Sunday, 14 April, 2024
HomeMedico-LegalUS farmers sue weedkiller firm over alleged Parkinson’s link

US farmers sue weedkiller firm over alleged Parkinson’s link

A pesticide popular with US farmers has been prominently linked to Parkinson’s Disease, which scientists see as the fastest growing neurological disorder in the world, affecting more than 8m people worldwide, and rising. There are also allegations that the manufacturers have long known about the risks but buried them, putting profits before people.

While medical professionals see multiple toxins as possible causes, the weedkiller called paraquat that has grown in use over recent decades and been hugely popular with American farmers is now being blamed, resulting in a slew of legal cases against the producer.

Long-time manufacturer of paraquat, Syngenta AG, as well as Chevron USA, the successor to a former US paraquat distributor, are being sued by thousands of Parkinson’s sufferers. The plaintiffs claim scientific studies show paraquat exposure can cause, or significantly increase the risk of, Parkinson’s disease, but rather than warn users, the companies prioritised paraquat sales over human health.

“Recent thorough reviews performed by the most advanced and science-based regulatory authorities, including the United States and Australia, continue to support the view that paraquat is safe,” Syngenta said in a statement to The Guardian.

Chevron USA said the company “does not believe that (its former subsidiary that sold paraquat) had any role in causing the plaintiffs’ illnesses and will vigorously defend against the allegations in the lawsuits”.

Internal documents reviewed by The Guardian and the New Lede reveal that company insiders feared they could face legal liability for the long-term chronic effects of paraquat as long ago as 1975, and were preparing for legal defences years before the lawsuits were filed.

So many people have recently filed legal claims alleging paraquat caused them to develop Parkinson’s that the cases have been consolidated for oversight by a federal judge in Illinois, and a state court judge in California. The first trial over the allegations is scheduled for 27 February 2023.

It is not clear if the trial will actually take place, however. Last year, Syngenta paid $187.5m to settle many cases, according to a disclosure in the company’s 2021 financial statement.

Illinois farmer Ron Niebruegge was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at 55, after a dizzy spell and a fall in 2007 led him to visit a neurologist, and then another specialists. Both doctors agreed that the little things he had started to notice – a left arm that didn’t seem to work quite right, some stiffness in his joints – were undeniable signs of the onset of Parkinson’s.

Niebruegge, who is among those plaintiffs whose claims were settled, remembers paraquat as the “chemical of choice” in the 1970s and 80s when he and his father grew soybeans on a farm near the Mississippi River. He recalls getting the chemical on his hands and arms when spraying it, but didn’t worry too much about it.

Pesticide links

Scientists studying Parkinson’s say research shows genetics play only a small role in causation, and most cases are considered to be triggered by environmental exposures. Along with exposure to paraquat and other pesticides, inhalation of small particles of toxins in polluted air is also seen as a possible cause of the disease.

The number of people suffering from Parkinson’s has more than doubled in the past 25 years, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and incidences are expected to continue to rise. The disease is blamed for causing 329 000 deaths in 2019, an increase of more than 100% since 2000.

Parkinson’s symptoms develop when dopamine-producing neurons in the brain degenerate. Without sufficient dopamine production, the brain is not capable of transmitting signals between cells to control movement and balance. People with Parkinson’s can also lose their ability to speak normally and can suffer cognitive impairment. Without a way to stop or reverse the damage, Parkinson’s sufferers largely rely on medications to try to slow the progression of debilitation.

The rise of Parkinson’s comes not just with human costs, but also staggering financial costs, Sherer said. The US Government alone spends nearly $25bn each year on helping care for people with the disease, and total costs amount to more than $51bn annually, according to the foundation.

“There is no properly designed epidemiological study that shows a link between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease,” Syngenta said.

Paraquat has been the subject of more than 1 200 safety studies submitted to, and reviewed by, regulatory authorities around the world, according to Syngenta.

‘A horrible disease’

Nebraska farmer Roger Danielson, 66, is still adjusting to the changes Parkinson’s has forced on his life after he was diagnosed with the disease in 2021. In addition to applying paraquat on farm fields, Danielson worked for more than a decade hauling loads of paraquat throughout the countryside, distributing the chemical for use by multiple farmers.

“Every spring, we loaded the trucks with it,” Danielson said. “I was in the mixing room where I had to open the valve and hook the hose to it, and pump it off the truck into tanks and it went out to be sprayed in the field.”

Danielson now has tremors, fatigue, and drags his feet when walking. His lawsuit against Syngenta and Chevron was filed in late September.

In Missouri, 68-year-old farmer Marcus Moore also wants others to know the risks. He used paraquat regularly for years to clear weeds from his fields before planting crops of cotton, wheat and soybeans. He didn’t worry about wearing gloves or covering his mouth and nose when using it, never imagining it may be linked to a chronic disease. Like Niebruegge, he also received a settlement without going to trial.

This story is co-published with the New Lede, a journalism project of the Environmental Working Group.


The Guardian article – These farmers have Parkinson’s Disease – and claim a weedkiller is to blame (Open access)


The Guardian article – These farmers have Parkinson’s Disease – and claim a weedkiller is to blame


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


SA finally to ban certain toxic pesticides


Bayer takes more legal hits over weedkiller products linked to illnesses


Settlement in Bayer cancer class action rejected


Roundup still sold in SA despite US cancer victim's multi-million jury award


The high lifetime risk of neurological disease




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