You may assume that holding a Ph.D. would immunize someone against conspiratorial beliefs. Unfortunately, that assumption is false. Dr. Stephanie Seneff is a Senior Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She also believes that Roundup, the herbicide you use to kill Dandelions in your lawn, causes autism and drives people to commit homicide. Since 2011, Seneff has been on a crusade against the weedkiller and the company that originally developed it, Monsanto. Autism experts, toxicologists and biologists are unimpressed by Seneff’s attempt to blame very serious, complex problems on a safe chemical.
“By 2025, one in two children will be autistic”
During a 2014 speech sponsored by an anti-GMO activist group, Seneff predicted that half of all children will be diagnosed with autism by 2025. The primary cause of this coming disaster, of course, is exposure to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. Seneff’s evidence for this bold assertion is a correlation between increased glyphosate use in agriculture and an increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism between 1995 and 2009.
A number of points should be made in response to Seneff here, but the first comes from American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) chemist Josh Bloom: “A word on correlation. If you examine an enormous number of events, perfect correlations between groups of two of them will necessarily be found by sheer chance. Most of them mean nothing.” This is why we don’t blame the increase in autism on rising organic food sales, college tuition increases or the number of Jim Carrey movies made since 2000–correlation means nothing by itself.
As a scientist, Seneff is aware of this epidemiological limitation. She has proposed, therefore, that glyphosate harms our health via the human microbiome, the community of bacteria, archaea, viruses and eukaryotic microbes that inhabits our bodies and contributes to essential tasks like digestion and immune system function. Seneff hypothesizes that gut microbes die when exposed to glyphosate residue on the food we eat, which causes a host of maladies including autism. She first defended this hypothesis in a 2013 review article published in a predatory science journal (a publication that accepts low-quality research for a fee) and was heavily criticized by experts for mistakes she made in the article. Summing up these problems, Dr. Steven Novella wrote that Seneff’s thesis “…is pure speculation. There is no evidence that glyphosate has any adverse effect on gut bacteria, or that such effects are linked to any disease.”
Is there Weedkiller in Vaccines?
In September 2016, the anti-GMO activist group Moms Across America (MAAM) conducted a poorly-designed “study” purporting to show that several vaccines–including, influenza, DTAP, and MMR–contain harmful levels of glyphosate. “The public must know that their vaccines likely contain glyphosate, a toxic weed killer,” said MAAM founder Zen Honeycutt in a press release accompanying the study. Experts rejected this conclusion shortly after the study was published, but MAAM cited Seneff to give their scare mongering some scientific legitimacy. “[G]lyphosate could easily be present in vaccines due to the fact that certain vaccine viruses…are grown on gelatin derived from the ligaments of pigs fed heavy doses of glyphosate in their GMO feed.”
Seneff is wrong on two key points, however. First, glyphosate isn’t metabolized by plants, but by microorganisms in soil. As a result, pigs fed GM grain likely wouldn’t be exposed to the herbicide through their food. Moreover, several studies have investigated how animals react to glyphosate when fed the weedkiller directly. The results of this research indicate that “[g]lyphosate undergoes little metabolism and is excreted mostly unchanged in the feces and secondarily in the urine.” Put another way, the chemical doesn’t accumulate in animal tissue, so it wouldn’t be found in pig ligaments used to make vaccines.
Seneff: The Activist Rejected by other Activists
Seneff’s views on biotechnology and agriculture are so fringe that other anti-GMO activists have shunned her, for fear of losing their credibility. King’s College London geneticist Michael N. Antoniou, for instance, wrote a detailed rebuttal of Seneff’s article on the dangers of glyphosate exposure. Antoniou has developed a reputation as a junk scientist himself for publishing studies with the infamous Giles Eric Seralini, lead author of the debunked paper linking glyphosate-tolerant corn to tumors in rats. Similarly, in an email released as part of a 2017 open records request, Consumers Union scientist and biotechnology denier Michael Hansen said Seneff and her co-author Anthony Samsell are “truly nutty and have zero political sense.” Hansen was referring to Seneff’s rather specious claim that exposure to glyphosate was responsible for increased suicide and homicide rates in Massachusetts.