For Kenyan farmers, cancer comes in packet of herbicide

Some countries have imposed restrictions on glyphosate-based herbicides. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Many farmers we talked to were not aware that a glyphosate user in the US had been awarded millions of dollars in damages, after the weed killer allegedly predisposed him to cancer.
  • We found them using the herbicide without protective gear, oblivious of the dangers they were exposing themselves to.
  • Some countries have imposed restrictions on the chemical.
  • Germany is working on a draft regulation to end use of glyphosate in household gardens, parks and sports facilities, and to set "massive" limits for its use in agriculture.

In August, a US jury found that a herbicide that is popular among farmers in the world and in Kenya might have caused the cancer of a groundskeeper. He was awarded millions of dollars in damages.

Many countries around the world are implementing restrictions, but the Pest Control Products Board remains mum, offering no caution or guidance, and leaving local farmers possibly exposed to health risks.

At an agrovet shop in downtown Nairobi, James Mutegi, an agronomist, pulls out 26 glyphosphate-based herbicide brands from the shelves – Kausha, Glyphogan, Panga, Roundup, Glycel, Clampdown, Touchdown, Woundout, Zoomer Combi, Clear Up, Clinic, Kick Out, Dkphosate, Eraser Max, Dasate, Fagilia, Fire All, Glyfos, Gugusate, Herbistop, Klinswip, Mamba, Kwik, Rondo, Ridweed and Rophosate.

Farmers use them as post-emergence systemic herbicides to control weeds in coffee and tea plantations and sugarcane farms as well as in pasture and tillage reduction. A litre of the most popular brand goes for Sh1,200 in Nairobi and Sh800 in most stores in the Rift Valley region.

Other glyphosate products cost between Sh650 and 1,100. Many farmers have no idea, that this is not just the cost of procuring a weed killer, it could also be the cost of exposing themselves to health risks.

Many farmers we talked to were not aware that a glyphosate user in the US had been awarded millions of dollars in damages, after the weed killer allegedly predisposed him to cancer. We found them using the herbicide without protective gear, oblivious of the dangers they were exposing themselves to.

Samuel Sigei, a farmer at Kapkormom in Kericho County, has been using the glysophate-based herbicide for nearly 20 years, and prides himself as someone who is fairly knowledgeable on current affairs. He was shocked whenHealthy Nationinformed him about the US ruling on his dependable solution against weeds.

"I handle this chemical every year. It causes dizziness and nausea, which is pronounced if you use it in sunny weather, but I have never thought much of it," he exclaimed, adding that farmers have learnt to use it at dawn, just as the sun rises, to fight these effects.

Like many of his peers, Mr Sigei handles the herbicide without proper protective clothing. He only wears a heavy trench coat, which is not waterproof as required, and doesn't cover his mouth and nostrils.

"It has a strong smell, so I gulp a glass of milk after coming from the fields and I will be okay," he adds.

The chemical comes into contact with his skin, and sometimes leaks from the pump, spilling on his back, but he has never seen any skin irritation or effect that would cause him to worry.

The popular chemical clears bushes and grass from his four-acre farm before ploughing is convenient. He has trusted and depended on its effectiveness for years. He ponders turning to four other brands, but questions their safety too.

"They are all the same, aren't they? The contents are the same, the difference is that some brands are more concentrated than others," he says creasing his face in concern.

"I will stop using these chemicals immediately!" he declares after brief contemplation, "Anything to do with cancer is a death sentence. No one wants to go that route."

The use of glyphosate-based weed-killers as a perennial weed control measure is widespread, because it entails little or no field preparation, hence minimal farm machinery use and expense. The herbicides enable farmers kill weeds without killing their crops.


An increasing number of crops have been genetically engineered to be tolerant of glyphosate allowing farmers to use glyphosate as a post-emergence herbicide against weeds. In 2014, nearly 825,804 tonnes of glyphosate products were used worldwide according to Statista a consumer survey and industry studies, global statistics company in the US.

Mutegi, the agronomist, toldHealthy Nationthat the herbicide is preferred by farmers for its distinct capacity to completely impair weeds from the roots in one or two weeks.

"Farmers love it because it works in hours. The weeds wilt and start to yellow within six hours of application," he said.

"A small quantity is enough to wipe out weeds, making it more cost-effective than other agrochemicals," said James Too, a farmer from Chepkumia, Nandi County. He uses glysophate to kill weeds in his tea and maize plantation, applying the herbicide once a month.

"I have no idea that it is hazardous to human health. Maybe it is only harmful if inhaled frequently … Maybe if we exercise precautionary measures we will be protected from harm," he mused. His sentiments are shared by George Otieno, an agronomist at Agri-Tech, who argues that the herbicide has no effect on health as long as one follows the specified instructions.

"It has been in the market for decades, and I have never heard anyone who developed health problems from using it," said Mr Otieno.

However, he added that some livestock have died after feeding on silage or grass that had been sprayed with glysophate.

"This is a result of negligence. Farmers need to protect livestock from areas sprayed with the chemical," he explained.

A survey of agrovets around the country indicated that most dealers had glysophate in stock.

"We have not received orders from any relevant authority suspending the sale of the chemical. In any case most farmers prefer it to other herbicides," said David Koskei, an agrovet dealer in Eldoret Town.

Agronomists interviewed for this story urged farmers to wear protective gear and stick to instructions on the label when using glysophate.

"We are aware that most farmers ignore the instructions on the label. They don't even read them," said Mutegi, the agronomist from Nairobi.

One of the farmers who tries to use it as recommended is Sabina Muriira, a farmer from Imenti Central Sub-county, who has been using glysophate since 1985 and not seen anyone suffer harmful effects. She said that following warnings by agricultural extension officers, she and other farmers started using protective garments when using the herbicide.


