Weed killer linked to cancer still used by every Scots council 7

Weed killer linked to cancer still used by every Scots council

Every Scottish council is still spraying a weed killer linked to cancer and biodiversity loss, with new figures obtained by The Ferret showing that 40,000 litres of the herbicide are being used across the country each year. 

All of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have confirmed they use products which contain the chemical, glyphosate, to prevent the unwanted growth of weeds and grasses in public spaces.

Glyphosate — which has been banned by numerous countries around the world — was classified as a probable cause of cancer by scientists at the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2015. It has also been shown to trigger the loss of biodiversity in different ecosystems, leaving them more vulnerable to pollution and climate change. 

But despite concerns about the risks associated with it, glyphosate is expected to receive automatic approval for use in the UK until 2026 because the country does not yet have a programme in place to review potentially harmful chemicals after Brexit. 

Both unions and environmental groups have called for an immediate ban on the weed killer to protect workers and the environment. They said it was “disappointing” to see that glyphosate is “still so widely used across Scottish towns and cities”. 

The local authorities said they are trying to minimise the use of glyphosate “as far as is practically possible”. They claimed all council employees using the chemical were properly trained and wore personal protective equipment. 

The findings come after The Ferret lodged freedom of information requests with each council asking for the most recent data they hold on the use of glyphosate.

Across the 31 councils that responded, 40,250 litres of weed killers containing glyphosate were used. Nearly half of this came from just five councils — Glasgow, Fife, Edinburgh, Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen City — who spray a combined 18,428 litres each year.

The Ferret reported on the almost universal use of glyphosate-based herbicides by Scots councils for the first time in January 2020. It was found that 29 Scottish councils had sprayed at least 170,000 litres of weed killer containing the chemical between 2015 and 2020.

Only East Lothian Council — which asked for a fee for the information — did not provide data this year.

East Lothian had already responded to a request from local activists about the use of glyphosate earlier this year. In this, the council noted that the most recent information it held was from 2019, when 725 litres of glyphosate-based weed killer was used. 

There have been a number of reports of East Lothian Council using glyphosate across the county in 2022 and the council has confirmed it still uses the chemical as a “spot treatment” to control weeds.

Scottish Greens councillors claim it was sprayed earlier this year at a site of special scientific interest — North Berwick Law — in an area which is an important habitat for many water birds. 

One of the party’s spokesperson in the county, Mark James, claimed that council workers are spraying glyphosate in a “widespread and indiscriminate way”.

Top 10 councils by annual use of glyphosate-based weed killers

CouncilProducts usedTotal quantity (litres)
GlasgowNomix Dual, Nomix Hilite, Roundup ProVantage4130
FifeNomix Dual Nomix G, Pistol, Round Up, Roundup ProVantage3985
EdinburghRosate, Roundup ProBio3700
AberdeenshireNomix Dual, Nomix G, Rostate, Gallup, Roundup ProActive 360, Pistol, Roundup Pro Bioactive, Gallup Biograde3318
Aberdeen CityRoundup ProVantage, Monsanto Amenity XL3295
South LanarkshireGlyde, Glymark, Trustee Amenity, Round-up2370
East AyrshireGallup Hi-ACtive, Roundup ProVantage2075
AngusGallup, Nomix Dual, Roundup Pro, Barclay Mascot, Proshield1710
West LothianRoundup Pro Bi-Active, Gallup 4801860
North LanarkshireRoundup Pro-Active 3601625
Based on most recent 12-month data provided to The Ferret through freedom of information law

Cancer links and environmental damage

Glyphosate was first approved for use in 1974 and is widely used as a weedkiller in agriculture, people’s gardens, and public spaces. The most commonly known weed killer containing glyphosate is sold by the pharmaceutical multinational, Bayer, under the brand name RoundUp. 

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) officially classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” in humans in 2015. Several studies have shown that exposure to the chemical increases people’s risk of developing a cancer called non-hodgkin lymphoma

However the link between glyphosate and cancer has been disputed by some national health and environment agencies –– including those in the USA and the EU –– as well as the chemical industry. 

