Best known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, glyphosate is a broad spectrum, non-selective systemic herbicide. This means that it is effective in killing all plant types. In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’.

Glyphosate-based products are the world’s most widely used herbicides. While they are largely associated with agricultural use, it is important to remember that the risks are not limited to farming. They are commonly applied to home gardens, public parks, playgrounds, pavements and other urban spaces. Sprayed indiscriminately by local authorities as a routine part of park maintenance, city dwellers remain largely unaware of the dangers. With local authority budgets tightening and a need to manage large areas of public space cheaply, keeping them clean, tidy and weed free, is it any wonder the chemical is a favourite of city councils?

But the question that must be asked is whether we can afford the long term health risks that glyphosate-based herbicides pose?

A growing number of countries are taking the decision to ban or restrict the use of glyphosate products out of concern for possible negative health impacts on citizens. In addition to the WHO’s classification as a probable carcinogen, there are a host of other suspected health impacts associated with the chemical. Medically recognised as an endocrine disruptor, it has the potential to interfere with the hormone systems of mammals. An accumulation of scientific evidence associates glyphosate with birth defects and reproductive problems, although further independent research is needed to fully evaluate its toxicity.

A recent study has linked an epidemic of kidney disease among Sri Lankan farmers to their contact with glyphosate. The discovery that farmers who are exposed to the chemical through drinking water are five times more likely to develop chronic kidney failure than those who drink herbicide-free water has encouraged the Sri Lankan government to largely restrict the import of glyphosate.

Within the last few months, Barcelona has announced measures to stop the use of glyphosate and other toxic herbicides in public places. Legislation restricting its use is proceeding in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sri Lanka and El Salvador.

However, such legislation is not always easy to pass. Even classifying glyphosate as a carcinogen has been difficult. After the state of California announced some months ago that glyphosate would be officially listed as being known to cause cancer, it was met with a backlash from Monsanto who are filing a lawsuit against the state to try to prevent it from being added to their official list of known carcinogens.

As the health dangers of glyphosate continue to stack up, people are becoming increasingly concerned about the use of such weedkillers in densely populated living areas. But what would it take for a city to go pesticide free? From the Sustainable Food Trust office, we have a magnificent view over the city of Bristol where citizens and local community groups, as well as food and environmental organisations, have united to form the Pesticide Safe Bristol Alliance (PSBA).

Harriet Williams, a member of the PSBA Alliance, explains that while “Bristol’s stated policy is to reduce pesticide use where practicable and cost-effective” she’s concerned that “people have no way of holding the Council to this measure, since it has failed to supply data on how much pesticides are being used.”

The Alliance is calling for clear public information about the quantities, locations and timings of spraying, as well as reduced chemical usage and adoption of more sustainable methods of weed control, in order to ensure a safer and healthier urban environment.

Gus Hoyt, local Green Party councillor, has been working on the issue of safe herbicide use for years, commenting that, “when trying to remove the use of glyphosate from our public places, it feels like every possible obstacle and excuse is thrown in our way.” The existing Bristol City Council policy looks good on paper, but appears to fall short in practice. Hoyt explains that “though the Mayor is vocally supportive we have still not achieved this end, but the campaign will go on and it is gathering more support with every passing day.”

Hoyt has called for the Ashley ward of the city to become a trial ‘zone of excellence’ to demonstrate how alternative weed control measures can work in reality, with the hope of this becoming common practice across the city.

On a national level the UK has been slower to take action but alternative measures are being explored. Aberdeen has invested in equipment that uses hot water to kill weeds; Edinburgh is trialling multiple strategies to tackle weeds including blowtorching and frequent hoeing; and Glastonbury is planning to use Foamstream, a non-toxic plant based weed-killer.

Harriet Williams makes the point that we know “that hundreds of other European cities are moving towards pesticide-free status.” Describing how “The Mayor of Copenhagen has offered his expertise to other cities wishing to follow suit, and we’d very much like to see a learning network in place whereby land managers in Bristol and other British cities share advice and experience about reducing pesticide use.”

While recent laboratory studies assure us that small amounts of exposure to glyphosate do not pose a health risk, the question remains: how much we are actually exposed to in our everyday lives through our food and environment? Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, commented,

It never fails to shock me when I see council workers with their backpacks diligently spraying roadsides and pavements with Roundup, obviously completely unaware that the active ingredient, glyphosate, is a potent endocrine disrupter and that residues of this pesticide will inevitably find their way onto children’s shoes and clothing with unknown long-term health consequences. There is no question that pesticide spraying in urban environments should be banned.

Finding alternatives to toxic herbicides in cities is a pragmatic and imperative step to making our urban environments safe and liveable.

The Pesticide Safe Bristol Alliance is carrying out a survey to understand the views of local residents. Visit www.pesticidesafebristol.org for more ways to get involved.

Photograph: Hopeless128

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