Epigenetic Effects of Herbicide Exposure

Dr Paul Winchester, a paediatrician at the Neonatal and Intensive Care Unit in Indianapolis, US, has investigated a suspected cause of high numbers of birth defects in patients.[i]

In a recent paper, he concentrated on the effects of atrazine exposure, which is one of the most widely used herbicides in the US and is commonly detected in drinking water.[ii] Atrazine is a banned substance in the European Union, given persistent groundwater contamination. Some studies have found that atrazine is an endocrine disruptor, with disruption leading to ‘adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects’.[iii]

DNA is not unchangeable. This means that environmental factors have the ability to change DNA and acquired traits may be passed on to subsequent generations; epigenetic changes.

Is there a link between atrazine in drinking water and birth defects?

Mr Winchester’s research team exposed a control group of rats to atrazine. Over several generations, the researchers observed epigenetic changes in offspring.

The researchers found more abnormalities and diseases in later generations of rats. In the 1st generation, the rats were underweight. In the 2nd generation, there was increased incidence of testicular and breast cancer. In the worst affected 3rd generation, it was reported that:

‘50 percent of offspring had multiple diseases, emotional and physical problems, hyperactivity, abnormal sperm, and premature puberty’.

Dr Winchester has heralded his discovery of a link between chemical exposure and epigenetic changes as ‘the most important next discovery in all of medicine’.

In last week’s edition of BC Disease News (here), we reported that Monsanto, the manufacturers of glyphosate-containing Roundup herbicide, were ordered to pay compensation for causing one of its consumer’s to develop non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

Elsewhere, in a separate, co-authored study of 71 pregnant women in Indiana, Dr Winchester found detectable levels of glyphosate in 93% of urine samples above the limit of detection (0.1 ng/mL).[iv]

Higher glyphosate levels were observed in those who lived in rural areas and those who consumed more than 24 oz. of caffeinated beverages daily. No drinking water samples had detectable glyphosate levels, however, which suggests that this was not the source of exposure.

Glyphosate levels were significantly correlated with shortened gestational periods, but were not correlated with foetal birth weight and head circumference.

Concerns were raised in the recent Indiana study, after the authors noted that:

‘... virtually every pregnant mother has glyphosate in her body at the time that she is creating fetal (epigenetic) imprints in her baby’.[v] 

Epigenetic effects and adverse foetal development, therefore, could add another dimension to product liability glyphosate claims.

As such, Dr Winchester has called for research to be conducted in the field of multigenerational effects of chemical exposure.



[i] Ken Roseboro, Environmentally-Caused Disease Crisis? Pesticide Damage to DNA Found 'Programmed' Into Future Generations’ (16 August 2018 Eco Watch) <https://www.ecowatch.com/generational-harm-of-pesticides-2596453994.html> accessed 17 August 2018.

[ii] McBirney M, King SE, Pappalardo M, Houser E, Unkefer M, Nilsson E, et al. (2017) Atrazine induced epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease, lean phenotype and sperm epimutation pathology biomarkers. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0184306. <https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184306> accessed 20 August 2018.

[iii] ‘Endocrine Disruptors’ (NIEHS) <https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/index.cfm> accessed 20 August 2018.

[iv] S. Parvez, et. al, Glyphosate exposure in pregnancy and shortened gestational length: a prospective Indiana birth cohort study Environmental Health 2018 17:23 <https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-018-0367-0> accessed 20 August 2018.

[v] Ibid at 18.