US must ban toxic weedkiller, writes Jonathan Sharp, Director of Claims of the Environmental Litigation Group, P.C.
Cases of people being harmed by exposure to paraquat have become more and more frequent over recent years, which is why numerous people resort to filing a toxic exposure claim against the responsible manufacturers. As the Director of Claims of the Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., I have witnessed hundreds of people whose health was severely damaged by paraquat exposure, the majority of whom had no idea that exposure to this herbicide was so dangerous.
Because their diagnoses of Parkinson’s disease rendered them unable to clearly explain their situation, they would often come accompanied by one of their family members to provide our legal team with the information we needed to file their toxic exposure claim.
Our law firm has a keen interest in paraquat exposure cases and is willing to go to great lengths for people who were affected by this toxic herbicide by recovering the financial compensation they deserve from the liable manufacturers.
Despite frequent claims that genetically engineered crops have reduced the use of pesticides, the reality is that herbicide application has increased not only in quantity but also in the number of substances needed. Farmers have not only increased spraying rates and frequency, but also have introduced different herbicides into their weed control programmes.
One of the most troublesome aspects of weed control is the increasing emergence of weeds resistant to glyphosate. This has encouraged the use of substitute herbicides such as paraquat as the main weedkiller, as it allows rotational crop flexibility similar to glyphosate. Crop rotation involves growing different types of crops in the same fields throughout a sequence of growing seasons. This practice results in a decreased reliance on one set of nutrients, and decreased pest and weed pressure, as well as a reduced probability of developing resistant pest and weeds. However, the elevated toxicity levels of paraquat impose strict use and handling restrictions.
Primarily known for its weed and grass control properties, paraquat is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “restricted use pesticide”. It is extremely toxic, can be applied only by certified professionals, and is not available to the general public. At the moment, 32 countries have banned the use of paraquat, including China. However, in the United States, paraquat is still widely used on more than 100 crops by people who have undergone the mandatory training provided by the EPA.While in the past, people could use paraquat under the supervision of licensed applicators, this is no longer the case, as only certified users can mix, load and apply the herbicide.
In October 2020, EPA proposed a series of safety measures with regard to the use of paraquat, which are still being reviewed. They include forbidding the aerial application of paraquat on all crops except cotton, forbidding pressurised handgun and backpack sprayer application, and adding mandatory spray drift management information on the label.
The science on paraquat
Paraquat was first manufactured in 1961 by Syngenta under the brand name Gramoxone in the United States. Since then, it has been used on numerous crops for destroying weeds and grasses that are resistant to glyphosate. In 2009 a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that exposure to paraquat in combination with the fungicide maneb within approximately 550 yards of a home increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease by 75%. In 2011, data from the National Institute of Health Farming and Movement Evaluation (FAME) study showed that farmers and agricultural workers who use paraquat developed Parkinson’s disease approximately 2.5 times more often than people who were not exposed to the herbicide.
In 2017, a study published in Nature Chemical Biology found that paraquat causes oxidative stress and cell death. Oxidative stress and cellular pathologies have been suggested to play a crucial role in the development of Parkinson’s disease. In 2019, EPA reviewed more than 70 articles that uncovered various health issues, including Parkinson’s disease, in people who use paraquat or live in close proximity to fields treated with this herbicide. In 2020, a study published in Environmental Health revealed the connection between occupational exposure to pesticides such as paraquat in agricultural workers, as well as a higher death rate from Parkinson’s disease.
A considerable amount of data has surfaced over the past decades linking exposure to paraquat to Parkinson’s disease. In Parkinson’s disease, neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine are irreversibly lost. Dopamine controls movement – hence the Parkinson’s sufferer loses control over their movements. Paraquat-linked cases of Parkinson’s are not limited to agricultural workers and farmers, but also include people who live in rural areas and residential communities.
Safety measures fail to protect
Unfortunately, the consequences of paraquat exposure on health and the environment are overshadowed by the priority given to weed control. In 2021, Russell Denes, a certified paraquat applicator, came to struggle with Parkinson’s disease after using the herbicide for approximately 30 years by mixing and applying it for at least 3 decades The lawsuit was filed this month against Syngenta in the US District Court for the District of California. Mr Denes had undergone the mandatory training – showing that this does not necessarily protect people who work with paraquat from developing Parkinson’s disease.
While EPA acknowledges that paraquat is a dangerous chemical, it is still allowing its use throughout the country. Moreover, about 150 pesticides that the World Health Organization considers hazardous are still used in the United States – with 70 of them being banned in at least one country. In the specific case of paraquat, while the labelling displays the “One sip can kill” message, little is done to hinder the use of this toxic substance.
Accidental ingestion of paraquat has caused numerous deaths in the United States, many of which occurred from the transfer of the substance to regular containers that were subsequently mistakenly thought to contain conventional beverages. Some people store a certain amount of paraquat in the containers of regular beverages for later use, which may lead to accidental ingestion, particularly by children, and, eventually, to death. Packaging requirements, including an instruction to keep the weedkiller out of the reach of children, aim to help prevent such situations. Storing it in a secure space outside houses is of equal importance. Using it far from domestic gardens, parks, schools, or playgrounds is supposed to diminish exposure, as paraquat exposure can occur even if the herbicide is applied to crops 1,600 feet away.
Many cases of poisoning and prolonged exposure have been reported to the EPA by various health institutions and organisations, so it is strikingly obvious that the current regulations are not sufficient to protect human health. The fact that the US continues to import and distribute this substance suggests that the EPA is choosing to ignore the irrefutable evidence that has prompted so many other countries to ban it. In the European Union, it was banned nearly a decade and a half ago.
Although US regulation is so evidently failing, one strength of the US legal system is that it does offer a way of holding manufacturers to account through litigation. This offers a sliver of hope for those struggling with Parkinson’s disease as a consequence of paraquat exposure. Law firms like mine whose main area of practice is toxic exposure will assist them to recover the financial compensation they are entitled to for the terrible harm inflicted on them.
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About the author:
Jonathan Sharp is the Director of Claims of the Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. and has been in charge of case evaluations for 23 years, providing legal assistance to victims of paraquat exposure.