Exposure to Common Herbicide Glyphosate Increases Spontaneous Preterm Birth Incidents – Beyond Pesticides


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(Beyond Pesticides, August 26, 2021) A recent study published in Environmental Research demonstrates that exposure to the herbicide glyphosate and its breakdown product reduces pregnancy length, increasing the risk of preterm birth. Preterm births occur when a fetus is born early or before 37 weeks of complete gestation. Premature births can result in chronic (long-term) illnesses among infants from lack of proper organ development and even death.
Birth and reproductive complications are very common among individuals exposed to environmental toxicants, like pesticides. Considering the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports the preterm birth rate is increasing annually, studies like this can help government and health officials safeguard human health by assessing adverse health effects following prevalent chemical exposure. The study notes, “Given the prevalent and rising exposures to glyphosate and GBHs [glyphosate-based herbicides], confirmatory studies are needed to explore reproductive effects of glyphosate and GBHs to re-assess their safety on human health and to explore possible programming consequences to lifelong health.”
GBHs are the most commonly used herbicides, readily contaminating soil, water, and food globally. Although GBHs’ ubiquitous nature has been linked to carcinogenic effects, specifically non-Hodgkin lymphoma, much less research considers exposure effects on reproductive health. The study’s scientists aimed to examine the relationship between prenatal glyphosate exposure and pregnancy length. During the second trimester, researchers gathered urine samples from 163 pregnant American women in The Infant Development and the Environment Study (TIDES). They measured each sample for concentrations of glyphosate and the primary metabolite (breakdown product), aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA).
The results demonstrate that 94 percent of all urine samples contain detectable amounts of glyphosate and AMPA. Of the 163 participants, 69 gave birth prematurely, with almost 53.6 percent being spontaneous deliveries (unassisted vaginal births), 40.6 percent medically induced, and 5.8 percent unclassifiable. Maternal glyphosate and AMPA levels associated with shorter gestation, or pregnancy length, are significantly higher among women giving spontaneous premature births.
Almost five decades of extensive glyphosate-based herbicide use (e.g., Roundup) has put human, animal, and environmental health at risk. The chemical’s ubiquity threatens 93 percent of all U.S. endangered species, resulting in biodiversity loss and ecosystem disruption (e.g., soil erosion, loss of services). Exposure to GBHs has implications for specific alterations in microbial gut composition and trophic cascades. Similar to this paper, past studies find a strong association between glyphosate exposure and the development of various health anomalies, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and autism. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies glyphosate herbicides as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” stark evidence demonstrates links to various cancers, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma. EPA’s classification perpetuates adverse impacts especially among vulnerable individuals, like pregnant women and infants. Recent research detects over 100 chemicals in pregnant women’s bodies, with 89% of compounds of unknown origin or lacking adequate data. Many of these environmental pollutants (i.e., heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyl, and pesticides) are chemicals that can move from the mother to the developing fetus at higher exposure rates. Hence, prenatal exposure to these chemicals may increase the prevalence of birth-related health consequences like natal abnormalities and learning/developmental disabilities. With the range of ever-present environmental hazards, advocates argue that regulators act quickly and embrace a precautionary approach. Because of disproportionate risk in people of color communities, the contamination and poisoning associated with glyphosate is an environmental justice issue.
Not only do health officials warn that continuous use of glyphosate will perpetuate adverse health effects, but that use also highlights recent concerns over antibiotic resistance. Agrochemical company Bayer/Monsanto patents glyphosate as an antibiotic. Exposure hinders enzymatic pathways in many bacteria and parasites. However, studies find glyphosate exposure disrupts the microbial composition in both soil and animals—including humans—discerningly eliminating beneficial bacteria while preserving unhealthy microbes. Moreover, resistance to pesticides is also growing at similar rates among genetically engineered (GE) and non-GE conventionally grown crops. This increase in resistance is evident among herbicide-tolerant GE crops, including seeds genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant. Although one industry-stated purpose of GE crops is to reduce pesticide use, crops have become more pesticide-dependent, resulting in increased weed and insect resistance. Therefore, the use of antibiotics like glyphosate allows residues of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria on agricultural lands to move through the environment, contaminate waterways, and ultimately reach consumers in food. Both human gut and environmental contamination can promote antibiotic resistance, triggering longer-lasting infections, higher medical expenses, and the inability to treat life-threatening illnesses.
