Stressor Spotlight: Herbicides
Farming practices have come to rely more and more on pesticides and herbicides to control pests and make growing crops easier. But the convenience of spraying herbicides on a crop to get rid of unwanted weeds may come at a major cost.
In this spotlight, we’ll take a look at what herbicides are, the dangers of using them, and how to reduce your herbicide exposure to protect your health.
What are herbicides?
Herbicides are a type of pesticide used in farming and gardening that are used to control unwanted plants. Gardeners and farmers use these chemicals to kill weeds and other unwelcome plants that are determined to be pests. This can help to maximize the productivity of crops and maintain desired aesthetic effects. Herbicides are used in both large-scale agricultural fields and home gardens.
Types of herbicides
There are different kinds of herbicides that work in different ways. Some are specific to one type of plant, while others kill any and all plants they are applied to. Some only kill the part of the plant they come in direct contact with, while others work more systemically and are absorbed through roots or leaves so that they can affect the entire plant.1
Glyphosate is the most commonly used herbicide in the world, and it is found in popular products like Roundup and RangerPro.2 Other common trade names of various herbicides include Milestone, Lontrel, Merit, Crossbow, Arsenal, Vanquish, Oust, Tordon, and many others.
The trouble with herbicide use
Although herbicides help farming to become more efficient and assist gardeners in maintaining beautiful landscapes, they don’t come without a cost. The more and more we come to rely on these chemicals to assist farming and gardening practices, the more trouble they have the potential of causing.
One of the issues with herbicide use is that these chemicals don’t just go away after they are applied to a plant. Residues from the herbicides actually end up on the fruits, vegetables, and grains that are harvested—meaning that we eat the herbicide residues when we eat foods grown with them.2 3
And these residues can become quite pervasive in our food. For example, oats are one of the top crops on which glyphosate is used as a weed killer. Tests done by the Environmental Working Group found that glyphosate was found in every sample tested of oat cereals and oat-based foods like snack bars from popular name brands such as Quaker and General Mills.4 Corn and soy are also often grown with herbicides; analysis by the FDA found that 63% of corn samples and 67% of soybean samples contained glyphosate resides (although these levels were reported to be below acceptable limits).5
Pesticide residues can also be found in sources like drinking water and dust. So when we eat foods treated with herbicides, drink water from sources contaminated with herbicides, or breathe in dust that has herbicides accumulating in it, those herbicides can make their way into our bodies and systems.2 3
Farm workers, people living near large-scale farms, and people who use herbicides and come in contact with them regularly are at increased risk of pesticide exposure.2
To make matters worse, herbicide use has increased dramatically over the years. And over time, plants evolve to become more tolerant and resistant to the herbicides that are being used. As a result, this means you have to apply more of the product more often in order to have the desired effect.
The more widespread the use of herbicides, the higher the chance of health concerns becoming an issue.2 6 After all, the dose determines the poison; the higher the exposure, the worse the effects may be.
Herbicides can also create environmental hazards, which is another reason why they are problematic when used on such a large scale as they are.
The health risks of herbicides
There are many ways in which herbicides may affect human health. The short term, toxic effects of overexposure to herbicides is better understood, but there are also longer term, more chronic ways in which herbicides may affect health.
The short-term effects of herbicide poisoning
If you are accidentally exposed to an herbicide in large amounts at once, it can act as a poison to the body and have serious toxic effects. Most people won’t be at risk for these kinds of acute effects in their daily lives, but if you are around herbicides in your work or daily life, it may be a potential hazard for you. Acute poisoning can happen if the product contacts your skin directly, if it is accidentally swallowed, or if it is inhaled.
