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    A Fishy Attempt To Link Glyphosate And Celiac Disease
    By Steve Savage | March 31st 2014 12:13 AM | 16 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    Stephanie Seneff (a computer scientist at MIT),  and Anthony Samsel (a retired consultant), have recently been attempting to link the use of the herbicide glyphosate to a long list of modern maladies. Their latest such attempt to is Celiac disease.  

    The overall argument for the glyphosate/Celiac link has already been quite thoroughly debunked by a Celiac expert, but there is one other good reason to dismiss the "link" which I would like to describe.  

    It has to do with a "Fishy" study about glyphosate and fish which is so flawed that it should never have been published in the first place.  That is why it can't be used to support this chemical/disease link.

    Celiac is real. The glyphosate link isn't.

    The Fishy Study

    Samsel and Seneff cite a publication by Indian scientists from 2009 (Senapati et al). In that study, ugly effects were observed in the digestive track of the fish that were exposed to water containing a glyphosate-based herbicide.  Such a finding would be surprising, because for decades, glyphosate has been a preferred method of weed control in aquatic settings, specifically because it has unusually low toxicity to fish and other aquatic organisms.  

    Glyphosate is particularly valued by the people who are trying to control invasive weeds in wetlands, lakes etc. as described here for CAWA and FL.  They spray it on the part of the weed that is above the water because that is the only way it is effective, but obviously some glyphosate gets into the water.  Still, this use has long been considered to be safe for fish.  Did this paper document a previously unrecognized issue?

    In their analysis of the Indian fish study, Samsel and Seneff concluded that the effects observed on the fish digestive systems were "highly reminiscent of Celiac disease." To me, the effects sounded much more reminiscent of surfactants.  Fish are very sensitive to those.

    When I read the Senapati article, it quickly became obvious that this was indeed the problem.  These researchers specifically stated that they used a commercial formulation of glyphosate manufactured in India called Excel Mera-71.  A quick web search shows that Mera-71 is a formulation made for terrestrial, not aquatic use. The manufacturer describes it as containing glyphosate and "a blend of non-ionic and cationic surfactants."

    At least in the US, products registered for use on weeds growing in water do not contain surfactants because surfactants are well known to injure fish. There was no surfactant control, so the reviewers of the Senapati study should never have let them conclude that the effects were from exposure to glyphosate. It is much more likely that the fish were injured by the surfactants.

    Fish Abuse

    NOOOO! Not another water change!

    There were other experimental design problems with the Senapati study.  They chose to put the fish into water containing 4mg/L of glyphosate.  
    To achieve that sort of concentration by spraying weeds in even shallow water would have required spraying the weeds above the water at many times the maximum rate allowed. (Here is an EPA label for a glyphosate product for use on weeds in water - AquaMaster). 

    Then, to make matters worse, the water in which the fish were being kept was replaced every other day for 45 days with a fresh solution of 4 mg/L glyphosate along with the inappropriate surfactants.  That would not correspond to any imaginable use-scenario in the real world. So basically, Senapati et al abused several poor fish for more than six weeks to demonstrate what was already well known - surfactants hurt fish.  The only thing remarkable about the study is that the fish even survived. Glyphosate is still a good option for the control of aquatic weeds.  No, it does not cause Celiac.

    Some Additional Thoughts About The Scientific Process

    This study was a "literature-only" review which involved no actual experimentation.  That can be ok.  The literature is there to be the subject of scholarship.  On her own web page Seneff explains that she places her work in the "open access journal," Entropy, because it is "willing to publish novel hypotheses," and because  "the papers are subjected to rigorous review by experts who were not beholden to industry influence."  

    That can be ok too as the making of hypotheses is the starting point for the scientific method and unbiased reviews are important for science.  However, if one is going to attempt to do science this way you can't assume that every paper you find actually shows what it claims to show, even if it's what you would like it to show.   If these authors wish to review papers this far outside of their own discipline and training, they would do well to confer with people more familiar with these topics. I would be happy to recommend such resources for future publications.

    In science, even when research is published in a "peer reviewed" journal, that does not finish the vetting process.  Particularly if some new finding challenges previously accepted ideas, the next stage is critical.  Does the work hold up to scrutiny by the broader scientific community?  Can the results be repeated by others?  The Senapati and Samsel /Seneff papers fail to pass these tests.  

    Researchers that are really trying to understand conditions like Celiac disease will continue to look at other, more likely causes.  Unfortunately, in the extensive, anti-technology sector of the internet, this new "link" will likely live on and joint the list of other myths about food and agriculture.

