Some British farmers are calling for a ban on the production of the toxic weedkiller paraquat in the UK, claiming that studies show it may play a role in the onset of Parkinson’s disease. It comes as hundreds of US farm workers file a lawsuit against the manufacturer, alleging that it was aware of the risk but failed to warn them.
Andy Pollard used to be a farm manager who could leap into the cab of his tractor. His limbs are now rigid, and his body contorts with spasms. He has Parkinson’s disease and is unable to control his own movements.
He spent decades spraying herbicides on his land, and because he was unaware of any danger, he did not wear protective equipment.
“We thought paraquat was a really good thing to use,” his wife Sue says. “Andy would be driving around the fields, spray flying everywhere.”
She had assumed it was a coincidence that the only people she knew who had Parkinson’s were farm workers until she read about the possible link with the chemical.
“How come it hasn’t been regulated and stopped?” she wonders. “A lot of people are in the same boat as us.”
Paraquat was first manufactured in the United Kingdom in the early 1960s and is now sold worldwide, with 377 companies registered to sell it.
It is one of the most widely used and effective herbicides in the world, with millions of farmers using it to control weeds. However, it is also one of the most dangerous, having resulted in thousands of poisoning deaths.
According to Syngenta, claims of a link between Paraquat and Parkinson’s disease are not supported by scientific evidence, despite the fact that it has undergone over 1,200 safety studies.
Andy pays frequent visits to a Dorset farm run by the charity Countrymen UK, which was founded by Julie Plumley after her father John was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
The working farm on 30 acres sells beef and lamb. Instead of tractors, there is a fleet of mobility scooters in the yard. “The farmers come here not because they’re sick, but because they want to get on with their lives,” Julie explains.
Parkinson’s disease is thought to be the fastest-growing neurological condition in the world. It affects neurons in the substantia nigra, a region of the brain.
It is degenerative, gradually causing tremors and limb stiffness. Global studies show that the disease is more prevalent in rural, agricultural areas.
Julie explains that the local council owned her childhood farm. As a result, her father had to meet certain requirements. “He had to use chemicals because getting too many dock leaves or thistles could cost you money. All of the farmers used the pesticide paraquat.”
He’d carry a backpack full of the chemical and spray the fields by hand for hours. “He’d have his sleeves rolled up, his arms bare, the liquid dripping down.”
John developed the disease in his forties and had always suspected that it was caused by chemicals. His suspicions were confirmed when his neighbour Ken Barnes, who was also in his 40s and had been using Paraquat for years, was diagnosed around the same time.
Ken now pays a visit to Julie’s farm. He has a twinkle in his eye, but his speech is slurred. “It’s a horrible disease,” his wife Sue says. “It has taken his life.”
She believes that its production in the UK and export should be halted. “I don’t want my son, who has farming credentials, to end up like his father.”
Since a court ruling in 2007, paraquat has been prohibited from use in the EU. That is still the case in the UK after Brexit, but it is still manufactured at Syngenta’s plant in Huddersfield under the brand name Gramoxone. It is exported to countries such as the United States, Japan, and Australia, with the developing world accounting for one-fifth of total exports.
In the United States, nearly 900 farmers and field workers have banded together to sue the manufacturer, alleging that not only is there a link between Paraquat and Parkinson’s disease, but that Syngenta has purposefully concealed the health risks from the authorities.
Syngenta rejects the claims made in the remaining multidistrict litigation case, which will be heard later this year.
According to the most recent financial statement, the company has already paid $187.5 million into a settlement fund. However, the company stated that it believes all of these claims are without merit and that the payment is simply to keep the claims from proceeding any further.
Prof Jon Heylings, a toxicologist, worked for Syngenta and its predecessor companies for more than 20 years. After retiring, he became a whistleblower and testified as an expert witness in the US legal action.
Farmers who used it without protective equipment, causing skin damage, should be concerned, according to him. “If they went out the next day and used it again, you could absorb more Paraquat through the skin, into the blood, and then into the brain,” he says.
“The issue is, does it actually cause Parkinson’s when it gets into the brain? That’s one of the key issues surrounding the whole exposure, and who is responsible if this chemical does cause Parkinson’s?”
There is no scientific consensus and numerous contradictory studies on any possible link between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease.
In the United Kingdom, the research charity Cure Parkinson’s stated that exposure was “a well-recognized environmental risk factor,” but Parkinson’s UK stated that studies only show “a small increased risk.”
A 17-year study conducted in the United States discovered that Paraquat contributed to the onset and progression of Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is part of the US Department of Health, discovered that people who used paraquat developed Parkinson’s disease twice as often as non-users.
However, the US Environmental Protection Agency claims that an updated study was unable to replicate those findings and that no clear link was discovered.
However, some scientists believe Syngenta prioritises profit over product safety and public health.
Prof. Heylings has a Syngenta regulatory strategy document from 2003, written while Paraquat was still widely used by farmers in the UK. Its author acknowledges a growing body of research “pointing to a link between the incidence of Parkinson’s disease and herbicide use, including Paraquat.”
He elaborates: “Syngenta is attempting to influence researchers working on Paraquat as well as the direction of the research because the last thing Syngenta wants is a major backlash on Parkinson’s. As a result, the strategy was to minimise any mention of paraquat’s potential neurotoxicity, which could lead to Parkinson’s disease.”
It stated: “Jon Heylings, in our opinion, is not technically qualified to comment on paraquat and Parkinson’s Disease. He is almost certainly unaware of Syngenta’s research on the subject, which was mostly conducted after he left the company in 2008. We spent tens of millions of dollars researching paraquat and Parkinson’s disease, which does not include the monetary value of internal expert time.”
Syngenta said in a statement that it had spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the product’s lifetime to ensure its safety.
“More than 1,200 safety studies on paraquat have been submitted to and reviewed by regulatory authorities worldwide. Recent thorough reviews conducted by the most advanced and science-based regulatory authorities, including those in the United States and Australia, support the view that paraquat is safe.”