Glyphosate-based herbicides’ impact on reproductive health is an increasingly common phenomenon, and this study adds to the growing scientific evidence that glyphosate is a reproductive toxicant. A recent University of Michigan study already demonstrates high levels of glyphosate in urine during the third trimester of pregnancy have significant associations with preterm birth outcomes. In 2017, Beyond Pesticides reported that prior research finds detectable levels of glyphosate in 63 of 69 expectant mothers. Women with higher chemical levels have significantly shorter pregnancies and babies with lower birth weights. While studies are now findings concerning associations, there has been evidence of glyphosate’s impact on birth outcomes for decades.
Despite external exposure to glyphosate being lower than regulatory limits, the study finds exposure remains widespread among the general U.S. population. Ubiquitous exposure is concerning as increasing evidence suggests current EPA regulatory limits may not be safe for human health. The study suggests that glyphosate-inducing oxidative stress and uterine inflammation are the biological mechanisms that play a role in preterm births. Biomarkers for oxidative stress and inflammation have associations with preterm births and shorter pregnancy duration. Furthermore, recent studies demonstrate glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor and thus warrants a re-evaluation of safety to protect human health, particularly among vulnerable populations. While laboratory evidence (most often produced by the chemical manufacturers themselves) may indicate associations with birth abnormalities, it is all too easy for regulators to hide behind risk and chance. Substantial epidemiological data is building for birth abnormalities as it has now been for cancer effects. Regulators are adamant that label changes will avert these dangers or even that the risks are too low for any action at all. However, regulators at EPA lean on risk calculations, which advocates say subvert their responsibility to protect the public.
Bayer announced the removal of glyphosate from all “residential” lawn and garden products sold in the U.S. by 2023. However, no changes are to come for professional and agricultural products that constitute most GBH use. It is still unclear whether Bayer’s cancellation announcement will affect only the residential do-it-yourselfer or all applications to residential areas. Therefore, researchers caution, “Future studies may benefit from assessing exposure at multiple time points. However, continuous exposure could occur in the general population because diet is the most likely source of glyphosate.”
Beyond Pesticides challenges the registration of chemicals like glyphosate in court due to their impacts on soil, air, water, and our health. While legal battles press on, the agricultural system should eliminate the use of toxic synthetic herbicides to avoid the myriad of problems they cause. In the absence of protective regulations from the widespread use of pesticides like glyphosate, U.S. residents, particularly vulnerable populations like pregnant mothers, should take precautions. One important step can be switching to organic. Organic agriculture is necessary to eliminate toxic chemical use and ensure the long-term sustainability of food production, the environment, and the economy. Organically managed systems support biodiversity, improve soil health, sequester carbon (which helps mitigate the climate crisis), and safeguard surface- and groundwater quality. Moreover, considering glyphosate levels in the human body reduces 70% through a one-week switch to an organic diet, purchasing organic food whenever possible—which never allows glyphosate use—can help curb exposure and resulting adverse health effects.
Learn more about how purchasing and consuming organic products can reduce pesticide exposure and the harmful health and environmental impacts of chemical-intensive farming produces. Additionally, learn more about the effects of pesticides on human health by visiting Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database. This database supports the clear need for strategic action to shift away from pesticide dependency. Find out more about how organic is the right choice for both consumers and farmers by visiting Beyond Pesticides’ webpages on Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture and Keeping Organic Strong.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Source: Environmental Health News, Environmental Research

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