"It is the only effective herbicide against stubborn weeds. There are new ones in the market but they cannot match this," she said, adding that farmers were unlikely to stop using it since it is "the best" in the market.

For Moses Muriuki, a farmer from South Imenti Sub-county who uses glysophate at least once a year to kill invasive weeds, the discovery that the pesticide kills moles offered him a way to get rid of the rodents too.

"It was a coincidental discovery, but now when we want to eradicate moles we use glysophate, because after spraying, within a month or so the moles are all dead."

"As for whether it causes cancer, we would have to check the scientific basis," said Prof Paul Kimurto, from the Crop Science Department at Egerton University. He noted that use in huge quantities for a long time is a cause for worry.

"What we do know is that it affects biodiversity and kills the micro-organisms in the soil that it comes into contact with. It kills beneficial insects, including nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and other beneficial flora and fauna," he added.

He warned that all agrochemicals will have negative effects on people, animals and other living organisms and the environment if precautionary measures from the manufacturer are not followed.

"They are toxic. That's why they kill their targets, but unfortunately, they can harm more than just the targeted nuisances," he added. He also suggested that prolonged exposure to such chemicals can cause a number of health effects in workers exposed to glyphosate formulations.

"They are associated with dizziness, pneumonia, scorching of skin and respiratory problems," he said, adding that there is need to train farm labourers on the safe handling of chemicals.

He also raised concern that residues remain in the environment for a long time after application, especially because of overuse.

"There is a danger that they may be consumed in food by casual labourers in the fields, who eat on site where the chemicals are applied, with residues hanging in the air. Moreover, if applied to food crops just before harvest, people may ingest them. They should be applied at least a month or three weeks before harvest.

There is also the critical issue of herbicide drift, with the wind carrying the chemical to non-target crops.

Take a case where a neighbour sprays their crops with herbicide. Residues drift in the air and fall on your garden of ripe tomatoes or sukumawikithat is ready for harvest. If you unknowingly consume your produce before three weeks have elapsed, you unwittingly consume the chemicals.


Consumer safety and environmental advocacy groups around the world are raising concerns over the possible presence of herbicide residues in certain foods, especially grains.

Grain products in Canada were found to exceed the maximum (glyphosate) residue limit (MRL) about four per cent of the time, a report by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency showed.

Overall, glyphosate was detected 29.7 per cent of the time in 3,188 food samples. However, only 1.3 per cent of samples were above the maximum limit. In the US there were reports of relatively high concentrations of glyphosate in Original Cheerios due to its main ingredient, whole grain oats.

Some countries have imposed restrictions on the chemical. Germany is working on a draft regulation to end use of glyphosate in household gardens, parks and sports facilities, and to set "massive" limits for its use in agriculture.

Following a re-evaluation of the potential carcinogenic risk to humans of several pesticides, including glyphosate in 2015, the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that glyphosate is 'probably carcinogenic'.

The announcement has been highly criticised for not showing evidence that glyphosate causes cancer.

The WHO's cancer research agency is widely considered to be the gold standard for research on cancer, but was accused of editing out portions of the documents they used to review glyphosate to make the chemical look far more harmful than its own research had concluded.

Nevertheless, as a result of the re-classification, a number of governments are considering establishing restrictions on the use of glyphosate in agriculture.

Sri Lanka banned the use of glyphosate in 2017, after it was linked to an increase in the prevalence of chronic kidney disease. Argentina and the Netherlands have also banned its use for similar reasons.

Last year, the European Parliament voted in support of phasing out glyphosate over the next four years and immediately banning its use in households.

In Kenya, there is still no official direction. Efforts to reach the government pesticide and pesticide products regulatory agency, the Pest Control Products Board have been futile, with questions the writers sent to the agency in August remaining unanswered.

The Board regulates the importation, export, manufacture, distribution and use of products that control pests.

Report by Pauline Kairu, Barnabas Bii, Anita Chepkoech and Gitonga Marete.


Landmark ruling on weed killer and cancer

"The news is out," screamed a US lawyer's blog following the ruling in which a California jury awarded $289 million in damages to a school groundskeeper who claimed to have gotten terminal cancer from chronic use of the herbicide Roundup.

The jury at San Francisco's Superior Court of California concluded that the manufacturer of Roundup had failed to warn DeWayne "Lee" Johnson and other consumers of the cancer risks posed by the weed killer, the most popular around the world.

The event has culminated in a horde of other cancer patients including farmers, landscapers, agriculture workers, professional gardeners, groundskeepers, and pesticide and herbicide applicators, coming out of the woodwork to pursue cases against Roundup's manufacturer, which faces more than 5,000 similar lawsuits across the United States, Reuters has reported.

Several studies have linked glyphosate, the chemical used in the popular weed killer to cancer. The chemical is associated with other maladies like kidney diseases, spontaneous abortions, birth defects, skin diseases, respiratory illness, and neurological disease.

However, the most thoroughly researched link is the one between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma – a blood cancer that affects the lymph nodes and tissues, and sometimes even bone marrow. Johnson who suffers from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, says he used Roundup up to 30 times a year.

This was the first case against the manufacturer to go to trial. But Mr Johnson's lawyers said they were swamped with calls as thousands more people sought to file more suits against the agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation.

Johnson's case, filed in 2016, was fast-tracked for trial due to the severity of his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he alleges was caused by Roundup and Ranger Pro, another glyphosate herbicide. His doctors say he is unlikely to live past 2020, added the Reuters' account.

While glyphosate and formulations have been approved by regulatory bodies worldwide, concerns about their effects on humans and the environment persist.

But glyphosate's sweeping implications on users have been the subject of wide-rangingdebate for some time now. It is a contentious subject, and scientists, industry, activists and government remain divided on whether the chemical has any direct link to the array of health concerns.