New Glyphosate Ruling Illustrates the Challenges of Uncertainty in Chemical Classification

A new ruling from the European Union (EU) on the safety of glyphosate — the most commonly-used herbicide in the world — shows just how quickly international regulations and findings can change. It also drives home the importance of being alert and nimble as countries around the world align their chemical regulations.

Last week, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) — which handles risk assessment regarding food safety for EU member states— announced that it had determined that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer. It also found that the substance is unlikely to be genotoxic (i.e.: damaging to DNA). The evaluation process resulting in these findings began in 2012, and involved reviews of glyphosate in mammalian toxicology, residues, ecotoxicology, and other areas. The conclusions reached by the EFSA will directly inform the EU’s upcoming decision regarding whether or not to continue to allow the use of glyphosate in EU countries.

“This has been an exhaustive process — a full assessment that has taken into account a wealth of new studies and data,” said Jose Tarazona, head of the EFSA’s Pesticides Unit, in a press announcement. “By introducing an acute reference dose we are further tightening the way potential risks from glyphosate will be assessed in the future. Regarding carcinogenicity, it is unlikely that this substance is carcinogenic.”

This ruling flies in the face of findings released by the World Health Organization this past May which determined that glyphosate was a “probable human carcinogen.”

Glyphosate is used by farmers to kill weeds and other plants that compete with crops, and also by landscapers and gardeners. Frequently known by the trade name Roundup, it has been marketed in the United States since 1974. Glyphosate is a skin irritant, and humans who inhale it in mist-form can develop irritations in the nose and throat. Swallowing small amounts of liquid glyphosate can result in nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The question of whether or not glyphosate might cause cancer in humans has been a contentious question, and — as these recent announcements show — has involved contrary findings from scientific and regulatory bodies.

In the United States, the EPA has ruled that glyphosate is not carcinogenic, has “low toxicity for humans,” and “is no more than slightly toxic to birds and is practically nontoxic to fish, aquatic invertebrates, and honeybees.” It recommends protective eyewear be used for some glyphosate products, and that users wait twelve hours after it is applied to a farm field to reenter that field. However, these rulings were issued in 1983, and glyphosate is currently undergoing an EPA registration review, which means that any number of these findings could be updated or changed in the near future.

OSHA has no limits for workplace exposure to glyphosate, but does recommend PPE such as safety glasses and clothing to limit direct skin contact. Some recent media articles have called for OSHA to revaluate the safety of glyphosate, but there is no indication that this is an action item on OSHA’s foreseeable agenda.

With world governing bodies growing more aligned by the day, the impact of findings like this has the potential to eventually inform regulation outside of the EU. It also underscores that the chemical landscape is always changing.

How can you be ready for future classification changes?  A comprehensive EHS system is a great place to start. And if you deal with chemicals that can expect ongoing classification changes, partnering with a provider that offers custom SDS authoring by a team of certified, trained professionals with STEM backgrounds can be a vital asset. Whether you’re a manufacturer, distributor, or end user of chemicals, now’s the time to take the steps that will guard your business against change and regulation in the days ahead.

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