More than 9 in 10 Americans live in counties where a controversial herbicide is used in agriculture, according to a new analysis of U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Census Bureau data.
Our analysis has found that more than 96% of Americans, or about 314 million people, reside in counties where farmers use glyphosate, an herbicide that has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was at the center of two separate California verdicts in which juries ruled that the plaintiffs in those cases developed the blood cancer as a result of their use of Roundup.
Thousands more roundup cancer lawsuits are pending, and several are already underway across the country. Our analysis of USGS and Census data shows that virtually all Americans may have cause for concern but that a few cities and metro areas may be at increased risk due to how much glyphosate is used in their communities. Many heavily populated areas are among those using the most glyphosate of all metro areas, including Chicago (which leads the list), St. Louis, Fresno, Indianapolis and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
America Loves Glyphosate
Glyphosate is by far the most widely adopted herbicide, pesticide or insecticide in modern American farming operations. More than 130 million kilograms of glyphosate were used for farming in 2016, according to data from the USGS, which estimates pesticide and other chemical usage for agricultural purposes in the lower 48 states. No other chemical even comes close to glyphosate, as the next most popular substance was atrazine, another herbicide, which recorded around 35 million kilograms of usage.
Roundup is so popular in part because of the widespread availability of Roundup-ready seed, which is a type of seed that’s been genetically modified to tolerate being treated with Roundup. As a non-selective herbicide, Roundup is made to destroy whatever plants it comes into contact with, so Roundup-ready seed enables farmers to treat their entire fields with the herbicide.
Monsanto, the company that first brought Roundup to the market in the 1970s, has introduced many varieties of Roundup-ready seed, including corn and soybeans, which are the two crops most frequently treated with glyphosate.
Crops by Percentage of Glyphosate Used in 2016
- Corn: 34%
- Soybeans: 40%
- Wheat: 5%
- Cotton: 6%
- Fruits & vegetables: 1%
- Rice: 1%
- Orchards & grapes: 3%
- Alfalfa: 1%
- Pasture & hay: 5%
- All other crops: 4%
30 Cities Where Glyphosate Is Used the Most
The Chicago metro area, which includes counties in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, recorded about 1.5 million kilograms of glyphosate use in 2016, by far the most of any other metro area in the U.S. Omaha-Council Bluffs, which covers counties in Nebraska and Iowa, was a distant second, followed by St. Louis, which includes counties in Missouri and Illinois.
While most of the leading cities are in states that are among the top 10 states for glyphosate, that’s not the case across the board. Fresno ranks 7th among cities, but California is 13th among all states.
Interestingly, several of the metro areas we’ve listed are spread across multiple states, many of which are among the top 10 glyphosate states. St. Louis, for instance, includes counties in both Missouri and Illinois, states that both appear in the top 10 glyphosate states. Illinois accounts for six of the top 30 cities, North Dakota has five, and Iowa accounts for four.
Of states that have metro areas on our top 30, Tennessee is the lowest-ranking overall for glyphosate use, coming in at 19th on that list.
Where Are Residents at Highest Risk?
While many of the metro areas that use the most glyphosate have high overall populations (Chicago is the third-most populous city in the nation), comparing population to glyphosate use provides a different way of assessing the risk of glyphosate exposure.
Our analysis also calculated per-capita glyphosate use among the 900+ metro areas in which any glyphosate was used. What we found was that many of the same states appeared but that residents of smaller communities seem to be at higher risk.
Wahpeton, a small city along the North Dakota-Minnesota border, has a metro area population of around 22,000 but saw glyphosate use of more than 560,000 in 2016, putting it at the top of the list of glyphosate use per person. Another North Dakota town, Jamestown, was second and had similar usage levels.
Many of the metro areas on this list use more glyphosate than entire states. For instance, Aberdeen, South Dakota used about 600,000 kilograms of glyphosate in 2016, putting the metro area ahead of states like Arizona, Oregon and New York.
Our analysis included all U.S. counties where any glyphosate use was recorded, and we used the Census Bureau definitions of metro areas to group the counties as well as the Census Bureau’s population estimates. Our glyphosate usage numbers came from the U.S. Geological Survey’s pesticide use estimates for 2016, the most recent year where complete data is available.
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- U.S. Geological Survey, Preliminary Pesticide Use Estimates. (2018.) Retrieved from https://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/pnsp/usage/maps/county-level/PreliminaryEstimates/2016PreliminaryEstimates.zip
- U.S. Census Bureau, County Population. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/popest/datasets/2010-2017/counties/totals/co-est2017-alldata.csv