Risky business

A controversial weed killer is being sprayed on campus grounds at Hawkesbury. What are the implications?...

The novelist Emily Brontë identified, in her delightful book Wuthering Heights, what she called the strange effect of “custom” and how it can “mould our tastes and ideas.” This strange effect that the 19th century author recognised – being custom – is a principle that we all tacitly accept with upmost regularity; we all in our day-to-day lives expect, usually, things to be the same as they were the previous day.

Custom allows habituation, but habituation can be deleterious; habituation can cause one to overlook potential risk, things that appear utterly innocuous, and may harbour dangers. An interesting example of this failure to appreciate potential dangers, through what I suspect as a consequence of “customs habituation,” are the pristine lawns that permeate the beautiful campus at Hawkesbury.
We are all guilty of overlooking the work that goes into the upkeep of the immaculate lawns and gardens of our campuses. The aesthetic appeal of nature that confronts us when we enjoy these splendours do come at a cost, and unless you have first-hand experience working as a groundskeeper, it’s quite easy to discount.

However, what is becoming much harder to discount, is one of the principle ways that our lawns and gardens are maintained. You may have noticed – as I have at Hawkesbury – the signs that are placed around the campus noting in big letters “SPRAY APPLICATION NOTIFICATION.” And that the product in use is the weedkiller Roundup.

SafeWork NSW, whose function as stated in their about-us section, is the New South Wales “workplace health and safety regulator”, released a fact sheet titled “BE AWARE: GLYPHOSATE AND ORGANOPHOSPHATES.”

Glyphosate is a key chemical ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. The fact sheet issued by SafeWork NSW highlights the decision of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to reclassify the carcinogenicity of glyphosate from a possible to a probable carcinogen. This decision comes on the back of a 2015 review by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which claims the evidence is “sufficient” for the reclassification.

“We recognise that there is growing concern worldwide with the use of glyphosate,” answered Dr. Roger Attwater—responding to my email inquiries. Dr. Attwater, who is a senior manager at WSU’s Environmental Sustainability department, stated in an honest and sincere email that the concerns raised about the use of Roundup – and the fact that I, and others, had witnessed the herbicide being used by a groundskeeper without any visible eye/respiratory protection – were “quite reasonable.” He also noted that the contractors who use the herbicide on our campuses are looking for alternatives to glyphosate; and that these alternatives need to be found.

Sharon Lerner, in a 2016 article by The Intercept, discusses several individuals, who due to their vocational situations, were exposed to the herbicide Roundup over extended periods of time, and that these individuals developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma – a blood cancer that originates in the lymph cells. These individuals, Sharon Lerner continues, are plaintiffs in a suit filed against Monsanto (the company that manufactures Roundup).

In a more recent article – last month – published by The Guardian, Carey Gillam details the landmark verdict in San Francisco, where Monsanto – having lost a major case brought about by a groundskeeper who was regularly exposed to Roundup, and alas developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was subsequently ordered to pay $289 million dollars in damages to the groundskeeper. Carey Gilliam furthermore revealed that the jury in this landmark case found that “Monsanto’s officials acted with malice or oppression in failing to adequately warn of the risks.”

In response to the above mentioned litigious cases, and indeed the qualms about the potential dangers of Roundup, Monsanto’s vice president, Scott Partridge, released a statement wherein he said that health institutes and regulatory authorities around the world “support the fact that glyphosate does not cause cancer.”

I should conclude that the motivation to write this piece was not to vilify or to condemn our institutions for the continued use of a potentially dangerous substance; to simply raise awareness was the fundamental basis for this piece. We overlook potential dangers everyday due to custom, and through this our tastes and ideas are moulded; fear of change can cause us to become conceited, and with conceit we lose sight of potential risk. The simple fact of seeing a sign while walking to class, or watching an unprotected groundskeeper possibly risk their health, can cause a ramifying effect whereby all of us should try to shake off the habit of custom, and look into the potential risks to us all, and strive for change if possible.



It should be noted that since the intention to write this piece was transparently known to the Environmental Sustainability office, proactive and preventative action will be subsequently carried out according to the concerns of this piece. Dr. Attwater, the senior manager at the Environmental Sustainability office, who was quoted in an email response, sent a follow-up email stating that, “following discussion with our Grounds Manager, and his liaison with our grounds contractors, we propose to trial the following to minimise public exposure to glyphosate on our campuses.” This trial will consist of “limited use” of glyphosate during university breaks “when fewer people are on campus.” This will be based on a “needs basis,” and that mixing will be carried out “to reduce [the] quantities of glyphosate used.”

Dr. Attwater, also stated that the University is not seeking to “replace one problematic chemical with another.” The trial – once carried out – will be followed up with a search for “ways to reduce glyphosate.”

Author: Daniel Fisher
Daniel is studying biological science and philosophy at WSU.