EPA Refuses to Ban Paraquat Herbicides, Despite Link to Parkinson’s Disease
In the nearly 60 years since Paraquat was introduced in the United States, numerous studies have linked the highly toxic herbicide to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.
Yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has refused to ban Paraquat, insisting this compelling and growing body of evidence is not sufficient to do so.
Paraquat: History and Background.
Paraquat was introduced in 1962 and is now one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States. Chevron Chemical Company, Syngenta, and several other manufacturers market Paraquat under various brand names, including, but not limited to, Gramoxone, Paraquat Concentrate, Blanco, and Cyclone SL 2.0.
Paraquat is not sold to the general public but is used by farmers and ranchers to control weeds and as a post-harvest drying agent. Its use has increased significantly as more and more weeds have developed resistance to Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides.
Paraquat is highly toxic if inhaled, ingested, or allowed to come in contact with the skin. As a restricted-use herbicide, Paraquat products can only be mixed, loaded, and/or applied by individuals who have completed an EPA-approved training program. Manufacturers also add a special dye to their Paraquat herbicides to ensure these products aren’t mistaken for coffee, as well as additives that produce a strong odor and cause vomiting upon ingestion.
Despite the precautions, about 100 Paraquat poisonings occur in the United States every year, resulting in at least one death annually since 2012.
In 1997, the EPA confirmed that exposure to Paraquat during mixing, loading, and application and during the post-application process represented the primary exposure route. However, the agency also suggested exposure was possible for individuals who live near farms where the herbicide is used.
Paraquat and Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease is the second-most common neurodegenerative disease. It causes sufferers to experience worsening tremors in the arms and legs, impaired coordination and balance, slow movements, and rigidity of the body and limbs. These effects result from the destruction of dopaminergic neurons in the brain. There is no cure, as current therapies only allow for partial relief of symptoms.
In recent years, a growing number of scientific studies have linked the development of Parkinson’s disease to environmental exposure to certain pesticides, including Paraquat. In 2009, for example, research appearing in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggested any exposure to Paraquat within 1,600 feet of a home increased the risk of Parkinson’s disease by 75%.
In 2011, scientists writing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives linked Parkinson’s disease to a group of pesticides that block mitochondrial complex and those that cause oxidative stress. As Paraquat works by the latter mechanisms, they concluded that Parkinson’s disease was strongly associated with the herbicide. They also suggested the potential for exposure reaches far beyond occupational/agricultural environments.
In 2014, a paper published in the Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology reported on five case-control studies that revealed a greater risk of Parkinson’s disease in individuals exposed to Paraquat. Those who applied the herbicide suffered twice the risk of Parkinson’s disease than the general population. The risk was also higher among those exposed to both Paraquat and a certain type of fungicide called fungicide maneb. Study subjects who lacked an active copy of a specific gene (missing in 20% of Caucasians and 40% of Asians) also faced a greater danger of Paraquat toxicity.
EPA Ignores Calls to Ban Paraquat
In 2017, the EPA announced it would be reviewing Paraquat’s registration, including a possible link to Parkinson’s disease. In a subsequent letter, the Unified Parkinson’s Advocacy Council called on the EPA to ban the herbicide, noting the significant economic costs associated with Parkinson’s disease, including:
- $26,400 per year on individual care for a person with Parkinson’s disease.
- $19.8 to $26.4 billion annual economic burden in the U.S.
- Costs to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security Disability Insurance.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation – named after the popular actor diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 at age 29 – has also urged the EPA to deny Paraquat re-registration.
Over 30 countries – including the European Union and China – already prohibit the use of Paraquat within their borders.
Nevertheless, in October 2020, after reviewing more than 70 articles linking Paraquat to Parkinson’s disease and other health impacts, the EPA refused to ban its use in the United States. Instead, the agency opted to propose new restrictions on Paraquat-based herbicides, including:
- Banning aerial application except when desiccating cotton fields.
- Prohibiting pressurized handgun and backpack sprayer application methods.
- Limiting the maximum application rate for alfalfa.
- Requiring enclosed cabs or PF10 respirators if the area treated in a 24-hour period is 80 acres or less.
- Requiring mandatory spray drift management label language.
Environmental and health advocates were quick to criticize the EPA’s decision, asserting that it had ignored considerable scientific evidence linking Paraquat to Parkinson’s disease.
“A pesticide this toxic has no place near our food or the people who help to grow and harvest it,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The EPA should follow the lead of nearly every other major agricultural country in the world and ban this dangerous stuff for good.
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