WHAT IS KILLING US?
(Originally published on April 1, 2019, on www.afrisponsible.com. Used with permission with slight edits for accuracy and clarity.)
In November 2018, a Judge in San Francisco, California agreed with the plaintiff Dwayne Johnson that RoundUp (a weed killer containing Glyphosate) had caused cancer on his entire body in the case Johnson v Monsanto. He was working as a gardener for a school district for 3 years where he was responsible for spraying RoundUp and sometimes he would be drenched in it. The doctors had given him a few months to live as 80% of his body was covered by cancerous lesions. 
After Mr. Johnson was awarded $78M, Bayer Crop Science’s spokesperson released an email statement to NPR stating in part “…we continue to believe that the liability verdict and damages awards are not supported by evidence at the trial or the law and plan to file an appeal…”  A few months before this ruling, Monsanto, the Company that made RoundUp was acquired by the German Multinational Bayer. However, RoundUp was expected to remain as a brand and even if the brand was to disappear, the active ingredient Glyphosate in Weed Killers would definitely be in different brands. As of August 2018, more than 8,000 lawsuits had come up in the U.S. claiming that RoundUp caused cancer on the individual suing or their deceased family members. 
CANCER CASES RISE AT AN ALARMING RATE IN KENYA
15,000km from San Francisco, a crisis is looming and the response has been panic, helplessness and fighting fires. Nyandarua County is known to be very fertile. That fertility is not evident in the produce only but in weeds that spring up ruthlessly. Farmers in this county consider weed killers a miracle and a solution to the persistent weeds. The use of weed killer in this county by small scale farmers is recent, as is everywhere else in Kenya. Coincidentally, farmers in Nyandarua have been grappling with cancer at an alarming rate which is also a new phenomenon in the area. Former County Women’s Rep is all too familiar with the crisis. In May 2015, she helped raise Ksh 10 million to build Ksh.1 Billion Cancer Center at Miharati, Kipipiri.  I was shocked to learn from a local veterinarian that cows are being disposed to the slaughter house with strange cancers which he has only seen in huge numbers in the last 5 years. Is it possible that cancer cases have risen in Nyandarua County necessitating such a huge cancer treatment center due to something they have adapted recently? Could Glyphosate based Weed Killers like RoundUp be the culprit just like in the California case, as it’s entered their faming practice only in the recent past? Could the cows be getting cancerous because of contaminated drinking water flowing from trenches that drain the soil to prevent water logging in Kipipiri?
Cancer is not confined to Nyandarua County but is wreaking havoc in Nyeri, Meru, Embu, Nakuru, and Eldoret among other regions in Kenya.
Governor Mutahi Kahiga of Nyeri is also familiar with the cancer crisis in Nyeri. In February 2018, he was in Nyeri County Referral Hospital when the facility launched free cancer screening.  Besides the high usage of Weed Killers in the county, some farmers in Nyeri are spraying maturing onions with Weed Killers to dry them quickly so that the entire crop is harvested and transported in one shipment thereby saving cost. The public will be shocked to know that this practice is applied elsewhere to dry up wheat and barley right before harvest.  Is Glyphosate in Weed Killers responsible for increased cancer cases in Nyeri too?
In June 2015, Meru County government started a cancer awareness programme after it was noted that 15% of all cancer cases referred to Kenyatta National Hospital were from Meru. At the time, the County government was planning to build a Ksh. 700 Million Cancer Treatment Center.  Further West, my friend from Eldoret who lives in New Zealand visited home in 2017 after 3 years absence and was shocked at the rate of cancer centers that have cropped up in her home town. This is corroborated by The Head of Oncology and Physiotherapy at Moi Teaching and Referral hospital in Eldoret who reported that cancer cases were rising at alarming rate in the area; 5000 cancer referral cases annually since 2016.  Eldoret produces cereals including wheat, barley and maize. Again, Weed killers are used heavily here to control weeds in Wheat and Maize farms. Are Glyphosate based Weed Killers responsible for the rise of cancer in Meru and Eldoret too?
It is indisputable that cancer is on the rise in Kenya.
