Parkinson’s disease is a slowly progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects over one million people in the U.S. In addition to the debilitating symptoms of the condition itself, patients also experience a number of comorbidities, such as anxiety, depression, increased rates of infection, cardiac and gastrointestinal diseases, and injuries from falls.
As a result, Parkinson’s disease patients have higher health care expenditures, often miss work, retire early, and require the assistance of an in-home care professional. As such, the direct and indirect economic burden of the disease is likely to be significant. Numerous studies have found a link between pesticides and an increased risk of an exposed victim developing Parkinson’s disease. It is said to pesticides are essential to feed a fast-growing global population, but regardless of whether it’s true or not, at what price?
Impact of Pesticides Use in Agriculture – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Good – Herbicides are a type of pesticides that work by preventing plants from making certain proteins that are necessary for growth; they also help to keep weeds from competing with crops for water, nutrients, space and light.
The Bad – Immediate health effects from pesticide exposure include irritation of the nose, throat, and skin causing burning, stinging, and itching as well as rashes and blisters. Nausea, dizziness, and diarrhea are also common. Because some pesticide poisoning symptoms are similar to signs produced by other health conditions, pesticide-related illnesses are often misdiagnosed and under-reported. Furthermore, some symptoms such as headache, fatigue, dizziness, loss of appetite with nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhea, may not be severe enough to prompt an individual to seek medical attention.
The Ugly – The health impacts that have been reported for children exposed to elevated levels of pesticides in the womb include delayed cognitive development, behavioral effects, and birth defects. There is also a strong correlation between pesticide exposure and increased risk of pediatric leukemia. Studies have also related long-term pesticide exposure to increased incidence of several types of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
A Number of Relevant Studies Have Linked Exposure to Paraquat to the Development of Parkinson’s Disease
Paraquat, also sometimes known as Gramoxone, is a non-selective foliage applied contact herbicide, highly toxic to mammals, including humans. The chemical classified as “restricted use” is available primarily as a liquid in various strengths, and applicators are used to spray the liquid onto crops and plants to help keep fields weed-free. These fine droplets generated during herbicide application can remain airborne for a time before they fall and settle onto the land.
Used to control weeds since the 1950s, it gained traction under President Nixon in the 1970s when “Operation Clearview” sponsored by the U.S. government sprayed paraquat over poppy fields and marijuana plantations in Mexico. The use of paraquat as a drug control tool continued into the 1980s when the Reagan Administration began using it to spray marijuana crops in Georgia. Lawsuits against the practice halted its use until 1988. In the 1990s, its use against drugs was finished.
Due to its significant toxicity, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified the use of paraquat as “restricted”, which means that it can be used by licensed applicators only. Although paraquat is banned in Switzerland and the EU nations – among other countries – today, the highly toxic pesticide is still widely used here in the United States because it is available at a low cost.
Just One Small Sip of Paraquat Is Lethal and There Is No Known Antidote to Counter the Effects of the Chemical, Says the EPA
Paraquat dichloride works on weeds by breaking down the bonds between oxygen atoms; once these oxygen atoms are freed from the molecules of living cells, those cells are essentially destroyed in the process. This results in plant death. Scientists believe that when humans are exposed to paraquat, it causes damage to an area of the brain called the substantia nigra, which leads to Parkinson disease.
Symptoms of the disease appear gradually and may seem mild; over time the disease progresses and the body continues to degenerate causing stiffness of the arms and legs that may contribute to a decreased range of motion. The person requires a wheelchair or is bedridden and may experience delusions or hallucinations; around-the-clock nursing care is also needed for daily activities like bathing, dressing, eating and using the bathroom. Different combinations of medication, exercise, and therapies have been shown to help control symptoms but none can yet prevent the progression of the disease.
How We Are Exposed to Paraquat?
- direct exposure during work – commercial farmworkers who mix, load, and spray paraquat-based products can be exposed due to spills and splashes, direct spray contact as a result of faulty or missing protective equipment;
- through the air we breathe in agricultural areas during and after paraquat-based herbicides have been sprayed;
- via pesticide volatilization – the conversion of a solid or liquid into a gas; once volatilized, paraquat can move in air currents away from the treated surface;
- via spray drift after application – when pesticides are sprayed they can drift and settle on playgrounds, porches, laundry, toys, pools, furniture and more;
- unintentional ingestion – when a worker mistakenly drinks paraquat-based products improperly stored in beverage containers or he does not wash his hands before eating and drinking.
We Need to Change Direction
Despite repeated claims to the contrary, pesticide use in U.S. agriculture is rising. In the pursuit of ever-larger yields, we’ve developed a farming culture built upon chemical usage, with pesticides routinely employed as an insurance policy. While crop yields plateau and demand for food soars, farmers are struggling to survive with this high-input, high-yield farming model. At the same time, the health consequences are now becoming increasingly clear. It doesn’t have to be this way. Organic farming can be more profitable and take advantage of the ecosystem services provided by a range of beneficial organisms which are so often harmed by pesticides. It’s essential that farming shifts urgently to more sustainable methods of weed control.
About the author:
Eddie Perry is a staff member at Environmental Litigation Group a law firm located on Birmingham’s Southside, dedicated to helping victims of toxic exposure. Eddie’s core purpose is to deliver great client service and keep clients satisfied.