A chemical regarded as a "valuable tool" for controlling weeds along Whatcom County roads is seen as a grave threat by others, and the County Council is stuck in the middle.
The council on Tuesday, June 3, started a charged discussion over whether the herbicide glyphosate is safe, and whether the county should continue to use it.
To assess the benefits and risks of glyphosate, a chemical Monsanto developed and branded as Roundup, council members said they want to make sense of the latest science and avoid misinformation.
The county has been using less and less glyphosate over the years, said Laurel Baldwin, who coordinates the county's Noxious Weed Control Board and has been working on the county's weed program for 25 years.
"We're able to use this product at very low rates," Baldwin said. "We're minimizing its use as much as we can, but we still have to keep within our budgets to keep the roads safe."
A study by the state Department of Transportation showed that mechanical methods of weed control - mowing, weed whacking, pulling by hand - cost five times more than spraying.
In a presentation to the council on Tuesday, Baldwin outlined the reasons for roadside weed control: It protects the pavement and the safety of drivers, it improves drainage, and it eliminates invasive weeds that can poison livestock and degrade wildlife habitat.
Residents can sign an agreement saying the county won't spray in front of their property if the owners agree to maintain the roadside themselves. Also, people sensitive to pesticides can get on a Washington State Department of Agriculture registry to prevent anyone from using the chemicals near their property.
"I don't really feel that this is something we need to eliminate," Baldwin told the council. "It's an extremely valuable tool."
About 20 people who opposed the use of glyphosate attended Tuesday's meeting.
Wendy Harris countered Baldwin's statement that 40 years of studies showed glyphosate was safe. Harris cited emerging science indicating possible long-term effects of the chemical.
"It takes years for impacts to show up," Harris said. "Evidence is coming in - it's not safe for people, animals or the environment."
Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world, according to studies. It has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Union. The EPA has determined glyphosate is not likely to cause cancer.
The Washington Toxics Coalition, which advocates for reduced pesticide use, does not include glyphosate on its list of most hazardous chemicals.
"Certainly, as research continues, it can always move onto it," said Erika Schreder, staff scientist for the coalition.
County Council members who have waded into the literature on glyphosate have found it difficult to know what to trust.
"There's a lot of 'I hate Monsanto' websites that claim to have evidence of glyphosate problems," council member Ken Mann said. "But I also came across quite a few studies from what appear to be respectable scientific journals that raise questions."
Complicating some council members' research further is their distrust of the U.S. agency that has determined that glyphosate is safe.
"I don't want to rely on Monsanto or the EPA ... to make the final evaluation on this," Mann said. "I understand the need to protect our roads and the motoring public, but I don't want to be tasked with the question of, are we unleashing toxic harm into the natural world and into humans and into the food chain. I need to be more sure of what we're doing."
While hundreds of studies over four decades have not raised any serious alarms among government regulators, published science over the past three years suggests at least the potential of a more serious threat from glyphosate.
"We know very little about its long-term effects to the environment," U.S. Geological Survey chemist Paul Capel said in a statement announcing the release of a 2011 study. He and his coauthors measured how much glyphosate lingers in the environment.
"Glyphosate was frequently detected in surface waters, rain and air in areas where it is heavily used in the (Mississippi River) basin," the announcement said. "The consistent occurrence of glyphosate in streams and air indicates its transport ... into the broader environment."
A German study published in 2014 found glyphosate accumulates in animal tissues and can be detected in the urine of animals on organic farms. Those farms could have been contaminated by glyphosate in the air and rain, the study said.
"Presence of glyphosate in urine and its accumulation in animal tissues is alarming even at low concentrations," the study said. "Unknown impacts of glyphosate on human and animal health warrant further investigations."
The EPA is taking a fresh look at glyphosate, and it could decide by 2015 to restrict its use or even pull the chemical off the market. A statement provided by the EPA for this story said a preliminary assessment of glyphosate's risks should be released this year.
In the statement, the EPA defended itself against skeptics such as Mann and others at Tuesday's council meeting.
"The EPA requires more than 100 different scientific studies and tests from the company(ies) requesting the pesticide registration," the statement said. "Data from multiple sources are reviewed to ensure that the use of glyphosate, as it is currently registered, continues to be safe for both human health and the environment. ... The agency always strives to base its decisions in sound science and is open to considering information to inform its understanding of potential risks from pesticides."
Council member Carl Weimer, an environmentalist, said he was surprised to see the opposition to glyphosate at Tuesday's meeting, considering there are more dangerous chemicals in use. He has been seeking alternatives to chemical sprays on county roads for the past 15 years, but he hasn't found one that would work.
"I think we revisit this every year or every other year," Weimer said at Tuesday's meeting. "It's an ongoing concern of the community."
Given the new round of concerns, Weimer said in an interview it might be worthwhile to find out how well the roads are holding up in no-spray counties in the state. (The Toxics Coalition lists six: Thurston, Snohomish, Clallam, Jefferson, San Juan and Island.)
Baldwin said she personally relates to the suspicion surrounding Monsanto and respects people's distrust of the EPA in general - but not when it comes to glyphosate.
"It's probably one of the most analyzed and studied pesticides that there is in existence," she said.
"I just can't believe that the EPA and Monsanto have blocked every single study that has come out to make sure the product is everywhere. The product is already everywhere."
"As it currently stands," Baldwin said, "there's no reason to change it at this time, in terms of glyphosate use."