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EPA should limit or ban popular weedkiller, expert says

The New Zealand Environmental Protection Authority is putting production and productivity above public health in ignoring concerns about use of weedkiller Round Up and similar products, a public health expert says.

It comes after a 1 NEWS investigation yesterday revealed the controversial and potentially dangerous weed killer is still being used by Christchurch City Council on 2.6 million metres of local pavements despite research showing exposure to the active ingredient glyphosate can cause cancer.

Weedkillers containing glyphosate have been used in New Zealand for many years, but they have been in the news recently following a series of court cases in the United States - one which saw a jury award $2 billion to a couple who claimed Roundup caused their cancers.

Dr Dave McLean, a senior research fellow at the centre for public health research at Massey University and co-author of a major paper on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate said he doesn't think it should be used to that level.

"I'd like to see it limited if not stopped all together," he told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.

Mr McLean said he finds it "bizarre" the New Zealand Environmental Protection Authority chose to reject findings of a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is an intergovernmental agency forming part of the World Health Organisation.

"It was obviously a strong lobby from MPI, the agricultural industry who see this chemical as absolutely vital for their way of conducting their farming or their agriculture.

"To me it was like the tobacco industry denying the existence of lung cancer from smoking or the asbestos industry which is also denied. So the company in those cases created doubt, they got tame scientists to write papers denying the effect.

"They created that doubt and that's why an agency which is more interested in production and productivity in the agriculture sector than in the health and in the environment of it's citizens, that's why they made that decision."

He said the EPA should have accepted the finding of the international agency and then done some deliberation.

"But it's got to the stage because they denied it back then and they got their own investigation that said that it wasn't carcinogenic - because they've denied it it's now got to the point where it probably is a black and white situation. They probably should be banning it."

However, NZEPA Acting General Manager of Hazardous Substances Dr Clark Ehlers responded to those claims in saying they gather information from multiple credible sources when deciding whether substances are safe to use.

"We are aware that some reports linking glyphosate to health impacts are causing concern," he said. "We are in alignment with the vast majority of regulatory bodies around the world – including in the European Union, United States, Australia and Canada - which agree that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer.

"In 2015 an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report classified glyphosate as 2A probably carcinogenic. Other things that fall under that same classification include hot drinks (over 65degC) and acrylamide – which are the crispy burned proteins from the barbecue or chips.

"IARC’s role is to identify potential hazards. Our role as regulator is to ensure those hazards are adequately managed by appropriate controls."

Mr Ehlers said the rules around the chemical's use include people wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, goggles and boots; applying sprays during calm and dry conditions, at designated use rates; and storing appropriately.

"We continue to monitor research into health effects from glyphosate. Since 2016 there have not been any further significant studies to support the IARC finding, despite further research that continues to be conducted internationally."

So, while the chemical remains available for purchase and use in New Zealand, there has been plenty of action overseas, including bans, restrictions or other limitations in at least 30 countries, including the Netherlands, Portugal and Italy.

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Dr Dave McLean talked to TVNZ1’s Breakfast about the weed killer. Source: Breakfast