Anyone who works with herbicides or lives near areas where they are heavily applied (like where herbicides are sprayed from the air) should be familiar with poisoning symptoms. You may want to watch for symptoms like headache, fatigue, dizziness, weakness, nausea, diarrhea, blurred vision, difficulty breathing, vomiting, twitching, intense thirst, and more.7
The possible long-term health risks of herbicides
Residues from herbicides can make their way into the body through food and drinks, as well as through our environment. Once there, they can be metabolized, stored, and moved throughout the body. Studies have found that herbicides can have wide-ranging effects like damaging our DNA, disrupting hormone function, promoting cell death, and much more.3
There is much debate and more studies are needed to truly understand the human health effects of herbicides. That being said, here are some of the links that are the most well researched:
- Herbicides may have carcinogenic effects in the body. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a “probable human carcinogen.” And in recent years, there has been substantial evidence to suggest that glyphosate may indeed increase the risk for cancer—perhaps to a larger extent than first thought. A 2019 study from the University of Washington found that exposure to glyphosate increased the risk for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma by 41%, quite a striking and significant association.8 It should be noted that the link between herbicides and cancer is a controversial topic; not everyone agrees that the amount of glyphosate we are exposed to is substantial enough to make a real impact.
- Nervous system disorders. Herbicides may pose concerns when it comes to nervous system function. Certain herbicides have been linked to diseases like Parkinson’s, for example.9
- Reproductive effects. In laboratory tests, glyphosate-based herbicides have acted as endocrine disruptors in human cells. This means that they interfere with normal hormone function. Anything that gets in the way of healthy hormone balance has the potential to have harmful effects on reproduction, although more studies are needed to better understand the role herbicides may play in human reproductive disorders.3
There are also possible links between herbicides like glyphosate and other health conditions like hypertension, kidney failure, digestive issues, diabetes, and more.
Natural alternatives to herbicides in your garden
Although herbicides may be easy and convenient, there are natural ways to control weeds in the garden. They may take a bit more planning, time, and effort, but they will be well worth it so that you can have peace of mind when it comes to the health of you, your family, and your environment.
Here are some options to consider to help with natural weed control:
- Use natural products with natural ingredients. You may be able to find natural, organic products in your local garden store to help you with pesky weeds. Look for ingredients like vinegar, natural oils, and salts.
- Make your own natural herbicides at home. Try experimenting with recipes to make your own homemade DIY herbicides. Soap, vinegar, salt, and essential oils like cinnamon oil, citrus oil, clove oil, and lemongrass oil all can be effective ingredients.10
- Use ground covers to your advantage. Design your space intentionally to minimize weed growth. You might use rocks, shrubs that shade the dirt, paved pathways, mulching, or other groundcovers where you want to discourage weeds.
- Garden in containers. They won’t erase the problem completely, but raised beds and pots can help to minimize weeds.
- Pressure wash where you can. Water under pressure is an all-natural solution to weeds! Pressure washing can help you get rid of weeds in your driveway, walkways, and other paved areas (where weeds love to grow in cracks).
- Weed often and early by hand. When gardening the natural way, there’s really no escaping the good ole’ fashioned approach of getting down in the dirt to pull weeds yourself. You can help yourself out and minimize your efforts by weeding early, before your weeds get out of control and go to seed. The more you keep up, the less weeds you will have to deal with.
- Do your research. Spend some time educating yourself on your most problematic weeds. This can help you learn what will work best for you in eradicating those unwanted plants. For example, some weeds do best if you pull them by the root, and others will propagate more if you cut their roots. Visit your local nursery to ask for advice when needed.
How to avoid herbicide exposure in your food
Aside from banning herbicides from your own yard, the next best step in reducing your herbicide exposure is to choose clean foods to fill your diet. This means eating organic and choosing non-GMO when you can.
Foods that are grown organically cannot have synthetic herbicides like glyphosate used on them. Conventionally grown foods, on the other hand, can be laden with herbicide residues. People who eat organic show lower levels of pesticide markers in their urine compared to people who eat conventionally grown foods.11
And this just might translate into some significant health benefits. A study by French government scientists looked at data from almost 69,000 people, and they concluded that those who ate the most organic foods were 25% less likely to get cancer.12
The Environmental Working Group is a great resource for choosing clean foods free from pesticides. Check out their list of the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” to understand which foods are highest and lowest in pesticide residues.
