CLINTON — More than 13,000 people in the United States have filed lawsuits against Monsanto Company for allegedly covering up health risks associated with exposure to the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup. The plaintiffs allege that the herbicide resulted in instances cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma for themselves or a family member.
Although most of these cases have been filed in California, Connecticut residents have also expressed concern about the use of Roundup by towns and the Connecticut Department of Transportation to fight fast-growing roadside invasive vegetation.
“The first selectwoman of Clinton came to us concerned about Roundup after hearing about all these court cases,” said Sam Gold, the executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Government (RiverCOG). “She wanted help looking into other methods of control.”
One alternative is to reseed roadsides with native grasses that are hardy enough for the environment, Gold said. However, reseeding 140 miles of road sides in Clinton would be expensive, let alone the entire region or state.
Controlling roadside vegetation is an important issue for town and state governments for two main reasons: The first is safety, if plants get too tall or thick it can decrease visibility for drivers on the road. The second is invasive species.
Frequent mowing, the abundance of salt and sand from winter plowing and the occasional cars pulling off onto the roadsides make it difficult for any plant to grow, but the frequent disturbances make it a perfect location for invasive species to get a hold and propagate quickly, Gold said.
This summer, a project to develop alternative methods of controlling invasive species along the roadside began between the COG and the town of Clinton with the help of RiverCOG’s summer intern Brian Higgins, a Clinton resident and senior at the University of Connecticut.
“The hope is that if a successful alternative method is found for the roadway in Clinton, that it could then be used for the other towns that make up RiverCOG,” Higgins said.
The project is focusing on Japanese knotweed and phragmites, known for their quick and vigorous growth, in some places reaching up to 18 feet in height.
“It is a great intersection of our two focus areas: transportation and environmental conservation,” Gold said.
Even if the town changes their practices, most major roads running through each town in Southeastern Connecticut are owned and managed by the state. At present, the state continues to spray Roundup around guardrails and road signs where mowing is not feasible. To clear these areas of tall, fast growing plants by hand would be costly and time intensive, Gold said.
Two years ago the state legislature considered ending the application of herbicides. In 2017, a bill was proposed in the state legislature to prohibit the spraying of herbicides along the state’s highways.
“There are concerns that toxic chemicals used in herbicides may contaminate soil and water resources in the immediate or adjacent areas to where herbicides are applied,” the bill stated.
But health claims against glyphosate exposure have yet to be scientifically proven. According to Jason Ferrell, a professor and researcher at the University of Florida’s Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, historically glyphosate has been regarded as the perfect herbicide.
I was taught that, “glyphosate is the most benign molecule, particularly pesticide that we can put into the environment,” Ferrell said. “No impact on birds, insects, animals or humans.”
Ferrell explained that the study that showed the most conclusive connection between cancer and Roundup has been critiqued by many other researchers due to incorrect use of the rat test subjects, including the fact that only 20 rats were used in the entire study. The study ended up being retracted by the Journal of Food and Toxicology.
The World Health Organization now lists glyphosate as a probable carcinogen along with hair care products and red meat — all appear to correlate with higher rates of cancer, but no direct causal link has been established.