Water sources across Europe are contaminated with glyphosate, which means there could be pesticides in your tap water. Glyphosate has been implicated in a higher risk of digestive problems, hormonal imbalances, neurological disorders, and even cancer. Read on to discover more about its impact on health and the environment, and how you can avoid it.
Glyphosate is one of the best-known herbicides in the world (you may know it by the name of Round-up). Farmers use it to control weeds. Municipalities also use it in public spaces to get rid of unwanted plants. It works by preventing certain weeds from making the proteins and enzymes they need to grow. As a result, the weeds die.
American company Monsanto (now acquired by the German chemical company Bayer) put glyphosate on the market in 1974. Since then, it has become one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, with over 8 billion kilograms being sprayed worldwide.
When glyphosate is spread onto crops or sprayed on weeds, it seeps into the soil. When it rains, the water carries the soil and the glyphosate it contains into rivers and streams. It can also seep deeper, into groundwater sources. Drinking water is extracted from surface water (rivers, streams, lakes) and underground water sources, then carried through the public water network to our taps. While water goes through several treatment processes before reaching our homes, these methods do not remove glyphosate completely.
Glyphosate’s potential toxic impact on health and the environment has been studied and debated for years.
Studies on the effect of glyphosate on animals has revealed that it causes oxidative stress, changes in intestinal microbiome, hormonal imbalances and neurological disorders.
But official bodies have come to different conclusions about its health risks.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reviewed over 1000 studies and concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” to humans. The same year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that “normal use” of glyphosate is unlikely to pose a risk to humans.
The justice system in the US seems to lean towards the IARC’s findings. Bayer regularly loses lawsuits and pays staggering amounts to victims. It has recently agreed to pay over $10 billion to settle cancer suits. In a groundbreaking case, Monsanto was ordered to pay $289 million in damages to a man whose cancer was ruled to have been caused by glyphosate. The Californian jury concluded that Monsanto knew that Round-up was dangerous and had failed to warn consumers.
In 2017, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) ruled that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. These wildly different conclusions have triggered a scientific debate about how research should be carried out, which studies can be included and how to assess the data.
In March 2021, a new study showed that the EU’s assessment of glyphosate’s safety was based on flawed science. Out of 53 industry studies the glyphosate manufacturers had submitted in the previous glyphosate approval process, only two could be assessed as scientifically ‘reliable’, when using the applicable OECD Guidelines. Thirty four of the studies were ‘not reliable’ and 17 only ‘partly reliable’.
Putting to one side these conflicting findings, one thing is certain: we ingest glyphosate. This happens partly through food (chemical residues and soil on agricultural crops), inhalation (when glyphosate is sprayed in gardens, public spaces, or in residential areas near agricultural zones), through contact with the skin during use, or via drinking water. Despite the fact that drinking water companies go to great lengths to purify drinking water, glyphosate is sometimes present in low concentrations.
So what are the regulations controlling this substance?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers glyphosate and its byproduct A-Amino-3-Hydroxy-5-Methyl-4-Isoxazolepropionic Acid (AMPA) to be low-toxicity. For this reason, the WHO has not established a formal guideline value for glyphosate in water. They base this on a NOAEL (No-observed-adverse-effect-level) of 32 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (mg/kg bw/d). For an average adult weighing 70 kg, this equates to 2,240 milligrams per day. While it doesn’t propose limits of glyphosate, it does suggest a guideline limit of 0,5 microgram per litre (µg/L) for combined pesticides.
The European Drinking Water Directive places limits on the amount of glyphosate that can be present in drinking water. For individual pesticides and herbicides such as glyphosate, the limit is 0,1 microgram per litre of water. The total amount of pesticides in water should not be above 0,5 micrograms per litre.
Data from Wageningen University shows that 45% of the 300 soil samples from various European agricultural lands contain glyphosate and AMPA.
A report by European water surveillance stations indicate that 5-15% of surface water sources and 7% of groundwater sources exceed the environmental quality standards for herbicides. This is a problem for aquatic life, and has a domino effect on wildlife in general. The progressive decline in the number of honeybees
And glyphosate has also been found in our bodies. A study published in January 2022 found glyphosate residues in 99% of the French population.
Glyphosate was approved for use in the EU until the 22nd December 2022. But we can’t count on a ban. The European Commission’s Assessment Group on Glyphosate (AGG), set up to examine the license renewal for glyphosate in Europe, concluded that glyphosate meets the approval criteria and is not dangerous for human health.
