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Controversial chemical glyphosate still being sprayed by councils in Cambridgeshire

Glyphosate has been suspected of increasing the risk of cancer and damaging biodiversity by some scientific studies, prompting many local authorities to ban its use as a weedkiller. But we have learned that it is still being sprayed around many parts of Cambridgeshire.

A number of our councils are still using glyphosate in some situations
A number of our councils are still using glyphosate in some situations

Councils in Cambridgeshire are still using weedkillers containing glyphosate, despite concerns that it represents a cancer risk and is damaging to biodiversity.

A Cambridge Independent investigation has confirmed that Cambridgeshire County Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and East Cambridgeshire District Council have yet to join the local authorities nationwide that have banned use of the controversial chemical.

The county council said it uses it to “spot-treat” weed growth, while South Cambridgeshire said it used it in limited ways but would be seeking alternatives. East Cambridgeshire said it used the chemical in line with government guidelines but regularly reviewed its use.

Cambridge City Council, however, has stopped the use of chemicals in parks and open spaces “except in special circumstances” as part of its biodiversity policy.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic”.

A meta-analysis of other studies, published last year, suggested it increased the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma by 41 per cent.

Other studies have suggested it is linked to endocrine disruption – meaning it affects our hormonal system – and has impacts on animal reproduction.

Glyphosate has also been found as a residue in food, water, wine and beer, and remains widely used in agriculture. In March, a study by McGill University in Canada said they had “observed significant loss of biodiversity in communities contaminated with glyphosate”.

The Soil Association has called for more research to understand its impact on animals including bees, worms and microorganisms in the soil.

Some large studies, however, have cleared glyphosate and the US Environmental Protection Agency said in January the chemical was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans”.

Glyphosate has been in use since 1974 in the well-known weedkiller Roundup, launched by Monsanto. In 2018, the company was bought for $63bn by Bayer, which has since been embroiled in legal battles over the chemical.

In June 2020, Bayer agreed to pay up to $10.9billion to settle tens of thousands of lawsuits with US plaintiffs who claimed Roundup causes cancer, something the company has consistently refuted.

Amid the controversy, more than 40 UK councils have banned or partially banned the use of glyphosate, according to Pesticide Action Network UK. Among them are Brighton and Hove Council, Edinburgh, and Hammersmith and Fulham.

Agriculture remains a big user ot glyphosate-based herbicide
Agriculture remains a big user ot glyphosate-based herbicide

But in Cambridgeshire, it remains in use in many areas.

The county council told the Cambridge Independent it uses glyphosate-based weedkillers to “spot treat weed growth” although it does not use them on nature reserves.

The council said schools manage their own grounds, and therefore there was no central record of whether contractors employed were using it.

South Cambridgeshire District Council said its “qualified flood prevention staff occasionally use it on tree stumps or to kill poisonous plants or weeds” and its contractors use a “watered-down” version to control weeds around street furniture like lampposts. It has pledged to seek alternatives and speak to contractors about doing the same.

East Cambridgeshire District Council said its “grounds maintenance team currently use glyphosate as and when it is necessary” in line with government guidelines, but regularly reviewed its use.

Ian Ralls, from Cambridge Friends of the Earth, said: “Whilst it’s good that the local councils seem to be aware of the issues surrounding the use of glyphosate herbicides and are looking into replacements, it is disappointing that this awareness hasn’t translated into an outright ban on their use.

“The potential damage to ecosystems, in particular essential bees populations, and the possible human health impacts surely outweigh what appear to be essentially ‘tidying up’

operations carried out using glyphosate herbicides.

“Do we really value weed-free pavements and street furniture more than the ecosystem and human health? In the rare cases where weed growth poses a risk to people or equipment, surely non-chemical techniques such as manual removal, mulching etc are options?

“We would hope that cost isn’t the main driver in the continued, albeit limited, use of glyphosate herbicides.”

Pesticide Action Network UK offered to help any of the councils with seeking alternatives.

Nick Mole, its policy officer, said: “They’ve indicated that there might be some concern, but the failure to go further is about political will and laziness. It’s the argument that ‘we’ve always done it this way’. We see this time and time again.

“The argument is that the government says it is safe so we’ll use it. Well, at one time governments said smoking was safe and asbestos was safe.”

And he said the county council, as local education authority, should play a leading role in instructing schools about a glyphosate or weedkiller policy.

Spraying weeds... but is it really necessary?
Spraying weeds... but is it really necessary?

“It’s concerning that in some instances they are passing on responsibility. Saying you don’t know what the contractors are using is ridiculous. They can specify what they use. They can ask to see what they use and how they use it.

“We’ve seen other councils tell contractors that they cannot use glyphosate. Passing the buck is not acceptable.

“There is absolutely no need to use glyphosate around schools whatsoever. A council might not be able to dictate in some cases, but they can send a powerful message that they do not want children to be exposed to harmful chemicals, when there are alternatives available.”

Other counties and countries are already successfully using other measures, he added.

“There are plenty of alternatives. France has got a complete ban on the use of non-agricultural pesticides. Every village, town and city in France is managed without the use of herbicides.

“We see something very similar in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and major cities in Germany, Italy, and in Barcelona in Spain. In the UK, there are a range of approaches.

“People use glyphosate because it’s easy. It’s perceived as cheap but when you factor in external costs it is not that cheap.

“Hackney in London is not spraying many areas and has saved themselves money. They are focusing more on where they can let plants grow wild. Brighton has stopped spraying and will respond by sending a team to hand-weed where a resident complains that there is a problem.

“Others have invested in technology like hot foam, or use hot water and weed brushes.

“The first thing is to look at everywhere that is being sprayed and say do we really need to do this. And is this being done twice?

