Glyphosate, sold as RoundUp, is the most used herbicide in South Africa and is sprayed on genetically modified crops such as maize. Picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi

Johannesburg - From the age of 3, Quade Bowen liked to ride with his father, Johnny, on the tractor across their family farm in Utah, in the US.

Every spring and summer, Quade would help him tend the fields. Sometimes, the child would hold the sprayer wand to kill the weeds infiltrating their alfafa and hay crops.

In 2014, when he was 11, Quade was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes, and form part of the immune system.

His family believes Quade has “suffered the affects as a direct and proximate result of the unreasonable and defective nature of RoundUp”.

The Bowen's claims are contained in one of more than 1 100 lawsuits spanning farming communities, and gardeners, in the US who allege they contracted the blood cancer after using RoundUp, the most popular herbicide in the world, produced by global seed and chemical giant Monsanto.

In the Bowen's court papers, filed earlier this year, they allege they did not know of an association between exposure to RoundUp and the increased risk of developing non-Hodgkins lymphoma until well after the the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialised cancer arm of the World Health Organisation, classified glyphosate (the main ingredient in RoundUp) as a probable human carcinogen in early 2015.

This classification sparked global controversy - and an avalanche of litigation - amid fierce denials from Monsanto that the chemical, introduced in 1974, was unsafe.

The IARC found sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the cancer-causing ability of glyphosate, and limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

In South Africa, cancer watchdogs, too, are concerned. 

In a recent 18-page position paper, authored by Professor Michael Herbst, the Cancer Association of SA (Cansa) says it accepts the IARC’s classification of glyphosate as probably carcinogenic and its finding of an association between non-Hodgkins lymphoma and glyphosate.

It has initiated a study to examine potential links links between non-Hodgkins lymphoma and glyphosate exposure in South Africa’s maize belt. 

The National Institute for Occupational Health is doing a preliminary project, led by Dr Mpume Ndaba, to see if a large national project is feasible.

Professor David Rees, who heads the occupational medicine division, said the preliminary work would describe the historical and current use of glyphosate in South Africa and research on non-Hodgkins lymphoma to get a better sense of where people are diagnosed and what proportion of cases are HIV-positive.

“Then we want to do a pilot project in one hospital to see, in these cases that are diagnosed, what level of information we can get on how many people might have been exposed. We can then decide on a bigger project There are so many products containing glyphosate in South Africa, it can be hard to ascertain exposure.”

In South Africa, glyphosate, sold locally as RoundUp, is sprayed on genetically modified food crops including the staple food maize - as much as 80% is genetically modified - to withstand applications of glyphosate.

Glyphosate, say experts, is the most used herbicide in South Africa: in 2012, more than 23 million litres were sold and these figures are “surging annually”, say experts.

In its position paper, Cansa says animal and epidemiology studies in the past decade point to the need for a “fresh look” at glyphosate toxicity.

It calls on the National Department of Health to investigate the health implications of glyphosate exposure in South Africa “with a view to institute control measures over its free availability”.

The department’s last national sample in 2012/2013 found all maize samples tested were compliant. Its limits are sufficient, says the department, explaining how after the IARC’s report, the joint meeting on pesticides residues re-evaluated glyphosate and “concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic at anticipated dietary exposures and glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through diet".

Dr Melissa Wallace, head of research at Cansa, said: “We take our stance from the IARC, which is an extremely reputable body.”

Saturday Star