The European Commission has suggested a temporary extension to the license to cover the period while it is still being evaluated. The EFSA has stated that its conclusions will be available from July 2023.
In the Netherlands, research by the RIVM shows that over half of Dutch drinking water sources (135 out of 216) are polluted with man-made substances. According to calculations by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), chlorpropham, terbuthylazine, bentazone and glyphosate are the pesticides that pollute the groundwater the most. PBL researcher Aaldrik Tiktak states that measurements show that glyphosate is still the biggest problem substance in drinking water extraction. According to a report by the Netherlands Waterworks Association VEWIN, Glyphosate exceeds levels of 0,1 micrograms per litre every now and then, and its metabolite AMPA is almost continuously present in levels well above the drinking water standard.
The RIVM agreed and in 2020 published a report recommending that pesticides be phased out of agriculture and horticulture. Unfortunately, a ban on the professional use of pesticides, including glyphosate, was reversed by the courts in the Netherlands. A new ban should be initiated by the CTGB (Board for the Authorisation of Plant Protection Products and Biocides). But because the CTGB follows the EFSA’s advice, this is not the case for the time being, according to the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, Carola Schouten.
In 2019, the Federal working group on water (LAWA) published a report on groundwater quality, looking at the most frequently detected plant protection products (PPP) residues in near-surface groundwater in Germany. A total of 495 relevant PPP substances were reported from 2013 to 2016. The first three most common chemicals were desethylatrazine, bentazone and atrazine. Glyphosate was ranked 20th. The authors of the study stated that this shows that active ingredients from currently approved pesticides and their degradation products are increasingly being detected in groundwater. A worrying development.
The German government has decided to ban glyphosate from 1 January 2024. Since September 8, 2021, the use of glyphosate on crops directly before harvest has been generally prohibited. It is also banned for use in private gardens and allotments as well as on public green spaces, for example children’s playgrounds, unless there are valid approvals to the contrary. Glyphosate is only authorized for use on arable farming and on grassland if there are no alternative options. This is the case, for example, with weeds that are difficult to control, such as creeping thistle and couch grass, or in areas at risk of erosion.
Germany justifies its decision as follows: “As a broad-spectrum herbicide, glyphosate destroys all plants without distinction and thus destroys the food and livelihood for many insect and bird species such as butterflies and skylarks. (…) The active ingredients can also get into neighboring water bodies.»
In France, pesticides remain the first cause of water contamination. It turns out that 1,5% of the water network (690 distribution networks across 647 communities) do not conform to the limits set out by the European Union’s Drinking Water Directive. A study by consumer association UFC-Que Choisir and environmental organisation Générations Futures estimates that around 450,000 consumers drink water containing too many pesticides. The worst hit areas are those near zones of intensive agriculture, such as Pas de Calais, Pays de la Loire, Charente, Indre, Sud-Ouest, Languedoc, and the Parisian Basin.
Génération Futures’ latest report is worrying: pesticides have been detected in 35,6% of tap water samples across France.
In 2020, the Minister of Ecology Barbara Pompili announced that France would ban at least 50% of glyphosate use from 2021, though she also said this measure would not be enough to eliminate the negative effects of glyphosate on the environment, soil, food and human health. Since then, France has aligned its calendar with the European Union – we’ll have to see what happens with the renewal of glyphosate’s licence after December 2022.
When the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) publishes its national report on pesticides in water, the results are disturbing. Pesticides were found in 77.3% of the 1980 surface water monitoring points. They were also found in 32.2% of the 2795 groundwater measuring points.
In zones where there is a lot of agriculture, glyphosate levels in the water exceed the standards set by the EU. For example, in Veneto, where grapes are grown, levels are at 0.17 micrograms per litre, nearly double the norm.
The latest national report by ISPRA tells us that the presence of glyphosate and its metabolite, aminomethylphosphonic acid, is widely confirmed. In Lombardy, the substance is present in 31.8% of surface water monitoring points, and its metabolite is present in 56.6%.
In 2020, the Italian Ministry of Health imposed a series of restrictions on the use of glyphosate, but has so far refused to introduce a total ban. Current restrictions prohibit the use of glyphosate as a pre-harvest treatment and in areas frequented by the public.
