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Concerns about the risks due to the carcinogenic nature of common herbicides may not be justified. The concerns do not consider the differences between hazard and risk assessments.

Posted on 1 December 2015

Background Glyphosate and IARC Classification.

Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Glyphosate, the main ingredient in broad spectrum herbicides such as Round-Up , as a probable carcinogen to humans. This follows the recent issue of Monograph 122 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

The classification is a result of a limited number of case control studies conducted over many years that found there is limited evidence as to the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in humans. The association of exposure to Glyphosate to illness for one study was seen among those with more than 2 days per year of exposure, although the contribution of other pesticides was not taken into account. Animal testing also provided sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate as well as strong evidence of genotoxicity. In accordance with IARC's classification system, the evaluation was that it is probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A).

The risk of ill health from chemical exposure is a result of the toxicity of the chemical, the dose, the route of exposure, the sensitivity of the individual, and workplace practices including current control measures. i.e. A risk assessment.

It is important to note that there are numerous chemicals and additives used or found in workplace or in everyday life that also have carcinogenic classifications. Tetrachloroethylene used in brake cleaner aerosols, ethyl alcohol, nitrites in meat products and wood dust are all classed as probable carcinogens or have been confirmed that they cause cancer. The hazard remains, however, employers use a range of control methods to reduce or eliminate the risk.

The Municipal Association of Victoria has alerted all councils in Victoria that some NSW Councils have stopped using Glyphosate based on a communication from their NSW local government insurer (StateCover). A further email, one month later, justifiably acknowledged the official response by the agency that regulates pesticide safety, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA).  The authority has issued an interim response to the IARC declaration http://apvma.gov.au/node/13891 as well as the stated intention to consider whether a formal review is required.

In summary, they note that IARC has identified the hazardous nature of Glyphosate but not the risk. The APVMA also refer to a significant review conducted in Germany in 2014 that concluded that Glyphosate is not a carcinogen, however the contribution of co-formulants may contribute to the measured toxicity.  The APVMA concludes that following current label instructions provide adequate protection to users.

HAZCON has several experienced hygienists and chemical management consultants who can assist organisations to understand the risks to their employees as a result of the use of herbicides containing Glyphosate as well as assessing the risks of using alternate work practices.

Ian Good - Principal HSE Consultant

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