In recent years, studies have found an association between paraquat, an herbicide, with several adverse health effects. Most notably, the concern is Parkinson’s disease. An Illinois man filed a new suit in state court alleging that his decades of paraquat exposure caused him to develop Parkinson’s. There are many more Paraquet lawsuits expected in 2021. Let’s unpack what these cases are about.
Paraquat is toxic
But Paraquat has a long history. It was first developed in, believe it or not, 1882. But it was, you know, toxic. So people stayed away from it. It first became available for commercial use in the early 1960s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified paraquat for “restricted commercial use.”
Only individuals who completed an agency-approved training program are permitted to handle it. Despite being banned in several places, most prominently the European Union, paraquat is still widely used around the globe.
Paraquat’s adverse health effects
Paraquat’s toxicity cannot be overstated. Even small amounts are harmful to humans. Inhaling paraquat can damage the lungs and result in “paraquat lung” or lung scarring. Its particles can also damage the mucous membrane layer of the mouth, stomach, and intestines. Paraquat poisoning can occur if it touches a wound. It can also damage the esophagus, liver, and kidneys. Ingesting large volumes of paraquat is usually fatal. This is because the herbicide can cause an esophageal perforation or severe middle chest inflammation.
2011 study on pesticide association with Parkinson’s disease
In a study released around June 2011, researchers looked at whether pesticides were associated with Parkinson’s disease. They assessed the lifetime exposure to paraquat and rotenone in individuals. The researchers found that individuals exposed to both pesticides were about two and a half times as likely to develop Parkinson’s.
In a Neurology-published study, UCLA researchers found a link between paraquat, traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), and Parkinson’s. It found that TBI patients were twice as likely to develop Parkison’s. The likelihood of developing it from paraquat alone was smaller. However, TBI patients who resided in areas with high paraquat levels were three times as likely to develop Parkinson’s. What this means that many different environmental factors contributed the Parkinson’s risk. This is concerning because traumatic brain injuries are not uncommon. Over 1.5 million Americans suffer from them each year. Some of them likely live in an area with high paraquat levels.
Meta-analysis study on the association of pesticides with Parkinson’s
In a meta-analysis study, Italian researchers concluded that pesticide exposure was a “risk factor for PD.” They looked at 104 studies that spanned a 45-year period. In addition to paraquat, they included exposure to other pesticides including mancozeb and maneb. The researchers found that pesticide exposure is associated with a 60 percent increase in the risk of developing Parkinson’s. They also found that this risk was higher for farm workers or people residing in rural communities.
Study on paraquat’s association with early Parkinson’s signs
In a Toxilogical Sciences study, researchers from the University of Rochester School of Medicine found potential links between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease. They exposed mice to low paraquat concentrations. The researchers found high paraquat levels in the olfactory bulb. This suggested that paraquat entered the brain through olfactory neurons.
The researchers then discovered that the exposed mice experienced a loss of smell, an early sign of Parkinson’s. These impairments persisted for 200 days. By that time, paraquat was no longer detectable in brain tissue. This study complements prior studies on the herbicide’s association with Parkinson’s by discovering a potential link to an early symptom of this disease.
EU paraquat ban
Despite still being legal for industrial use in the United States, many other countries have banned paraquat. In July 2007, the European Union’s Court of First Instance ruled that it did not meet its human health protection requirements. This overturned the initial authorization that was issued four years earlier.
Pesticide ingestion for suicide
In several countries, primarily developing and agrarian ones, ingesting pesticides became a popular suicide method. In China, 49 percent of suicides involved pesticides, while in India, it was around 39 percent. In a 2010 study, researchers found that over 42 percent of Sri Lankans hospitalized for suicide attempts involving paraquat died. By contrast, only 12 deaths involved suicide by pesticide poisoning in the United States. While this is unrelated to paraquat’s links with Parkinson’s, it reinforces its toxicity.
South Korea’s paraquat ban and its effect on the suicide rate
In 2011, the South Korean government curbed paraquat sales. This came after a study found that pesticide ingestion accounted for 20 percent of the country’s suicides. The following year, it banned sales.
South Korean researchers found that the ban yielded positive results. Their data showed that the pesticide suicide rate was cut in half between 2011 and 2013. The researchers also found that the reduction accounted for over half of the overall decline within that period.
Lawsuit in Illinois state court
Around December 2020, a man sued paraquat’s manufacturers and distributors in Illinois state court. He claimed he developed Parkinson’s after decades of exposure while working as a crop duster. The man alleged that the defendants failed to warn individuals that repeated exposure caused adverse health effects. The man sought compensation for his incurred injuries because of this exposure.