“But it takes political will. They need the support of the elected officials. It’s very clear the public wants to see it.”

Encouraging members of the public to give councils their views on this, he said Pesticide Action Network UK was ready to help.

“We’ve helped a number of councils work on this. We’ve developed a three-year phase-out plan that can be tailored to a council’s needs,” he said.

Visit the charity’s website at pan-uk.org.

What our councils told us

Some councils have banned the use of chemicals containing glyphosate
Some councils have banned the use of chemicals containing glyphosate

Cambridgeshire County Council

A county council spokesperson said: “The council does not have one formal policy on the use of herbicides and pesticides in open spaces, but each department carefully considers its use of them.

“We do have specific policies, such as not using them on nature reserves, and only using them elsewhere where we need to spot treat weed growth.

“We are working longer term to better maintain verges to improve biodiversity and reduce weed growth, and seeking natural alternatives.”

It confirmed it uses glyphosate-based weedkillers “to spot treat weed growth”.

The spokesperson added: “Any maintenance contractor who uses glyphosate in its work on behalf of Cambridgeshire County Council complies with all relevant legislation.”

Asked if it was in use on school grounds, the council said: “Each school manages their own contractors - the information is not held centrally.

“Each school adheres to COSHH regulations and follows health and safety guidelines on school sites including managing the use of pesticides on school sites.”

South Cambridgeshire District Council

The district council’s lead cabinet member for environmental services and licensing, Cllr Brian Milnes, said: “Though glyphosate is licensed for use by the EU, we recognise there is scientific uncertainty about its safety. So, we are looking at whether there are effective alternatives to the weedkiller in order to further reduce the very limited ways that we use it.

“Our qualified flood prevention staff occasionally use it on tree stumps or to kill poisonous plants or weeds. These staff have industry standard certification in its use and storage. Additionally, we will be speaking with the subcontractors who maintain the grassed areas around our council homes about whether it is possible to replace the product in their operations.

“They occasionally use a watered-down version in small quantities to control weeds around street furniture like lampposts. Finally, we will be also be speaking with the contractors who maintain areas around South Cambridgeshire Hall about any alternative which is more environmentally friendly.”

A council spokesperson confirmed it was used “in grounds maintenance around our council house communal areas”, adding: “This work is subcontracted out. As part of the general weed control in areas around our council homes, our subcontractor has confirmed they will on occasion use small amounts of this product. They use a watered-down version around some street furniture where cutting back weeds is tricky – such as the bottom of lampposts. We are going to be talking to them about finding alternative products to use.”

It is also used by the awarded watercourse team.

“This small team, which works in flood prevention, will use this product in very small quantities, mainly painted on to odd tree stumps to kill suckers or difficult plants systemically such as deadly nightshade. They don’t spray anywhere for cyclical general weed control. They are already seeking alternative products to glysophate,” said the spokesperson.

And glyphosate is used in maintenance around South Cambridgeshire Hall in Cambourne by contractors following 2002 Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH).

East Cambridgeshire District Council

Spencer Clark, open spaces and facilities manager at East Cambridgeshire District Council, said: “The grounds maintenance team currently use glyphosate as and when it is necessary, as per government guidelines and the council’s pesticide policy. We are however regularly reviewing alternative options to replace the use of this chemical.”

Cambridge City Council

The council has restricted use of herbicides on its parks and open spaces since declaring a biodiversity emergency in 2019.

A spokesperson said: “The council will only consider the use of specific herbicides in ‘special circumstances’, when viable, non-chemical alternatives have been exhausted or are not available, for instance in control of the invasive Japanese knotweed.

“This decision follows a precautionary principle with respect to the potential negative impact on human health and biodiversity of these chemical products.

“Weed control without herbicides does present operational challenges in order to continue to maintain a cost effective standard which residents and visitors find acceptable in city managed parks and open spaces. The council will continue to develop and monitor an integrated weed control strategy, including mechanical removal, alternative non-chemical treatments and the designing out of problem weeds areas. We will also raise awareness to ensure our communities understand the need for changes to past management practices.”

The city council undertakes verge maintenance, including vegetation cutting and weed control, under a contract with the county council. Weeds on grass verges are not treated. It is working with conservation charity Plantlife on best practice for highway verges.

Lib Dem leader calls for council to stop using chemical

By Patrick O’Brien

Lucy Nethsingha. Picture: Keith Heppell
Lucy Nethsingha. Picture: Keith Heppell

Schools in Cambridgeshire are allowed to authorise contractors looking after their grounds to use a weedkiller that some studies have suggested is linked to cancer.

The county council admits it has no information on which schools spray with glyphosate, as schools manage their own contractors.

The leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition on the council called for an urgent investigation into its use of glyphosate.

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha said her personal position was that the authority should move away from it without delay.

She added: “It is an extremely damaging chemical and we should not be spraying it around. I am keen that we develop a different attitude to diversity in plants, and that ‘weeds’ be reconsidered as bringing that diversity, which is so important for the entire ecosystem in which we live.”

In December 2017, the Health and Safety Executive agreed to renew its approval of glyphosate for five years. Apart from RoundUp, the chemical is also included in other brands of weedkiller marketed for back-garden use, and is widely used in farming.

Hampshire County Council said it was re-examining its use of glyphosate herbicides, the London borough of Richmond immediately has begun trials of non-chemical weed-removal and Trafford Borough Council has voted to phase out all pesticides and weedkillers on council land.

Cambridge City Council last year introduced a total ban on its use of herbicides, saying that when it declared a biodiversity emergency it committed to making its parks and open spaces more hospitable to plants and animals.

Patrick O’Brien has been reporting on glyphosate use for the investigations website bronterrenews.com.

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