Chronic Exposure To Toxic Pesticides Increases The Risk Of Neurological Disorders In Children

Over 1 billion pounds of pesticides in the United States are used yearly to protect crops and plants from unwanted pests and resilient weeds. While their use provides an economic benefit by allowing the vital agricultural sector and farming communities to remain productive, many pesticides are toxic to humans and can trigger debilitating diseases.

One such controversial pesticide used extensively in U.S. agriculture is paraquat, an efficient yet highly toxic herbicide clinically associated with Parkinson’s disease (PD). Despite overwhelming evidence of its hazardous nature, the EPA has recently reapproved paraquat for another 15 years, sparking justified outrage and litigation calling into question the Agency’s evaluation standards.

Children living near areas where pesticides are sprayed or who consume tainted foods are particularly vulnerable due to their higher gastrointestinal uptake, underdeveloped filtering system, and weaker blood-brain barrier. Studies indicate that chronic exposure to pesticides, even at low doses, has the potential to irreversibly affect neurodevelopment.

Paraquat’s Potentially Devastating Effects On Children

Paraquat’s causal relation to PD has been the subject of intense research over the past couple of decades. Several medical specialists concluded that paraquat causes oxidative stress and depletes the brain of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates movement and coordination. Although previous studies have noted that paraquat exposure increases the risk of developing PD in adults by 150%, less is known about its effects on younger individuals.

Parkinson’s is most common in individuals over 60, with diagnosed cases below 50 described as young-onset PD. In children, this neurologic condition is known as juvenile or pediatric parkinsonism. Even though the current medical literature hasn’t definitively linked paraquat exposure to pediatric parkinsonism, multiple studies indicate the underlying risks that in-utero and early-life exposure to this toxic herbicide accounts for.

Laboratory testing on mice revealed that exposure to paraquat not only affects maternal fertility, it also alters the gene expression in infants’ brains during critical development stages in a manner reminiscent of the pathological process leading to PD. Studies have shown that paraquat can cross the placental barrier in human subjects, potentially affecting nutrient transport from mother to fetus.

In unfortunate cases where pregnant mothers ingested the herbicide, paraquat has been proven to affect children via liquid exchange through the amniotic fluid and placenta, often with fatal consequences. Even in the event of both mother and child surviving intoxication, exposure to paraquat has been documented to cause tachypnea (abnormally rapid breathing) and scaring in the lungs of surviving premature newborns with unfavorable future prognosis.

A study on Thai women exposed to paraquat in agricultural areas during pregnancy found that 55% of the resulting children’s earliest waste (meconium) contained the herbicide. Dietary and environmental exposure to paraquat can also affect newborns’ developing gut biomecausing intestinal dysbiosis, which can lead to a host of neurodevelopmental and nervous system disorders.

Even more concerning, a study conducted by UCLA found that teens and young adults exposed to paraquat had a 200 to 600% higher risk of developing Parkinson’s, depending on the duration of their exposure. Given the study’s results, it can be tentatively inferred that prolonged exposure to paraquat at even younger ages exponentially increases the likelihood of developing PD in adulthood.

Manufacturers Knew The Risks But Kept Quiet

Manufactured by the Swiss corporation Syngenta, paraquat remains a widely used herbicide in American agriculture thanks to its ability to kill weeds that developed resistance to other pesticides. Despite its efficiency, paraquat has been banned or heavily restricted in over 60 countries due to its toxicity and high correlation with PD, including the EU, China, and even its manufacturer’s homeland.

For decades, Syngenta has steadfastly supported its product’s safety. However, recently uncovered corporate documents dating back to the 50s indicate that the company was long aware of paraquat’s risks. Legal liability concerns regarding chronic exposure to the herbicide were raised internally as early as 1975.

Despite its research uncovering paraquat’s adverse effects on brain tissue, Syngenta chose not to disclose this information to regulators while continuously discrediting independent studies and their authors to protect its “blockbuster product.” Moreover, it has repeatedly interfered in and influenced the EPA’s decision to employ advisors whose research indicates paraquat’s fetal PD risks in favor of individuals who previously served lobbying organizations representing the interests of pesticide manufacturers.

Several EPA scientists came forward alleging that the Agency’s management routinely pressured scientists to downplay certain chemicals’ risks. The result of this documented interference in regulators’ affairs is reflected in the EPA’s 2021 decision to reapprove paraquat’s interim relicensing until 2035.

Syngenta And The EPA Taken To Task

The intrusion of corporate interests in regulatory institutions is of significant concern, given that current projections estimate that 12.9 million individuals around the world will struggle with PD by 2040. Over the past twenty years, the rate of Parkinson’s mortality has skyrocketed in the US by a staggering 63%, with about 60,000 new cases diagnosed each year and 1.2 million expected by 2030.

In May 2022, the EPA’s decision to reapprove paraquat garnered a strong reaction from several organizations seeking to ban the toxic herbicide. In their court filing, the petitioners noted that the agency violated its risk assessment practices by dismissing overwhelming evidence that chronic exposure to paraquat, even at low doses, is linked to Parkinson’s. Expert testimony was provided by reputed scientists like Beate Ritz, co-author of the aforementioned UCLA study which indicated young individuals’ exponential risks of developing PD later in life. In September 2022, the EPA backtracked and filed a motion for voluntary remand, stating that it would reconsider aspects of its decision to reapprove paraquat and issue an addendum within a year.

The EPA’s decision to reconsider its stance is only the latest setback for Syngenta, which is currently embroiled in a multidistrict litigation lawsuit totaling over 2,400 claimsfrom individuals who have developed Parkinson’s after prolonged exposure to paraquat. In its 2021 financial statement, the company disclosed that it paid $187.5 million to settle with plaintiffs out of court without admitting liability.

Hoping to bring a quicker conclusion to paraquat’s overuse, several organizations took it upon themselves to petition states to ban the toxic herbicide. The Center for Biological Diversity vowed to formally ask Californian authorities to reevaluate and restrict the substance in its upcoming 2023 annual pesticide reapproval. Significantly, California consistently applies the most paraquat in the U.S. and reports the highest number of Parkinson’s diagnoses. A state-wide herbicide ban would be the impetus for other states to follow in its footsteps.

About The Author

Miguel Leyva is a Case Manager with Atraxia Law, helping individuals harmed by hazardous substances gather and organize the information needed to support their toxic exposure claim against the liable manufacturers.

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