Popular Pesticide Linked To Parkinsons - The Bad and The Ugly

After conducting a study on the impact of paraquat, the government of Burkina Faso recently made an official request to include the severely hazardous pesticide formulation in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention. Paraquat is the active ingredient in Swiss based Syngenta’s widely-used Gramoxone® herbicide, but many other companies manufacture paraquat-based herbicides worldwide.

The study found that in approximately 20% of the 296 cases linked to pesticide poisoning, paraquat was the cause of health problems that included skin lesions, fever, respiratory and vision problems when inhaled, eye burns and vision problems after contact with eyes, abdominal pain, and vomiting and paralysis following ingestion.

According to Berne Declaration, an independent NGO focused on, among other issues, research and awareness campaigns, “[p]araquat is regularly used on banana, coffee, palm oil, rubber, fruit, or pineapple plantations,” as well as corn and rice fields.

The danger of exposure to paraquat has been well documented.  A 2005 report, “Paraquat: Unacceptable Health Risks For Users,” for example, found that “[p]araquat is acutely toxic, causes a large amount of suffering and cannot be used safely under common working conditions.”

Disturbingly, as the reported noted, “[t]here is no antidote to paraquat poisoning. The outcome can be fatal and in these cases death results from respiratory failure.”  Paraquat poisoning is especially prevalent in developing nations as workers often do not wear or cannot afford adequate protective gear.  The 2005 report recommended, among other things, that “[p]araquat should be immediately prohibited in developing countries.”

In addition to Burkina Faso, nine other West African countries are looking into banning this herbicide.  According to 2007 statistics reported by Swiss publication SwissInfo.Ch, paraquat is used by millions of farmers worldwide in over 120 countries.  It was, however, banned from use in Switzerland since December 31, 1989.  Furthermore, in 2007, a European Union Court banned the herbicide in EU for failing to meet health standards during the approval process.  Paraquat continues to be used in the United States and some estimates put sales of herbicide here at $1 billion a year.

Placing paraquat on the Rotterdam Convention, according to Pesticide Action Network, will have far-reaching consequences for the export of Syngenta’s bestseller herbicide to developing countries. One of the main purposes of the Rotterdam Convention is to promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among Parties in the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals.  The aim is to protect human health and the environment from potential harm and to contribute to the environmentally sound use of those hazardous chemicals.  One way the Convention achieves that goal is through the creation of Annex III which currently identifies 40 dangerous pesticides and industrial chemicals.  Although technically none of the 40 dangerous products listed in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention are banned, once on the list, “[i]mporting countries would have to give their prior informed consent for every shipment of [the chemical] destined for their shores—and this consent will not be granted easily.”

Burkina Faso may have to wait until 2013 to see if paraquat makes the list.  “A committee of scientific experts is due to examine the case at the end of March. If the committee upholds the survey findings, the 2013 Conference of Parties to the convention (the conference of June 2011 is too early) will decide whether or not to include paraquat in Annex III.”

Meanwhile, more evidence about the dangers of paraquat formulation is developing and a study published in January tied paraquat exposure to Parkinson’s Disease.  The industry is already gearing up to respond.  Exponent Inc., a company that conducts research on behalf of, among others, Syngenta and CropLife America, has paid a division of Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), to help disprove safety concerns regarding certain controversial chemicals.  According to Shiela Kaplan’s investigative report, “Exponent is trying to refute research showing that even a small amount of combined exposure to two agricultural chemicals, maneb, a fungicide, and paraquat, an herbicide, can raise the risk of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the central nervous system.”

Exponent donated $60,000 to a CDC Foundation, an independent public charity which then passes the the money to NIOSH.  The circumvention is necessary because “[f]ederal ethics rules generally prohibit government employees from accepting money from businesses related to their jobs, which helps ensure that government staffers remain unbiased and free of corporate entanglements.”  Many consumer, health and environmental advocates find this relationship between the CDC Foundation and NIOSH troubling.  Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group, for example, stated:

This is a highly questionable and worrisome business relationship between private interests and the government. The CDC Foundation is a pass through for money from private enterprise that wants something out of the government. And so it is in effect really blurring the line between the monitor and those who are being monitored.