ARE WE JUST FIGHTING FIRES? SHOULD THERE BE AN URGENT CONCURENT EFFORT TO ESTABLISH THE SOURCE OF THE RISING CANCER CASES?
It’s obvious that these places have something in common. They are farming communities and their hospitals are overwhelmed by new cancer cases. It is also true that widespread use of weed killer to control weeds is fairly new in Kenya especially with small scale farmers. The response by both National and respective Country leadership has been cancer screening and advocating for more and bigger cancer centers. This is expected of politicians since it easier to get reelected if people can point to a building that they helped build. The building also provides handy political optics to cement legacy and eternal fame. But is screening only enough? Should the solution to this emerging threat be building “modern” cancer centers? Should we only focus on treating or should we find out the source of cancer and nip it in the bud? Are Glyphosate based Weed Killers killing us instead?
To illustrate our current approach; let’s say there was a new cooking gas pipeline just installed in a populated estate. A few years later, the residents are shocked as every other day there is an explosion somewhere in the estate which is maiming and killing the young and old and devastating their neighborhood. The resident reports that these explosions are always preceded by the unmistakable smell of cooking gas. Would it be right if their leaders immediately started raising funds to build Fire Stations to help in FIGHTING FIRES? Would you be shocked if they also wanted to build Burn Treatment Centers to cater for the victims? Aren’t you thinking they just need to turn off the gas and fix the leaking pipes? Don’t you think this is common sense thing to do first? Unfortunately, this FIGHTING-FIRES approach is what we have chosen in Kenya in regard to the rise of Cancer cases.
The right approach is the one employed in Public Health. I will briefly define the model; If rescue workers took drowning victims to a hospital to be treated, the hospital would tend to them but would not be concerned with why they drowned in the first place, even if dozens others continue to flock its wards. Leaders here would advocate for building bigger Accident and Trauma Centers and procuring more Ambulances. In Public Health Practice, the common sense question should be; Why, where and how did they drown? They would quickly discover that a bridge upstream of where the victims were being rescued from was broken. People have been driving into the river and washed downstream half-conscious with traumatic injuries from being banged on the rocks. They would fix the bridge and simultaneously fix the flow of patients permanently, saving lives. Why are National and County leaders not invested in fixing the bridge or at least find out if it’s broken upstream in regards to cancer?
CALIFORNIA LISTS GLYPHOSATE AS A CARCINOGEN
Why are we not making it a priority to embark on an investigative quest to establish if a link exists between increased cancer cases with use of Weed Killers especially in our farming regions? Others have made the link. In March 2015, International Agency for Research on Cancer IARC- (World Health Organization) made this link; it classified Glyphosate (active ingredient in different brands of Weed Killers) “as probably carcinogenic to humans… This classification is further supported by “strong” evidence for genotoxicity, both for “pure” glyphosate and for glyphosate formulations.” In other words, IARC states that, “The probability of developing a cancer will depend on factors such as the type and extent of exposure and the strength of the effect of the agent.”The Agency’s goal post Glyphosate classification is, “to help regulators and the public understand the potential for risk and to reduce exposure”  In 2017, California had required Monsanto to put a label on RoundUp warning consumers that it causes cancer but that requirement was halted by a Federal Judge.  In a separate case however, California was allowed to list Glyphosate (active ingredient in RoundUp and other Weed Killers) as Cancer Causing Chemical and listed this on California Environmental Protection Agency’s website to warn the public. 
Why are we ONLY focused on cancer equipment and centers when the world of science elsewhere is pointing to the obvious suspect? For the politician at least, if they fixed the bridge they would not need to build the hospital and there is no way of taking credit or bragging about cancer that you prevented from happening as it’s not visual like a building. In other words, the politician would invest his efforts in building hospitals or bringing in new cancer equipment to already existing hospitals as this provides visible political mileage. In fact, both National and County Politicians never miss such a photo-op when such a hospital is being launched or when new cancer equipment is brought in. I want to see them taking pictures with test tubes instead, if they must take credit.