This has not stopped Bayer facing thousands of lawsuits from individuals in the US claiming that working with RoundUp over an extended period contributed to their non-hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Germany — where Bayer has its headquarters — is banning the use of glyphosate from 2024, while the US Environmental Protection Agency was ordered to review its assessment of the cancer risk posed by the chemical by an American court in June 2022. 

Recent research has also highlighted the impact of glyphosate on endangered species and the overall health of ecosystems. . 

The ability of wild bees to reproduce is negatively impacted by glyphosate being sprayed on the plants that they feed on, while fewer types of algae grow in ponds and lakes polluted with the chemical. Both wild bees and algae play an important role in sustaining the environments that they are found in. 

Meanwhile, a study by the US Government’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) found traces of glyphosate in the urine of 80 per cent of the children and adults it tested. They concluded that the chemical is getting into our bodies through the food we eat and the water we drink.

“There is no need to use this controversial chemical in urban spaces, as shown clearly by the ever growing number of UK councils that have already phased out its use.”

Nick Mole, policy officer at the Pesticide Action Network

The EU has postponed a decision on whether to extend approval for the use of glyphosate after it received a “record number of responses” to public consultations. The delay means that glyphosate is expected to have its approval in the UK extended to 2026. 

This is because a regulatory regime for herbicides and pesticides is not yet in place in the UK after Brexit. Any chemical which was due to be reviewed by the EU between 2021 and 2023 is receiving an automatic three-year extension while Westminster puts regulators in place. 

But Pat Rafferty, the Scottish secretary of the trade union Unite — which campaigns for a ban on glyphosate — argued that due to the product’s “causality with cancer” it should be banned by the end of this year. 

Rafferty said: “In 2020, it was discovered by the Ferret that around 34,000 litres of glyphosate was widely used by local authorities across Scotland every year over a period of five years. This annual usage now appears to have increased by an extra 6,000 litres.

“We will now redouble our efforts to support workers to campaign for an end to widespread pesticide use and promote green alternatives that will safeguard our environment and workers health.”

Nick Mole, policy officer at the Pesticide Action Network, also backed a ban on the usage of glyphosate in urban areas. 

“Despite the work of some Scottish councils to reduce their use of glyphosate and other herbicides it is disappointing to see that they are still so widely used across Scottish towns and cities,” Mole said. 

“There is no need to use this controversial chemical in urban spaces, as shown clearly by the ever growing number of UK councils that have already phased out its use.

“The Scottish government should introduce a ban on the use of pesticides in urban areas and work with councils across Scotland to help them phase out the use of glyphosate and other potentially harmful chemicals.”

Councils take different approaches

The Ferret contacted all 32 councils asking them to confirm the protocols in place to protect workers who use glyphosate, the measures taken to minimise use of the chemical, and to outline any plans to reduce its use in the future. 

The responses showed that there is not a unanimous view of future usage of glyphosate among local authorities. 

All of the councils that responded said that staff who use glyphosate are “properly trained” and provided with the correct protective equipment. Many added that the chemical has been approved for use in both the UK and the EU. 

Some of the councils also said that they were trying alternative methods of weed control and limiting the use of glyphosate to invasive species which have a negative environmental impact of their own, like Japanese knotweed and giant hogweed. Glasgow council claimed this approach had helped it reduce glyphosate usage by 60 per cent in the last ten years. 

Others pointed to schemes established to encourage biodiversity in their council area. Highland Council said it had established five wildflower roundabouts to provide space for various species of birds and insects. The use of weed killers and pesticides is restricted at these roundabouts. 

However, some local authorities claimed that removing weeds is “essential” not just “because they can be unsightly, but also because they can be trip hazards”. Perth and Kinross, for example, argued that alternative methods of weed control had been tried but proved to be “ineffective and inefficient” compared with glyphosate. 

A spokesperson for Bayer said: “If left unmanaged weeds cause damage to pavements and infrastructure leading to injuries to people. In agriculture weeds cause significant crop losses, crop spoilage and food waste.  

“Glyphosate is one of the most studied pesticides in history, most recently as part of a comprehensive EU assessment, concluding, yet again, that it is not a carcinogen and is safe to use as a herbicide.

They added that councils should use a “mix of weed management methods” but that glyphosate remained important because it is cost-effective and its environmental and health impacts are better understood than any of its alternatives. 

Scottish Council Responses

Photo Credit: iStock/banprik

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