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The Environmental Impact of Chemical Weed Killers: Is It Worth It?

When it comes to growing things from the ground, whether flowers or food, weeds are perhaps the biggest nuisances to farmers and gardeners alike.

But controlling and ultimately killing those weeds has become an even bigger issue. Like kudzu, the controversy and concern over the environmental impact of weed killers continue to grow.

Keep reading as we explore the potential impact of using chemical herbicides and what you should know for backyard gardening.

Person wearing protective gloves for spraying herbicide.

The Labels: Can They Be Trusted?

Glyphosate. Atrazine. Triazine. When listed on the back of a bottle of weed killer sold by your local hardware or supply store, these ingredients seem innocuous enough, but are they really safe for use?

Some claims have been made stating that these chemicals are toxic and pose a major threat to not only plant and animal life but also to human life and should be banned. Other claims state these chemicals have been thoroughly vetted and deemed safe.

Yet, with the potential risks to human health and our environment, many are asking the same question: Is using chemical herbicides really worth it?

To answer that question, let’s look at the most widely used (and most hotly debated) chemical herbicide in the U.S.: Glyphosate.

Graphic of molecular chain for glyphosate, a main ingredient in weed killers.

The Culprit: What is Glyphosate?

Glyphosate, first registered as a pesticide in the early 70s, is the most common chemical herbicide in the United States. It has both commercial and residential uses ranging from agriculture to lawn care and can be found easily in stores across the nation under the brand name of Round-Up.

Glyphosate, derived from the amino acid glycine, kills weeds by inhibiting specific enzymes so the targeted plant can no longer produce the necessary proteins for growth. It can be sprayed or injected into weeds and plants and comes in several different formulations.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 250 million pounds of glyphosate are applied to American farmland yearly, 84% of that being used on the corn, soybean, and cotton crop.

For nearly 50 years now, glyphosate has been the most prevalent herbicide in the United States and other countries across the world. Still, new studies and lawsuits have emerged, calling into question the safety of glyphosate and the potentially devastating long-term effects of its use.

The Claim: The Negative Impact of Using Glyphosate

One major concern over the continued use of this herbicide is its potentially damaging effects on soil, non-targeted plant life, and water sources.

A garden with plants surrounding a pond. The environmental impact of weed killer on your entire garden has to be considered before using weed control products.

Many fear that excessive spray and other improper applications will result in the chemical ending up where it was never supposed to be. Which, in turn, would generate unfavorable and dangerous conditions.

There are glyphosate studies that show a very real possibility of water pollution that can occur due to soil leaching, adding volume to these concerns.

Environmental Impact of Weed Killer on Wildlife

Environmentalists also claim that wildlife, including birds, fish, insects, earthworms, and microorganisms, are also adversely affected by using this chemical. Not even fungi, which help provide plant life and crops with essential nutrients and water, are exempt.

The issue of affected wildlife raises even more questions and concerns.

The health of honey bees, for example, is now believed to be declining due to their exposure to glyphosate. Honey bees are vital to our ecosystem because they work as crop pollinators.

Using glyphosate appears to alter the bacteria in the bees’ digestive system, leaving them vulnerable to infection. With the number of honey bees dropping at an alarming rate, many are pointing fingers at the overuse of chemical herbicides.

Closeup of a honey bee on yellow flowers.

And it’s not just the bees.

Human beings are now looking at glyphosate use and exposure as the culprit for certain health-related issues.

In 2019, a federal judge ruled in favor of a 70-year-old farmer with cancer, who was awarded substantial monetary damages after the courts ruled that using the herbicide was a contributing factor in his condition. The creators of Roundup were ordered to pay the farmer more than $80 million dollars as compensation.

Other similar cases have also ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, justifying their claims that the chemical herbicide was, if not the main culprit, a contributing factor in their various illnesses.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) claimed in a 2015 report that the popular herbicide was “probably carcinogenic to humans.

Another 2019 study from the University of Washington showed that those exposed to glyphosate face an increased risk (41%) of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In June of 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) that showed more than 80% of urine samples collected for the survey had detectable traces of glyphosate in them, indicating their exposure to the herbicide.

The concern about health-related risks associated with exposure to glyphosate is growing with each passing year. Considering the millions of pounds of herbicide applied to American farmland each year, it is not surprising.

Farm workers on a tractor spraying for weeds in a newly plowed field.

The Science: What the Research Tells Us

Proponents of chemical herbicides argue that given glyphosate’s chemical makeup as a soil binder and the fact that it gets broken down and inactivated relatively fast after application, the threat level to plant, animal, and human life is very low.

In 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services published a report that stated that those most at risk from exposure were farmers and laborers that used glyphosate regularly. Those that live near farms were also said to have an increased risk.

However, the EPA has clearly stated that there is no risk to human health from the use of glyphosate. The EPA also argued against the IARC’s findings stating the carcinogenic nature of glyphosate, stating that the IARC worked with a limited dataset when it made its claim.