    Celiac micrograph image from Wikimedia Commons

    Unhappy Fish Image from Kiler129's Photostream

    You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com


    It was only a matter of time before the money in gluten-free led to more aggressive claims about a science rationale. 

    As Gary Taubes put it: "I used to joke with my friends in the physics community that if you want to cleanse your discipline of the worst scientists in it, every three or four years, you should have someone publish a bogus paper claiming to make some remarkable new discovery — infinite free energy or ESP, or something suitably cosmic like that. Then you have it published in a legitimate journal ; it shows up on the front page of the New York Times, and within two months, every bad scientist in the field will be working on it. Then you just take the ones who publish papers claiming to replicate the effect, and you throw them out of the field. A way of cleaning out the bottom of the barrel."
    Ah, if it were only that east
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Steve, do you really think that's such a good idea to throw out of the field any scientists with unfettered imagination and clean out the bottom of the barrel? Wouldn't that just leave the  groupthinkers muddying up the bottom? :-

    'Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.'

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    It isn't any great freedom of imagination and creativity to latch onto a popular bandwagon based on junk papers. It is instead mercenary and exploitative. Science has those, just like any field and no one would miss them if they stuck to politics instead.
    Helen, Well, first of all there isn't any process for throwing anyone out of fields so its a non-issue.  When I said I wish it was that easy to Hank I was talking about stopping the influence of bad information.  There is no process for stopping people outside of science from using studies like these to push their agendas, even when the flaws are egregious.  
    Steve Savage
    Thanks, Steve. For anyone experienced in the life sciences, critiquing the S/S paper is like shooting fish in a barrel (amusing, but also rather depressing).

    However, chances are that there are only a handful of people on earth who actually read the paper all the way through, and even fewer who checked to see if the references actually validated their claims. No, the real audience is surely the people who will read the title and abstract, and assume that the rest of the article actually provides support for the inflammatory claims. The presence of a published article with hundreds of impressive-seeming references adds an air of legitimacy, especially to those who are already satisfied that they have identified the demons of the modern world (e.g. chemicals, big-food, Monsanto, GMO-derived foods, government corruption, etc.). As as scientific document, I think that most people will agree that the paper is deeply flawed, but as a political tool, hats off.

    BTW I would recommend using the link to the actual journal, since, for some reason, the article contents on a couple of activist websites appear to be different:

    Good points Peter.  Thanks
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I think you make a very valid and interesting point about how Samsel and Seneff in their paper 'Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance' cite a publication by Indian scientists from 2009 (Senapati et al) in which ugly effects were observed in the digestive track of the fish that were exposed to water containing a glyphosate-based herbicide and that your quick investigations revealed that the Indians used a commercial formulation of glyphosate manufactured in India called Excel Mera-71 that is a formulation made for terrestrial, not aquatic use. The manufacturer describes it as containing glyphosate and "a blend of non-ionic and cationic surfactants." You also pointed out that there were many experimental design problems in this Indian study that these researchers have unfortunately linked to.

    However, I have just read the whole paper by Samsel and Seneff and it makes many more citations to potentially adverse glysophate effects on other animals' guts for example :-

     'Evidence of disruption of gut bacteria by glyphosate is available for poultry (Shehata et al., 2013), cattle (Krüger et al., 2013), and swine (Carman et al., 2013). Glyphosate disrupts the balance of gut bacteria in poultry (Shehata et al., 2013), increasing the ratio of pathogenic bacteria to other commensal microbes. Salmonella and Clostridium are highly resistant to glyphosate, whereas Enterococcus, Bifidobacteria, and Lactobacillus are especially susceptible. Glyphosate was proposed as a possible factor in the increased risk to Clostridium botulinum infection in cattle in Germany over the past ten to fifteen years (Krüger et al., 2013b). Pigs fed GMO corn and soy developed widespread intestinal inflammation that may have been due in part to glyphosate exposure (Carman et al., 2013).
    just to mention a few, its a pretty massive paper!

    So the reference to the flawed Indian fish study is only one of many potentially negative glyphosate gut citations, what about all of the others? Are they all based on invalid data and bad experimental design as well? If so then isn't there an awful lot of badly designed and conducted scientific studies about the negative effects of glysophate being done and why is that do you think?

    Finally, I couldn't help wondering why there is absolutely no mention of brocolli in Table 1 of their paper on page 173 that shows the 'complete list of glyphosate tolerances for residues in food crops in the U.S. as of September 18, 2013, as reported in: EPA: Title 40: Protection of Environment.' 

