Photo by Ryan Gregory

We interviewed Tony Norris, a California licensed Pest Control Advisor (“PCA”) since the mid-80’s, about glyphosate and Monsanto’s Roundup. Although Tony is retired, he continues to renew his license every two years, taking a minimum of 40 hours of approved courses related to biological sciences and pesticide laws and regulations. Although retired, he continues to work on a pro-bono basis. With only about 4,000+ PCAs actively licensed throughout the State to help keep applications scientifically correct and legal, we are grateful to have his expertise in a time there is so much mis-information and divisiveness in our public on almost every issue.

Napa Vision 2050: What makes glyphosate so toxic?

Norris: Monsanto included a fatty acid molecule in the Roundup product line containing glyphosate that is a sort of long freight train capable of carrying other man-made toxicants. Because of this long fatty acid molecule, Roundup is very adept at attaching to the leaf cuticle and better enables penetration of the product into the other plant tissues. Roundup is still the most often used glyphosate product favored by trained applicators and homeowners, and often is readily mixed with other chemicals which may or may not be more toxic. Some Roundup labels will even suggest which other products it can be mixed with. It is a versatile product, perhaps used too often in combination with other chemicals.

NV 2050: From State pesticide manuals we understand there can be as much as 50% overspray of pesticides. Does this freight train of a fatty acid molecule survive wind drift?

Norris: Yes. Off-target, on an overspray or on a wind drift of more than 5 mph that molecule could carry an assortment of mixed toxic chemicals toward other tissues besides its intended weed target. Glyphosate by itself may land on bare soil or in dirty water and become negated on the spot, or it may continue to drift held by the fatty acid until it comes to rest on some other living tissue. Drift is too much of a risk. This is an important consideration for not recommending use of the product near to clear water tributaries supplying potable municipal water systems or in close proximity to possible wet contact with non-target tissues.

NV 2050: The current court cases named glyphosate/Roundup as causes of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in licensed applicators. Is the culprit the fatty acid carrier or the glyphosate?

Norris: Both. You might say the fatty acid adjuvant is an enabler of the active ingredient killer. It is reasonable to surmise that even experienced applicators have been exposed to the chemical(s) more often. But, we may never fully know what risks many more unwitting residents have taken with their own health and that of their families and neighbors in the privacy of their properties over the years. For many of those years Monsanto refused to share with experts like attorneys and PCAs what adjuvant they had put in Roundup, claiming it to be a trade secret.

A PCA writes a recommendation like a doctor would write their private patient’s prescription, both based on what is empirically known. A difference from a doctor’s prescription is the PCA’s recommendation becomes a legal document, and can even help inform public CEQA determinations. A PCA can write many restrictions into a recommendation limiting use of the product below maximum expectations of the manufacturer’s label. In California, it is not enough for a licensed (or pilot) applicator to read just the label. A PCA recommendation is also expected for addition of an adjuvant into a spray solution. A PCA will predetermine effects of all chemicals put together in solution, for some adjuvants can become phytotoxic just applied alone without regard. Some could be little more than soap – the expert would know the difference. From an integrated pest management (IPA) perspective the PCA would take into account known prospects for medical health as well as environmental protection and crop production.

NV 2050: Yet Roundup is readily available on the shelves of stores for the home gardener to use. If Roundup is so toxic, why don’t we ask the Board of Supervisors to ban its sale?

Norris: Well, there, in my opinion is the greatest failing of California pesticide laws and regulations. Ours is the most populous State in the nation. The risks of these economic poisons leaving retail store shelves in the hands of what mostly must be untrained consumers is perhaps exponentially tragic in the long run. Too many of their private fence-lines back up to community resources like streams, wetlands, school yards, hospital grounds, parks and other open spaces for cumulative effects of overspray drift not to be occurring. How can we know to be proactive? Perhaps most of these home users may make a quick read of product label, but may not even know what oversight an Ag Commissioner or PCA has in the other responsible sectors. To be sure, State Law requires that all such products originate with only the regulated California based wholesalers and distributors. Stock of their products that come from out of state must arrive through them only with attached California dedicated labels (and not just federal EPA identifications good enough in as many as 49 other states). Once they then arrive on the retail shelf, it is seemingly open season on weeds. There is a sort of unspoken expectation that the typically untrained, part time, seasonal and/or underpaid store clerk has some sort of ill-defined oversight. Check out of the product occurs anyway.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has the ultimate legal responsibility to determine what products are allowed and in what sector throughout this State (without any further legislative or ballot action). The Ag Commissioner in each county has regulatory authority. For Napa County to consider some sweeping limitation without impingement on the State system, it would be best to carefully craft workable language with the Ag Commissioner, DA, County Counsel and perhaps a PCA or two.