Roundup herbicide
Monsanto’s Roundup. Photo: JeepersMedia/licensed under CC BY 2.0 Credit: Photo: "Roundup" by JeepersMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Monsanto’s Roundup. Photo: JeepersMedia/licensed under CC BY 2.0 Credit: Photo: "Roundup" by JeepersMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As debate swirls around the dangers caused by the herbicide glyphosate — the active ingredient in the widely used weed killer Roundup — the East Bay Regional Park District decided to ban the chemical around picnic and play areas, effective July 16, and totally ban it from developed areas in its parks by the end of 2020.

“The park district has taken large steps over the past two years to reduce glyphosate use and find alternatives,” said district president Ayn Wieskamp in a statement. “We are proud to be a leader in parkland management.”

The chemical is widely used for wildfire fuel management and landscaping purposes. It’s also been linked with cancer.

The EBRPD ban follows reductions in the use of Roundup, which is made by Monsanto, across the UC system, which enacted a temporary ban on glyphosate-based herbicides on June 1. Exceptions to the UC rule can be made for research, fire-management programs and native habitat preservation.

Meanwhile, the city of Berkeley hasn’t used glyphosate since the 1970s, according to city spokesman Matthai Chakko.

Opinions vary as to the potential danger of glyphosate. In May, an Oakland jury awarded an East Bay couple $2 billion after they successfully argued that decades of using Roundup caused them both to get cancer. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Winifred Y. Smith ruled last week that the award exceeded legal limits and reduced it to $86.7 million. Smith said constitutional limits on lawsuits forced her to reduce the award. But she also wrote that, “In this case, there was clear and convincing evidence that Monsanto made efforts to impede, discourage, or distort scientific inquiry and the resulting science.”

The Alameda County case was at least the third time a Bay Area jury ruled against Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer. The German company, which denies Roundup and glyphosate are harmful to humans, is appealing all the verdicts.

According to website, Monsanto is facing 18,400 lawsuits over Roundup. Claimants say the herbicide causes various types of cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, b-cell lymphoma, leukemia, and others.

Monsanto developed glyphosate in 1970 to kill weeds and grasses that harm crops, according to Consumer Safety. By 2007 it was the most popular herbicide in the United States. The website says consumers use an estimated 1.4 billion pounds of Roundup in at least 160 countries annually. And it’s popularity has only grown since Monsanto developed seeds for genetically-modified organisms that resist glyphosate, which allows farmers to use the weed killer without worrying about damaging crops known as Roundup ready crops. These include soybean, corn and cotton and account for more than 270 pounds of crops annually.

Opinions among regulatory and scientific bodies split on the harm caused by glyphosate.

The Environmental Protection Agency concluded in April that it found “no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label,” and that “glyphosate is not a carcinogen,” according to the Washington Post. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue applauded the decision, called it “science-based and consistent with the findings of other regulatory authorities that glyphosate does not pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.”

That finding is a reversal from the EPA’s conclusion in 1995 that glysophate should be labeled as a probable carcinogen, according to Consumer Safety.

The World Health Organization said in 2015 that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” A study from University of Washington researchers released earlier this year said glyphosate use can raise the rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a cancer of the immune system — by as much as 41%.

“All of the meta-analyses conducted to date, including our own, consistently report the same key finding: exposure to GBHs (glyphosate-based herbicides) are associated with an increased risk of NHL,” said the report, published in February in the journal Mutation Research.

Bayer CEO Werner Baumann told reporters recently in a conference call that the company would consider a “financially responsible” settlement with alleged victims, if it included all glyphosate litigation, according to Bloomberg. As the cases mount, the company’s worth has slumped by about 40%, and shareholders have increased pressure to stop the financial bleeding. Bayer acquired Monsanto last year for $63 billion and has said it will “constructively engage” in the mediation process. The company said last month it will invest more than $5.6 billion in weed killer research to potentially reduce its environmental footprint.

According to its statement, the East Bay Regional Park District currently uses glyphosate as part of its “pest integration management program for fire ignition prevention and vegetation maintenance around park structures, fences, walkways, parking areas, and in public right-of-way areas including roads, bike paths, and trails.”

The district recognized there could be significant problems with glyphosate at least as far back as 2016, when it began using organic products whenever possible. Over the past two years, it reduced glyphosate use by 66%, according to the press release.

After voting unanimously to end its use completely by the end of 2020, the EBRPD board of directors asked for cost estimates of the elimination, which the district said could be “substantial.”

Clarification: This story was updated after publication to make clear that the total ban by 2020 is planned for developed areas of EBRPD parks.

Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...