WHO findings on weed killer will not speed up EU safety review

Pesticides spraying.JPG

EU regulators will not accelerate a decision on whether to restrict use of the world’s most widely used weed killer, even though it has been linked to cancer by the World Health Organisation (WHO), officials said on Tuesday (12 May).

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the WHO, said in March that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, made by Monsanto, the world’s biggest seed company.

>> Read: UN cancer agency issues warning about five pesticides

In response to the IARC findings, the US Environment Protection Agency said it may start testing food products for residues.

Campaign group Greenpeace is among those demanding an EU response.

It wrote to Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis urging him to take account of the IARC decision in an ongoing review of the safety of glyphosate and, as an interim measure, to suspend its use in cases where the exposure risk is particularly high.

His reply, dated 6 May, said it had not been considered necessary “to consider a precautionary action”.

The current approval period for glyphosate ends on 31 December and the Commission is deciding whether to extend it.

“No decision will be taken until all the steps of the evaluation process regarding a possible renewal, have been completed,” said an EU official, who asked not to be named. “Relevant scientific elements available will be taken into consideration.”

Speaking to EURACTIV in April, the EU’s environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella, said he “would expect” the IARC study to inform the EU’s appraisal, saying toxic pesticides “should be addressed”.

Some businesses and authorities are already moving to limit glyphosate use.

The German Rewe retail group announced it would cease stocking glyphosate-containing products by the end of September, while German regional ministers have called for a ban on glyphosate use by amateur gardeners, as well as a suspension in municipal parks and playgrounds.

At national level, however, the German government said it would have to wait for the Commission’s EU-wide reassessment.

>> Read: German states call for ban on household pesticide

“Waiting for all scientists, including those on the pesticide industry’s payroll, to agree 100% would be reckless,” Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU food policy director, said.

“The Commission must take precautionary action and suspend the use of glyphosate where people are most exposed, either directly or through residues in our food.”

Campaign group Avaaz launched a petition last month calling for a temporary suspension while regulators assessed the IARC findings.

It has been signed by nearly 1.4 million people, including more than 850,000 from the European Union.

Monsanto was not available for comment, although its website includes a statement saying it disagreed with the IARC classification for glyphosate.

“Each of the studies considered by IARC have been previously reviewed and considered by regulatory agencies – most recently by the German government on behalf of the European Union,” it said in a press release.

“Relevant, scientific data was excluded from review,” it said.

Amid growing public concern over the impact of pesticides, the European Commission in 2006 presented a 'pesticides package' aimed at protecting human health and the environment from their dangerous or excessive use in agriculture.

Agreement on the package was reached in December 2008. The new regulations divide the EU into three zones (north, centre, south) inside of which mutual recognition of pesticides will become the rule.

>> Read: EU reaches deal on banning toxic pesticides

However, member states will still be allowed to ban a product on the basis of specific environmental or agricultural circumstances:

  • Certain highly toxic chemicals, namely those which are genotoxic, carcinogenic or toxic to reproduction (unless their effect would in practice be negligible) including neurotoxic, immunotoxic and certain endocrine-disrupting substances, if deemed to pose a significant risk
  • Asks member states to adopt national action plans on safer use of pesticides as well as overall usage reduction targets
  • Bans aerial crop spraying, with exceptions subject to approval by member-state authorities
  • Asks member states to establish approporiate measures, such as buffer zones, to protect aquatic organisms, and
  • Bans the use of pesticides in public places, such as parks and school grounds, or at the very minimum asks for their use to be restricted.

The European Parliament voted to seal the agreement in January 2009.

>> Read: Parliament seals pesticides deal amid opposition

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)

European Commission

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