    Do Americans give it a different name maybe? I love brocolli but if it is being sprayed repeatedly with glyphosate I imagine it could retain quite a bit of residue even after washing, simply because of the many tiny open buds or flowers that brocolli contains could potentially trap anything that is sprayed on them.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Helen,Many more of their references, connections, and statistics are critiqued in the post by Peter Olin to which I linked at the beginning of this post.  I don't have the time to read all their citiations critically, that is supposed to be their job - not just to find something that fits the goal and reference it without thinking through whether it is relevant.  I do know that the Carman study they cite was a very poorly designed (scientifically) study by organic advocates who have been criticized for animal abuse for what that was about.

    There is no such thing as Broccoli that is glyphosate tolerant, so I would not worry about that or other vegetable crops in that regard.  If your broccoli is organic you might be concerned about copper fungicides that would be hard to wash off.  None of the actual glyphosate tolerant crops are "sprayed repeatedly."  
    Steve Savage
    Peter Olins
    Helen - The Shehata (2013) reference about gut microbes cited by S/S did not measure competition between gut bacteria in poultry. Instead they used dilute cultures of pure, isolated, species—totally different from real gut contents (food + waste + trillions of bacteria). Most species of bacteria were highly resistant to glyphosate, with the most sensitive (Bifidobacterium adolescentis) having an MIC (minimum inhibitory concentration) of 75 ppm glyphosate. Even if these artificial conditions are relevant to humans, I estimate that the maximum level of glyphosate exposure measured in real human populations is still at least 1000-fold lower than the MIC for the Bifidobacterium strain. 

    This is a perfect example of how S/S ignore the most basic principles of biology and chemistry: "The dose makes the poison!". The evidence cited by S/S in no way supports their notion that celiac disease is triggered by a glyphosate-induced microbial imbalance.
    Nice appeal to authority--but to call Peter Olins a "Celiac Expert" is rather sad. Clearly you haven't been reading any of the scientific literature on celiac disease over the last 20 years, but Peter isn't included in, nor has he authored any of it. His site makes my by selling such silly things like:
    “The Glutenology Health Matrix System” for $69.
    and he calls himself a "Glutenologist." You can read more here:
    You should consider using actual experts to debunk this.

    Scott,Points taken.  Who would you recommend?  Do they take the time to debunk things like this?
    Steve Savage
    Dr. Joseph Murray of the Mayo Clinic is a celiac expert and as baffled as anyone by efforts to blame everything on gluten. But he is not going to spend time debunking the latest gluten-free diet/celiac casuality, I assume. He'll answer questions, though.

    Peter Olins
    Scott, You owe me an apology.

    You are confusing me with the self-declared gluten "guru", Peter Osborne, who is not a scientist, but a chiropractor! Sadly, he shares the same initials.

    I'm sure if you had actually read my article debunking the Samsel/Seneff paper you would have realized your mistake. If you visit my website, you will see that we have written many detailed reviews of the latest scientific literature on gluten and celiac disease over the past three years.

    However, since you bring up Osborne, on March 7 he published an interview with Dr. Seneff about her paper. She made a number of very colorful, but outrageous, comments such as: 

    "Then, on top of that, we believe that glyphosate competes with sulfate. In the free cell state it’s very difficult to transport because sulfate tends to turn water into jello. That’s a feature of sulfate, when it’s landed in the positive where it’s working, but in transport it’s very difficult to transport sulfate because it will turn the blood into jello, which would not be good."
    "You know? You wonder, if you were smoking organic tobacco, it might not be so bad for you, you know?"

    As for citing "glutendude", since this an anonymous blogger, we have no way of knowing anything about "his" credentials—even though I enjoy some of the entertaining comments.
    Peter,the name confusion caught me too.  Apologies.  I thought your critique made perfect sense!  As for Osborne, I think the Jello brand manager needs to respond...  On the tobacco, some other plant biology folks and I were joking recently about the strategy of spreading the rumor that all tobacco was GMO because it has escaped from the lab, but the tobacco industry had suppressed it.  Then we would see whether fear could keep people from taking up smoking  (LOL)
    Steve Savage
    I think that it's a shame that there are so many articles out there claiming to have solved this problem or that when clearly they have no real scientific data to back up their findings, or have carried out shoddy experiments to meet the findings they clearly expected. People are looking for real results and others take advantage of this.