Still, more and more lawsuits continue to emerge linking chemical herbicides to cases of cancer and other illnesses. Yet, the EPA maintains that glyphosate does not pose a serious threat to human life.

The EPA acknowledged some potential ecological risks to plant and animal life, including a low level of toxicity for honey bees, but stated that additional research was needed.

The Controversy: Is Glyphosate Truly Bad for the Environment?

So, the real question is this: Is glyphosate and other chemical herbicides really bad for the environment?

Well, it depends on who you ask.

Advocates for banning the chemicals will argue ardently about the toxic nature of herbicides, pointing at the numerous active court cases, studies, and articles on the issue.

Proponents of chemical herbicides will argue that while some risk may be involved, the threat of adverse effects is low and thus does not negate the benefits.

This issue is not only debated here in the United States but across the world.

However, as the debate grows louder, many countries are moving towards banning the substances in question.

In the Netherlands, glyphosate has been banned for personal, non-commercial use due to the rising concern over health risks. Vietnam has also enacted a ban on the herbicide, followed by Germany, which is phasing out the use of Glyphosate by the end of 2023. Several other countries have also banned or are moving to ban the substance in the future.

The United States currently has no national ban in place. However, in July of 2021, it was announced that Bayer, the company responsible for Roundup, will discontinue its sale of the product for residential and personal use by the end of 2023. However, Bayer claims this decision was made to “manage litigation risk and not because of any safety concerns.”

View of bottles of Round Up weed killer on store shelves.

With so many conflicting and contrasting studies, articles, statements, and evidence, it is difficult to find a direct answer as to whether or not the use of chemical herbicides such as glyphosate is truly harmful to the environment.

There is simply no concrete answer to be had at this time. At least not yet.

The Solution: Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Chemical Weed Killers

As the debate about the use of herbicides continues to rage on, the weeds continue to grow.

It is unknown when a consensus might be reached about the true environmental impact of chemical weed killers. In the meantime, many have turned to more natural and eco-friendly solutions for tackling weeds.

Not only are these methods affordable and easy, but they also take out unwanted weeds without the risk of toxic exposure.

Here are three ways you can kill weeds without causing harm to yourself or the environment

Natural Methods

Bottle of white vinegar.

Cornmeal, salt, and vinegar are three common products you might have in your pantry. They’re also excellent and natural weed killers. Using household products like this eliminates any concern over chemical effects and is easy to apply.

A light layer of cornmeal will stop seeds from germinating, and a pinch of salt at the base of the weed will effectively kill it. Be careful, though. Cornmeal will stop all seeds from germinating, and salt can make the soil temporarily unsuitable for planting–so use with care!

White vinegar is another excellent natural method of taking out unwanted weeds. However, like with cornmeal and salt, vinegar will affect anything it comes in contact with, so make sure to watch where you apply.

Hand Removal

A bucket of pulled weeds showing how long taproots can be.

By far the most inexpensive option, hand removing your weeds is as eco-friendly as it comes!

When removing weeds by hand, it is important to ensure that you are removing the roots of the weed to ensure it doesn’t go back. This method is effective but requires a lot of time and manual labor.

There are certain tools that can make the task a bit easier, however. If you’re in the market for a quality hand-weeding tool, check out this list of the thirteen best weeding tools on the market.

It’s also important to weed early and often; it’s best to set a weekly or biweekly schedule and make weeding a regular habit to ensure your garden doesn’t become overrun.

Store-Bought (Non-Toxic) Products

A garden sprayer being used to spray weeds along a fence.

If natural home remedies aren’t your thing, there are several organic, non-toxic products on the market that you can buy. Some of the more popular brands include

As with any weed killer, however, do your research to ensure you’re purchasing the best product for your needs.

With so many eco-friendly alternatives to chemical weed killers, it’s easy to see why people are moving away from herbicides and choosing safer and more natural options.

The Conversation Continues

There is still much to be discovered and understood about glyphosate and other herbicides and how they work, but the reality is that much more research is needed.

There are still so many unanswered questions and factors to consider before we truly get to the root of this issue.

So, the big question is: Are using chemical weed killers really worth it?

The answer: Only time will tell.

It may be some time before we know the full extent of the environmental impact of chemical weed killers, but for now, the conversation continues, which is what’s important.

Weed Killers: What’s Right for Your Garden?

A bluebird sitting on the branch of a flowering crabapple tree.

The more research and data collected, the more scientists and environmentalists will be equipped to tackle the issue. Eventually they’ll determine what is fact, what is fallacy, and what risks Glyphosate and other herbicides like it pose to us and our environment.

Until then, each gardener has to decide whether or not chemical weed killers are the right choice for their garden or landscape.

If you feel like you need to learn more about these pesky garden tenants, check out our weeds page to learn all about different weed varieties, treatment options, and surprising information.