Roundup® is the trade name for one of many products that contain a chemical called glyphosate. Glyphosate is an herbicide, which means that it is used to kill plants, typically weeds. Glyphosate works by interfering with a plant enzyme that makes proteins necessary for a plant’s survival. When this enzyme is blocked, the plant cannot grow and dies. Humans do not have this enzyme and are immune to this effect of glyphosate.
When someone has intentionally ingested glyphosate in an attempt to hurt themselves, or when they have been exposed to large amounts of highly concentrated glyphosate, toxicity has been described. The toxicity usually results from the other components of the herbicide product, mainly the chemicals used to stabilize the glyphosate and allow it to be applied onto fields and crops. Symptoms that may occur after ingestion include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In cases of severe toxicity, as might occur after intentionally drinking concentrated glyphosate, low blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, kidney, liver, and lung injury, and even death can occur.
If people use a glyphosate-containing product at home and are exposed to small amounts on their skin, eyes, or mouth, they should immediately rinse the area with water. There may be a minor reaction that looks like irritation with some redness. Products that are sold for home use contain lower concentrations of glyphosate that are generally believed to be safe. Additionally, there do not seem to be any long-term health effects from this chemical. In animals exposed to large quantities of glyphosate there was not an increased risk for cancer.
Overall glyphosate used at home is generally safe. Severe toxicity results from intentional ingestions of the concentrated formulation, not from casual exposures. In cases of small exposures to the skin, the eyes, or the mouth, the area should be washed thoroughly.
The Ask A Toxicologist Team