In addition to eating organic, choosing non-GMO foods can also be a healthy practice; GMO foods are often grown with a lot of herbicides, because many have been designed to become herbicide-intolerant. In fact, genetically engineered crops that have been designed for herbicide tolerance account for about 56% of the total glyphosate use worldwide.6
Herbicides stressor Virtual Item
A digital signature representing herbicides is automatically scanned in the Balance Biosurvey, and this Virtual Item can also be scanned in various Select and Elite biosurveys. If out of range, the Herbicides item will show up in a few different categories on the Wellness Report:
- Detoxification System
- Diet & Nutrition
- Toxic Stress
Due to its prevalence, Glyphosate is a specific herbicide that may also show up in the Balance Reports as well as additional reports. Beyond this, the Select and Elite give you an opportunity to scan for additional specific herbicide Virtual Items, some of which include:
For more information about what out-of-range responses of any of these items mean, check out the 5 Questions for Out-of-Range Responses article.
Herbicides balancer Virtual Items
After Herbicides and other stressor Virtual Items are scanned, a scan of balancers is typically done to bring the out-of-range stressors back into range, or back into balance. If Herbicides was out of range, you can see the top products for each of the categories it is listed in within the Balance Wellness Report.
To get more specific, you can see the product that brought the out-of-range Herbicides stressor back into range by looking at the Biomarker Progress Report, which is in the Advanced Report and the Today’s Basic Immunity Report, as well as additional reports in the Select and Elite software.
About Chelsea Clark
Chelsea Clark is a writer and certified health and wellness coach who is passionate about supporting others along their own health journeys. She enjoys helping people make positive, lasting changes so that they can live the happiest, healthiest life possible.
1. “Introduction to Weeds and Herbicides.” PennState Extension. Extension.psu.edu.
2. Gillezeau, C., M. van Gerwen, et al. “The evidence of human exposure to glyphosate: a review.” Environmental Health 18, no. 1 (2019):
3. Nicolopoulou-Stamati, P., S. Maipas, et al. (2016). “Chemical Pesticides and Human Health: The Urgent Need for a New Concept in Agriculture.” Frontiers in Public Health 4, no. 148 (2016).
4. “Roundup for Breakfast, Part 2: In New Tests, Weed Killer Found in All Kids’ Cereals Sampled.” Environmental Working Group. Ewg.org.
5. “FDA In Brief: Final results from FDA’s Pesticide Monitoring Report shows pesticide residues in foods below federal limits.” Food and Drug Administration. FDA.gov.
6. Benbrook C.M. “Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally.” Environmental Sciences Europe 28, no. 1 (2016): 3.
7. Korres, N.E. “Herbicide Effects on Humans: Exposure, Short and Long-term Effects and Occupational Hygiene.” Weed Control Sustainability, Hazards, and Risks in Cropping Systems Worldwide 2 (2019): 14-32.
8. Zhang, L., I. Rana, et al. (2019). “Exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides and risk for non-Hodgkin lymphoma: A meta-analysis and supporting evidence.” Mutation Research 781 (2019): 186–206.
9. “Can Environmental Toxins Cause Parkinson’s Disease?” The John Hopkins University. Hopkinsmedicine.org.
10. Chappell, M., G. Knox, & R.H. Stamps. “Alternatives to Synthetic Herbicides for Weed Management in Container Nurseries.” The University of Georgia. Extension.uga.edu
11. Curl, C.L., S.A. Beresford, et al. “Estimating Pesticide Exposure from Dietary Intake and Organic Food Choices: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).” Environmental Health Perspectives 123, no. 5 (2015): 475–483.
12. Baudry, J., K.E. Assmann, et al. “Association of Frequency of Organic Food Consumption With Cancer Risk: Findings From the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort Study.” JAMA Internal Medicine 178, no. 12 (2018): 1597–1606.