On the other hand, the Investor, Equipment and Chemo Drugs Supplier (none of which of course is sourced in Kenya) are ill placed to advocate for the bridge to be fixed. In fact, they are likely to sponsor free cancer screenings which in their boardrooms is referred to as market feasibility study. They make sure that the politician is present to take credit for the free screening as he is the decision maker when it comes to funding the existing hospital to procure equipment, chemo drugs and oncology services. It is possible that the politician may be oblivious of the Supplies’ or Investor’s motive. It also likely he is fully appraised but turns a blind eye when he financially incentivized. In other words, the politician is either oblivious or compromised and the investor/supplier is laden with conflicts of interest to help us solve this malignant calamity.
Likewise, it’s foolhardy to expect the suspect to help you with establishing the cause; he will point you to the convicts. Tobacco is a convict but there’s no evidence that smoking has gone up in farming communities in Kenya. Aflatoxins are convicted but cereals’ farming is not a new practice in Kenya and thus does not explain the new cancer rates explosion. Calcium carbide is a jailbird but the urban population is at a higher risk due to artificially ripened fruits than the farming communities. In a figure of speech, let’s handle one case at a time and focus on this suspect that California, U.S. has listed as cancer causing chemical as is IARC-World Health Organization with caveats.
Kenya and Africa is paying heavily for this myopic approach to preventable diseases like cancer. First, there is an untold pain and suffering by our fellow human beings when cancer strikes. There is the emotional toll on family members as they helplessly watch their loved ones waste away regardless of whatever medical interventions they try, not to mention the financial burden weighing on them. The government tells them to get NHIF card instead of find out what’s killing us. The right to health does not only mean that we should have access to healthcare but the government is obligated to keep our air, water and food free of poisons and pollutants. Secondly, farming employs majority of Kenyans and thus is the largest contributor to our economy. Each farmer we lose means that our economic output will inevitably decline. But the Cancer Investor/Supplier will tell you “better” jobs will be created elsewhere to pick up the slack. They will tell you that more doctors, nurses and technicians will be needed and therefore more schools and teachers training them and the economy will do just fine. This is what I call Disease Capitalism in my book Dollar Altar, where the economy thrives on the backs of the sick and the dying.
I am saying that we shouldn’t find a way of treating those already sick. Not in the least. Kenyatta National Hospital and devolved referral facilities should be equipped with sufficient diagnostic and treatment equipment congruent to the population they serve. But if we don’t fix the pipes leaking with cooking gas, we will keep building more fire stations but the explosions will persist. Remember CANCER IS PREVENTABLE, and thus we need to do proper research to establish the link between Glyphosate in Weed Killers and rising cancer cases in Kenya. We might agree with California that Glyphosate causes cancer and help World Health Organization state in definite terms what it currently classify as probable (it’s 2nd highest rating) and save millions of lives while at it.
A CALL TO ACTION
GOVERNMENTAL AND INSTITUTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY
All public health officials attached to hospitals and health centers nationwide should be mandated to collect targeted information for ALL cancer patients and report the findings to the Ministry of Health for centralization and analysis to paint the National picture regarding Glyphosate. Both Local and National raw data and findings should be available to the public.
The questionnaire should find out the following:-
Whether the cancer patient is a farmer and/ or she has used Glyphosate based Weed Killers preceding the illness would be the first step. If the first question is answered in the affirmative, after obtaining patient demographics, the questionnaire would proceed to establish, first year of use, the duration, quantity and frequency of use. What kind of cancer they have? When did they start experience the symptoms? If they were wearing protective masks and clothes when spraying. Of importance also would be to find out if they sprayed on or near kitchen gardens where they are likely to harvest vegetables for use the same day. Did they spray it on crops or vegetable just before harvesting or taking produce to the market? What do they grow and where do they sell their produce?
Kenya Medical Research Institute should be mandated to carry out a focused randomized study in all farming counties, (to avoid dilution from counties where cancer is not prevalent) testing for Glyphosate level in blood (from people and livestock), tap water, well water, borehole water, rivers, creeks, soil, and food (Cereals, Fruits, Vegetables and Fish.) Genotoxicity studies pre and post spray studies should be carried out in the same effort of solving this problem. This should be done within six months and reported to the public.
