Over 170,000 litres of a weedkiller officially classified as a probable cause of cancer have been widely used by local authorities across Scotland in the last five years, an investigation by The Ferret has found.
Every year almost every council sprays hundreds of litres of herbicides containing the toxic chemical, glyphosate, on weeds at schools, parks, verges, cemeteries and other public green spaces. Despite growing fears for public health and the environment, half of Scotland’s 32 councils say they have no plans to cut back on the chemical.
Politicians, trade unions and campaigners are alarmed about the risks, which they say can threaten workers and wildlife. Many are now demanding that glyphosate be banned, with the trade union, GMB, describing it as “a severe health risk to workers.”
Councils point out, however, that alternatives are expensive and beyond their constrained budgets. The multinational company that makes glyphosate insists that it is safe.
Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide. It was developed in the 1970s under the brand name, Roundup, by the US pesticide giant, Monsanto, which was taken over by the German pharmaceutical multinational, Bayer, in 2018.
But some studies have suggested that the chemical could be harmful to people, animals and the environment. In March 2015 the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
IARC reviewed over one thousand studies worldwide, including some where workers and animals were exposed to glyphosate. It concluded that there was “limited” evidence of cancer in humans, “sufficient” evidence of cancer in experimental animals and “strong” evidence of genetic mutations that could lead to cancer.
A series of court cases in the US have found Monsanto liable for causing cancer in Roundup users. The trials also prompted disputed allegations that Monsanto knew of the risks and failed to warn users and that the company had ghostwritten scientific papers used to claim Roundup was safe.
Despite escalating arguments over safety, in 2017 the European Commission re-approved glyphosate for use until 2022. Critics have argued that this decision was unduly influenced by the pesticide industry, and several European countries have promised to introduce full or partial bans including France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Denmark.
The Ferret asked all Scotland’s 32 councils under freedom of information law about their use of glyphosate. Almost all of them – 29 – said that they sprayed the chemical, with three failing to respond: Glasgow, East Renfrewshire and East Lothian.
Sixteen councils said they had no plans to reduce spraying, including Aberdeen, Dundee and South Lanarkshire. Nine councils promised limited reductions, while four said they were actively cutting back – Edinburgh, Falkirk, Highland and Midlothian.
The councils that responded said that since 2015 they had used nearly 170,000 litres of glyphosate-based products, with some spraying thousands of litres every year. Councils have spent over £1 million in the process, sometimes involving contractors.
Local authority use of glyphosate
|No plans to cut back||Plans for limited reductions||Actively cutting back||Failed to respond|
|Aberdeenshire||Comhairle nan Siar||Highland||East Renfrewshire|
|Argyll and Bute||Inverclyde||Midlothian|
|Dumfries and Galloway||North Lanarkshire|
|East Ayrshire||Scottish Borders|
|Perth and Kinross|
Some councils defended the continued use of glyphosate. The responsible use of pesticides could “deliver substantial benefits for society”, said Stirling Council, arguing that banning glyphosate would risk public spaces becoming “more unkempt and less aesthetic”.
South Lanarkshire Council told The Ferret that there was “no political will” for change. “Austerity is cutting services to the bone,” said a council spokesperson.
Other councils, however, accepted that glyphosate use should be reduced. The City of Edinburgh Council has been phasing out the herbicide since 2015, cutting total usage from 4,560 litres in 2016 to 2,175 litres in 2017.
But some residents are concerned that the council has not gone far or fast enough. They point out that more than 2,800 litres were used in 2018 and that the council has invested in quad bikes to allow more efficient spraying.
One local campaigner, Tom Inglis from Balerno in Edinburgh, was “deeply concerned” about the loss of wildlife. “We need to urgently examine the chemicals that are used to kill weeds so that we can be sure they are not causing harm to human and animal health,” he said.
According to the Green MSP for Lothian, Alison Johnstone, local communities had become “disheartened” at the lack of political will and were pressing for tougher action. She pointed out that residents in Balerno wanted to become “pesticide free”, and promised to raise their concerns in the Scottish Parliament.
