The Roundup Rumor

An investigation into herbicides used on campus

Copy Editor Rosannah Gosser

Photos courtesy of Leah Wyzykowski and Elizabeth Lough

Roundup Safety label

Upon hearing a rumor that UH Hilo groundskeeping administers Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides around campus, Ke Kalahea subsequently set out to find that landscaping services do in fact use a product sold by one of the most popular, and perhaps most widely contested, brand names in agriculture.

“Our groundskeepers use a product called Roundup WeatherMax, which is a formulation of Roundup that resists being washed off by the rain,” says Kalei Rapoza, UH Hilo’s Interim Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs. “We generally never apply herbicide except in the best of weather conditions (i.e. dry sunny days), but in the event that it does rain unexpectedly, that feature helps prevent it from being washed off.”

“We try not to use herbicide and will attempt to control weeds by other methods such as weed whipping or pulling weeds out by hand,” continues Rapoza. “However, in certain instances we will use herbicide in areas where it is dangerous to use other methods of weed control.” This includes places where loose debris may be kicked up by a weed wacker and pose threats to human health, surrounding structures, or nearby vehicles.

The Monsanto Company was an American-based corporation known for manufacturing agrochemical products; earlier in 2018, however, Monsanto was purchased for $66 billion by the multinational pharmaceutical corporation, Bayer AG, according to the Washington Post. Alleged skepticism often associated with the Monsanto Company’s name stems from concerns about its genetically modified seed crops, the effects of the chemicals in its pesticides and herbicides on human health and the environment, and the dissemination of herbicide-resistant plants.

Roundup WeatherMax is a glyphosate-based formulation deemed “the most commonly used active ingredient in the herbicide industry” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical compound glyphosate works as a weedkiller because it interrupts specific biochemical pathways in plants that are used to build protein and make them grow. WeatherMax contains 48.8 percent glyphosate as an active ingredient, along with 51.2 percent “other ingredients” that include water, soap, and emulsifiers that help the solution stick to plants and permeate plant cell walls.

But because glyphosate’s main mode of action in plants is absent in humans, it is only considered dangerous to human health and possibly carcinogenic at very high doses, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. However, Monsanto-patented strains of seeds, such as those of soybean and corn, are bioengineered to be resistant to the herbicides produced by the same manufacturer. This allows farmers to apply the product in their fields, killing the weeds and not the crops, but presents problems if the weed populations grow to be resistant to the herbicide and can only be managed with larger and larger volumes of herbicide.

Regulated by federal law, herbicides are sold under three various labels that dictate their accessibility on the market, licensing restrictions, and general procedures for application. For instance, restricted-use herbicides require that the applicator receive proper training in handling dangerously high concentrations of the chemical solution.

Categorized as a general-use herbicide, Roundup WeatherMax can be purchased without special license or training; any caveat that the applicator should be aware of is stated explicitly in the fine print on its label. According to Roundup WeatherMax’s Complete Directions for Use, applicators handling spray solutions are advised to wear long-sleeves, socks and shoes, and gloves made of any waterproof material.

“As long as the herbicides can be purchased legally, the university facilities crew technically has the authority to use them as long as they’re following the label of the compound,” states Dr. Jesse Eiben, Assistant Professor of Entomology at UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management.

“Any compound used to kill, repel, or change the reproduction capacity of a plant is required to be assessed, certified, and licensed at the federal level, and then any state can make further restrictions,” Eiben continues. “Hawaiʻi as a state could make more restrictive application rules for herbicides brought into the islands.”

As far as any concerns about the use of Roundup creating uncontrollable strains of herbicide-resistant weeds that wreak havoc to the nicely manicured lawns around campus, Eiben claims there’s nothing to worry about. “In order for a resistance gene to move throughout a population, there must be multiple selection events of plants that go to seed. But with grass that’s mowed a lot, for instance, it doesn’t give it a chance to go to seed.”

However, Eiben emphasizes the importance of transparency and communication about the use of herbicides with the campus community. “The real issue is making sure that people know what we’re doing and making sure that we do it legally. The university has every right to an internal policy and, as a professor, I would love to see all policies in place behind the science. Bringing people’s opinions into that is essential because if you’re secretive, it builds mistrust. People must be able to know what the general risks are and understand those concepts at the appropriate level of involvement.”