence glyphosate applications are a popular way to control weeds in Wisconsin and other states.

STEVENS POINT — “Is Roundup the new DDT?”

That question, posed by a member of a Wisconsin lakes group a couple years ago, stopped me in my tracks. It came during a presentation I made about banning DDT and how Wisconsin citizens led the way. Unfortunately, there are some scary parallels between the two. Roundup is the trade name for the widely used herbicide glyphosate.

Almost 50 years to the day after a Wisconsin administrative hearing would lead to a national ban on DDT, pesticide regulation in the U.S. is better. Right? Not necessarily. We may do better in some areas, but we use more pesticides today than ever, and are likely to use more in the future thanks to weed resistance. We rely heavily on industry safety studies, and we fail to assess an array of other factors, such as how a chemical interacts with other compounds and how that affects human health and the environment. Even after we determine chemicals may cause cancer or other major health concerns, U.S. regulators often approve them. That’s prohibited in many European countries. And right now, we have a president and an Environmental Protection Agency that make a mockery of the whole regulatory process.

As for that question, I asked Craig Cox, a friend and a longtime researcher with the Environmental Working Group. His answer: “Glyphosate is similar to DDT in the sense that it is everywhere. If you look, you find it. Not sure it’s as dangerous as DDT, but…”

Indeed, glyphosate is ubiquitous, despite early assertions by its manufacturer, Monsanto (since merged with pharmaceutical giant Bayer), that there was no appreciable carryover. Today, 45 years after it was introduced for use on farm fields, lawns and gardens, residues are found in food, air, water and soil samples, and in the bodies of people who never used the chemical. That persistence is what caused DDT to be such an ecological disaster and ultimately was a big factor in its banning.

But glyphosate is safer, right? Actually, it may be more dangerous. Monsanto was aware of, but didn’t warn consumers about tests showing how easily glyphosate is absorbed into human skin. And a growing body of research links glyphosate to cancer in humans. The EPA and Monsanto have denied the connection, but huge product liability trials in California led to large damage awards after juries found the pesticide contributed to cancer. The EPA and Monsanto continue to deny the link, but the World Health Organization says otherwise, calling glyphosate “probably carcinogenic.” More than 13,000 plaintiffs in pending U.S. court proceedings claim the same. By the way, DDT’s manufacturer took the same tack 50 years ago, denying science that showed its immense impacts on the environment.

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Court proceedings are but one battlefield in this modern-day clash. Environmental challenges 50 years ago led to a much larger federal role, including creation of the EPA. Today, with federal agencies and politicians failing, states and localities have stepped up. Increasingly, states are taking steps to ban dangerous chemicals. California and Hawaii are instituting bans on the pesticide chlorpyrifos, linked to brain damage in children. In New York, the city council is considering a ban on the use of glyphosate and other pesticides in parks and other public spaces. In Wisconsin, some local communities are taking steps toward ordinances protecting water supplies. Keep an eye on this trend. Meanwhile, if you’re going to use glyphosate, some good advice: Use protective clothing. Better yet, especially in residential settings, don’t use it.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. billnick@charter.net

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