University of Galway scientists test Irish families for glyphosate toxin

23 Jan 2023

Dr Alison Connolly, a former University of Galway researcher, now with UCD, and Dr Marie Coggins of University of Galway. Image: University of Galway

The Galway study comes as the EU is yet to decide the outcome of its review on the use of controversial herbicide glyphosate.

A study carried out by University of Galway researchers has found low level traces of the toxic herbicide glyphosate in a quarter of the people tested.

Glyphosate is a common herbicide that is an active ingredient in many products, such as Roundup, a well-known brand of weed killer.

People can be exposed to the chemical by consuming fruits and vegetables that have been sprayed with it. Inhalation exposure can also occur.

Glyphosate has been classified as carcinogenic by some and debate is ongoing as to its approval for use in the EU. While it is currently approved, the European Commission is reviewing this. A final decision is expected this July.

At the moment, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) does not classify glyphosate as a carcinogenic substance. It maintains it is unlikely to pose a significant hazard to humans.

However, amongst the global scientific community a consensus has not been reached. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “Group 2A – probably carcinogenic to humans”.

The University of Galway study was one of the first to look into glyphosate exposure among Irish households.

It was funded by the EU under its Horizon 2020 programme. The project was carried out by University of Galway scientists alongside researchers from the Institute for Prevention and Occupational Medicine in Bochum, Germany and the German Environment Agency.

The teams tested urine samples collected from 68 families throughout Ireland for the presence of glyphosate and its main human metabolite, aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA).

Of the 68 families who took part, 14 lived on farms. Of the farming families that took part, one sprayed glyphosate-based pesticide. Out of all the samples from a total of 226 people, glyphosate was found in 26pc, while AMPA was detected in 59pc.

There was minimal difference in the exposure levels of those that lived on farms compared to those who didn’t.

The exposure data reported by the study was low compared to the acceptable daily intake value set by the EFSA. However, one of the scientists involved, Dr Marie Coggins, explained that their conclusion may be revisited once the European Commission decides its stance on glyphosate in the next few months.

Coggins added that the data “suggests that occupational users may have a slightly higher exposure than background levels, which could and should be reduced further by substitution with less harmful methods, careful chemical handling practices and the use of exposure controls such as personal protective equipment”.

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.