The trade union, Unison, suggested that staff cutbacks in Edinburgh had not helped. There were “a lot of complaints about weeds” and pressure not to let standards drop, said the union’s health and safety convenor in the city, Ian Mullen.
Highland Council agreed in September 2018 to try and replace glyphosate as soon as possible, due to health concerns for workers. But a motion agreed by councillors in June 2019 accepted that “little progress” had been made .
Concerns about the impact on bees prompted Midlothian Council to agree in June 2019 to stop using glyphosate on council-owned land, except against invasive species such as giant hogweed and Japanese knotweed. But the council’s acting director of resources, Kevin Anderson, estimated that maintaining standards would require 20 more workers and an extra £360,000.
The council has also received complaints about the curbs, including a letter from the National Farmers Union in Scotland. Anderson has expressed concern that a ban “may bring the council into disrepute.”
Similar concerns prompted a petition signed by over 2,000 people in 2019 to the Scottish Government, along with Glasgow and North Lanarkshire councils. It calls for a ban on the the use of pesticides “toxic to dogs in our parks and green spaces”.
Two major trade unions, Unite and GMB, are also campaigning for a ban on glyphosate. Unite Scotland wants to end its use in public spaces, and is aiming for a complete ban on its sale and use within three years.
One Unite member behind the campaign is Stuart Graham, a gardener with Inverclyde Council. He has been spraying glyphosate for twenty years but has recently started to doubt its safety.
“As I looked into it more and more I found it was quite dangerous,” he told The Ferret. “A lot of folk are scared to stop using it, they’re scared to lose their jobs.”
GMB has been campaigning for a UK wide ban since 2018. “Glyphosate must be treated as a severe health risk to workers,” the union said.
Some councils in England have been seriously trying to get rid of glyphosate. They include Bristol, Glastonbury, Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham.
“In Scotland, many councils make the mistake of adopting an all or nothing approach or simply swapping one bad herbicide for another,” said Máire McCormack, a member of the board of the environmental campaign group, Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“A better way forward, in line with many other countries, is to develop an integrated approach to phasing out glyphosate – from doing nothing in certain areas, to hand weeding in others, to adopting new methods such as a hot foam weed control system.”
McCormack called on Scottish councils to be “more imaginative and strategic” in their approach and to stop using budget cuts as an excuse. “Ultimately, this will be better for pollinators, the environment and the health of our children,” she said.
The herbicide’s manufacturer, Bayer, maintained that safety concerns were unfounded. “Properly used, glyphosate is the most effective and cost effective weed management tool,” said company spokesperson, Mark Buckingham.
“Leading health regulators around the world have repeatedly concluded that Bayer’s glyphosate-based herbicides can be used safely as directed and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.”
This was “based on an extensive body of science spanning more than 40 years, including more than 100 studies the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considered relevant to its cancer risk analysis, and more than 800 safety studies overall submitted to regulators,” Buckingham added.
He pointed out that in April 2019 the EPA had reaffirmed that “glyphosate is not a carcinogen” and that there were “no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label”.
He warned that “alternative methods of weed management may lead to weedier streets and greater costs”. Alternatives could also cause “exposure of workers, bystanders and the environment to unregulated risks, which may include greater carbon footprints” or “slow and laborious hand weeding, potentially putting workers at risk of repetitive strain injuries,” he said.
Update at 15.00 on 13 January 2020: Glasgow City Council responded to our freedom of information request on 13 January 2020, the day after this story was published. The council said that it had reduced its purchases of herbicides containing glyphosate from 6,825 litres in 2014-15 to 412 litres in 2018-19, and that the cost of the purchases had dropped from £66,217 to £30,345 over the same period. “Glasgow City Council annually reviews new weed control techniques and methods, and carries out trials of new products and equipment with the aim of reducing herbicide usage where possible,” it said. The council’s full response has been added to our database.
Poll – Should councils cut the amount of glyphosate weedkiller they use?
This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.
Cover photo thanks to iStock/Fokusiert