By Miguel Leyva
Florida is one of the many states in the U.S. that still uses paraquat to destroy a large selection of weeds and grasses, alongside California, Texas, North Carolina, and Illinois, to name a few.
Officials have allowed the use of this highly toxic herbicide on many of Florida’s important crops, including vegetables and peanuts, according to Fred Fishel, a pesticide specialist and retired professor of agronomy at the UF/IFAS Extension.
Unfortunately, the risk of developing different diseases, such as Parkinson’s - especially in those who are 'direct applicators' and after prolonged use - is a gruesome reality, with thousands of cases reported so far. Yet, despite its well-documented toxicity, a possible ban of paraquat remains a distant reality.
Paraquat dichloride, also popularly known as paraquat, is a non-selective toxic chemical widely used for weed and grass control. Although paraquat was synthesized in 1882, it was only manufactured and commercialized in 1962 by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). To date, it’s one of the most commonly used grass killers.
Paraquat is not commercialized solely under this name. One of the most well-known brands of herbicides that contain paraquat is Gramoxone, manufactured by Syngenta. However, many other brands have paraquat, and some of those include:
Due to its recognized toxicity and the fact that Syngenta and Chevron U.S.A. have been named in lawsuits in the United States, the latter is only available to licensed applicators.
Paraquat has been banned in many countries worldwide and most of Europe, including China, Thailand, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Paraquat remains one of the most effective and cheapest herbicides used to date for grasses and weeds that have become resistant to glyphosate, a non-selective and popular herbicide. Given the aggressive and growing use every year, its practicability—if we can call it that—seems to trump the highly toxic effects on farmworkers and direct applicators in general.
Moreover, it’s a popular go-to option because it’s quick and convenient to use, especially for farmworkers with countless acres of land. Paraquat acts by stopping photosynthesis which means that the plant will not synthesize the nutrients it needs and will die.
Using a herbicide means that farmworkers have considerably less tilling work to do, which otherwise would require increased financial resources that most do not have.
Direct applicators, typically farmworkers and their spouses, reported many incidents where they suffered severe injuries such as skin lesions, dermatitis, chemical burns, or eye injuries. Ultimately, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) and The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.P.) acknowledged all the evidence suggesting that lung poisoning could occur after long-term exposure to paraquat.
Moreover, this made the E.P.A. reconsider its stance when it comes to paraquat use, and in 1978 it categorized it as a ‘restricted use’ herbicide. Therefore, those who wanted to use paraquat had to undergo—and still do—special training to obtain a license that, in turn, would allow them to use it freely under the safest conditions.
Unfortunately, even though people were better informed and prepared to use paraquat, they would still be at a high risk of developing Parkinson’s as a result.
After the E.P.A. took a step back and officially recognized paraquat as a highly toxic chemical, further research on its effects on human and animal health started to appear. This was coupled with thousands of cases that surfaced where people had been exposed to paraquat for a more extended period and later developed Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative condition that affects movement. The most common symptoms include tremor in the limb, often the hands or fingers, muscle rigidity, slowed movement, and a loss of automatic motion.
According to the growing body of research and evidence, it seems that prolonged exposure to paraquat is associated with developing Parkinson’s. Furthermore, to prove case in point, researchers assessed lifetime users of herbicides, including paraquat. This research concerned direct applicators—primarily farmworkers and their spouses—who joined a nested case-control study where neurologists identified 110 people with Parkinson’s and 358 controls matched by sex, age, and state.
Direct applicators such as farmworkers are not the only ones who should be concerned; research found that those living within 1,600 feet of farming communities have a 75% chance of developing Parkinson’s as a result.
Some of the most attractive features of paraquat are its versatility, effectiveness on various weeds and grasses, and its low price. However, there should be serious consideration whether cheaper alternatives are not costing the people of Florida more, in terms of risks posed by its use.
Greener alternatives to paraquat include methods that might not be as effective or quick, such as tilling work, non-toxic fertilizers, or mulches that are herbicide- or pesticide-free. These methods need to be given serious consideration, especially considering paraquat’s alarming side effects on humans.
Finally, despite the adverse effects associated with paraquat, it seems that its efficacy is seen too often as more deserving of its continuation; therefore, its use will only grow in the following years. Fortunately, direct applicators and farmworkers who have been gravely affected by paraquat use and developed Parkinson’s consequently have the right to seek justice in a court of law.
Miguel Leyva, a case manager at Atraxia Law, helps victims of paraquat exposure and other toxic chemicals determine eligibility to receive compensation from liable manufacturers.
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