While Europe debates a ban on pesticides, glyphosate is approved for use in the UK until at least 2025. Back in 2018, a UK National Action Plan (NAP) on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides was promised, but has yet to be published.
According to the environmental charity PAN-UK (Pesticide Action Network UK), 96 councils have banned pesticide use around schools, parks and other public spaces. However, with no national legislation in sight, glyphosate is still very much a part of the environment in the UK.
The most recent Chief Inspector’s Report for Drinking Water in England showed that river water and groundwater do not always meet the legal standards. Legislation in the UK allows a maximum of 0,1 micrograms per litre for individual pesticides like glyphosate. In 2017 (the time of the last drinking water report), 36 samples were found to be above the limit.
In January 2023, a study was published showing that over a quarter of people tested have glyphosate and AMPA in their blood. The research was carried out by the University of Galway, the Institute for Prevention and Occupational Medicine in Bochum, Germany, and the German Environment Agency.
Urine samples were collected from families in rural and urban areas and tested for glyphosate and its metabolite AMPA. Glyphosate was detected in 26% of samples, AMPA was detected in 59% of samples.
Glyphosate has been widely used in the USA since its launch on the market in 1974, but its use has risen ten-fold since the introduction of genetically engineered crops. Nowadays, almost 90% of corn, cotton and soybean crops are GMO, meaning they’ve been genetically engineered to resist glyphosate, which enables an increased use of this chemical.
The maximum authorised amount of glyphosate in drinking water, set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is 0,7 milligrams per litre, or 700 micrograms per litre, seven hundred times what’s allowed in the European Union.
In 2020, Bayer agreed to pay almost 10 billion USD to settle tens of thousands of claims concerning the link between glyphosate and cancer, particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The settlement did not include any admission of liability of wrongdoing by Bayer. Despite the claims, and billions paid out to settle them, glyphosate is still being widely sold and used in industrial agriculture and public spaces.
Water companies are finding it increasingly difficult to filter pesticides and herbicides. In an interview with EenVandaag, the director of the Union of Water Boards in the Netherlands, Sander Mager stated that more and more substances are entering the water, and also many substances that we still know very little about – substances that we may not even be able to detect properly. Let alone eliminate properly.
Another problem is that together, different chemical residues can end up having a stronger toxic impact. Mager hopes for a root-cause approach; adapting regulations to prevent substances from being released into the environment. That also means that a real change must be made in terms of policy. Under the guise of: what does not come in, does not need to be removed.
Given the complexity of pesticide regulations and conflicting research, the question is how to protect our drinking water from contaminants in the short term.
Methods that have been found to remove glyphosate from water include reverse osmosis, distillation, nano filtration and activated carbon filters. You can also use a filter proven to remove glyphosate from tap water, like the ZeroWater filter.
Do you want to ensure that there is no glyphosate in your drinking water? ZeroWater is the only filter that removes 100% of glyphosate. Our filter also removes limescale, lead, chlorine, PFAS (PFOS/PFOA), and more. Interested? Take a look at our webshop.
In the video below, researchers test different filters and study how well they filter glyphosate from the water. Check it out here:
1950 – Dr. Henri Martin discovers glyphosate.
1974 – Monsanto introduces glyphosate to the market.
1997 – WHO proposal: based on a low toxicity guideline of 5000 micrograms per litre of drinking water.
2002-2003 – Monsanto is ordered to pay $600 million to 20,000 Anniston residents over soil and water pollution.
2011 – Drinking Water Directive: standard for pesticides such as glyphosate 0.1 micrograms per litre of drinking water.
2015 – The International Agency for Research on Cancer concludes that glyphosate is likely to be carcinogenic.
2015 – EFSA concludes that glyphosate is not risky under normal use.
2017 – The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) decides not to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen.
2017 – The European Citizens’ Initiative Ban Glyphosate reaches a million signatures.
2017 – European Parliament adopts a resolution demanding the ban of glyphosate by December 2022.
2019 – The European Commission appoints France, Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden to act as rapporteurs ahead of the 2022 renewal process of glyphosate. The group is called the Assessment Group on Glyphosate (AGG).
2020 – The Dutch Health Council recommends phasing out glyphosate in agriculture.
2020 – According to the Environmental Assessment Agency, glyphosate is one of the four most prevalent polluting pesticides in Dutch subsoil.
2021 – The AGG concludes that glyphosate meets the criteria to be approved for use and does not pose a hazard to human health or the environment.