THE CHURCH & CONSUMER GROUPS
Churches and Consumer Groups should also do their own independent studies. An organized church can decide to do research within one county or constituency where it’s located. It might even choose to focus on Glyphosate level in drinking water, soil, or Glyphosate blood level in people and/or livestock within the area of study. They obviously should recruit professional services to do the actual testing but they can volunteer for planning and logistical work. A church organization may be endowed with myriad of professionals who can create a committee and guide these toxicological studies, soil and water analysis or epidemiological studies and formulate an independent evidence-based report that will help Heal Our Land.
PERSONAL RESPONSBILITY/ WHAT CAN YOU DO NOW?
As we wait for those we have employed in above institutions and those we trust to advocate for us to do a broad scientific and meticulous study of the problem in Kenya. We can use our cell phones and collect part of the information today. I have created a survey form which can help you and I gather this information. I only ask for you to fill out the form ONLY if the cancer patient (alive or deceased) has or did use, spray or came into contact with Weed Killers containing Glyphosate (a list of different brands will be provided on the questionnaire). Click the link below and fill out the questions; at the end you will see summary charts and text results from other respondents.
Please note that the information will also be available to the public. To avoid duplication, only 1 response is required for 1 patient (person diagnosed with cancer) ; meaning if you are filling the form check with your family members if they have already filled out the form for the patient or if the patient already filled the form himself/herself. Don’t be in a hurry to fill out the form, gather all the information first and fill out the form. Here is the link: –
LET’S NIP CANCER IN THE BUD
Fire Stations and Burn Centers are not the solution, let’s fix the leaking pipes. Trauma Centers and more ambulances are not the solution, let’s fix the broken Bridge. Bigger Cancer Centers and more Cancer Equipment is not the only solution, let us stop this malignant carnage at the source!!!
- National Radio Corporation, Groundskeeper Accepts Reduced $78 Million Award In Monsanto Cancer Suit: https://www.npr.org/2018/11/01/662812333/groundskeeper-accepts-reduced-78-million-in-monsanto-cancer-suit Accessed 2/24/2019
- Reuters, Bayer’s Monsanto Sued By, 8000 Plaintiffs On Glyphosate: https://www.reuters.com/article/bayer-glyphosate-lawsuits/bayers-monsanto-sued-by-8000-plaintiffs-on-glyphosate-idUSL8N1VE3W0 Accessed 2/24/2019
- Daily Nation, Study: Cancer Cases Rise At An Alarming Rate: https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Cancer-Kenya-Study-JAMA-Oncology/1056-2735768-hpldi5z/index.html Accessed 2/24/2019
- The Star, Free Screening for Cancer In Nyeri Hospitals: https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2018/02/17/free-screening-for-cancer-in-nyeri-hospitals_c1715895 Accessed 2/24/2019
- Eco Watch, Why Is Glyphosate Sprayed On Crops Right Before Harvest: https://www.ecowatch.com/roundup-cancer-1882187755.html Accessed 2/24/2019
- Daily Nation, Meru Cancer Surge Blamed on Cereals Accessed 2/24/2019 : https://www.nation.co.ke/counties/meru/Meru-Cancer-Patients-Health-Executive/1183302-2763120-vslbarz/index.html Accessed 2/24/2019
- Media Max, Rising Case of Cancer In Eldoret Raise Alarm: http://www.mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/231200/rising-cases-of-cancer-in-eldoret-raise-alarm/ Accessed 2/24/19
- IARC – WHO, IARC Monograph on Glyphosate: https://www.iarc.fr/featured-news/media-centre-iarc-news-glyphosate/ Accessed 2/24/19
- Judge: Monsanto not Required to Place Warning Labels on Products: https://www.courthousenews.com/judge-monsanto-not-required-to-place-warning-labels-on-products/ (Edit)
- California Environmental Protection Agency. https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/chemicals/glyphosate Accessed 2/24/19
- Common Dreams, ‘Win for Science and Democracy’ as Court Rules California Can List Glyphosate as Probable Carcinogen” https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/04/20/win-science-and-democracy-court-rules-california-can-list-glyphosate-probable Accessed 3/2/2019
What's Your Reaction?
Robert Mwangi is the Author of the book DOLLAR ALTAR. He is a Clinician with Bachelor of Science in Nursing and also holds an MBA in Finance.