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Washington State University study: The link between residential exposure to some pesticides and higher death rates from Parkinson’s

Friday March 26, 2021

The common conditions affecting the public’s health are all too well-known in the 21st century: asthma, depression and anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and cancer, including leukemia, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Their association with pesticide exposure continues to strengthen despite efforts to restrict their use or risk mitigation measures.

The evidence that pesticide use is associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s, begs the question: Are there specific pesticides that are most concerning? When data is collected on this topic in large populations, often the participants in the study are not aware of which product's active ingredients they have been precisely exposed to, thus, selection criteria for users that factor in differences in risk between compounds are scant. Some studies, however, were able to investigate the risks of specific pesticides. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2018, revealed that glyphosate, an active ingredient in Roundup, and paraquat, a highly toxic weed killer, has shown to be associated with premature mortality from Parkinson’s disease. The study claims the greater the pesticide exposure, the higher the risk of developing the ailment.

The residential location of over 4500 deaths by Parkinson’s disease was obtained using geocoded death data for Washington State from 2011-2015. In ArcGIS, researchers reclassified USDA crop data from the years previously mentioned to create four distinct layers that represented the land-use associated with five different commonly used pesticides including atrazine, diazinon, glyphosate, and paraquat that have been shown to have neurodegenerative effects. They buffered the location of deaths for 1000 m, as pesticide drift has been shown to drift up to one kilometer from its target application.

Researchers, with the help of a WSU epidemiologist, collected and examined data from those living in Washington near agricultural areas and found a link between the use of some herbicides and higher death rates from Parkinson’s disease among respondents living near agricultural fields. They basically looked at where people died from Parkinson’s disease, examining the location of their residence and their exposure to pesticides. What they determined is that those who live closer to agriculture areas where pesticides were applied died earlier, prematurely from Parkinson’s disease. The study has many and innovative strengths but with some implicit limitations. First, studies that use self-reporting, such as case-control studies and retrospective cohort studies are highly subject to recall bias. Studies that relate agricultural chemical exposure and Parkinson’s disease often implement an atemporal model, in which researchers use the participants’ memory to recount the exposure of the study population. In this particular case, by analyzing data that is retrieved from Parkinson’s-related deaths and by employing advanced spatial methodologies, a much more detailed understanding of the individual exposure was developed, avoiding the issues of participant recall bias.

Further, the exposure assessments of pesticides may greatly be constricted by the historic pesticide application records that were made available to researchers by federal institutions. Although the USDA and USGS provide public records regarding pesticide application, the highest resolution is provided on a county level, and only the USGS offers a dataset that is aggregated by specific chemical types. To employ high-resolution records, exceedingly comprehensive agricultural land-use data were needed, and unluckily, the USDA has only made spatial data available for the period 2008 to 2017.

Other more recent studies summarized the current state of knowledge on this topic. The chemical with the most data linking it to an increased Parkinson’s disease risk is paraquat, with exposure associated with a 2-3 fold increased risk over the general population.

Chemical pesticide formulations and other synthetic materials are manipulated in laboratories and persist for longer periods of time in the environment and can accumulate and pass from one species to the next through the food chain. They are foreign to the human body, which might see the compounds as intruders; the effect may be in the form of damage to the tissues or as a disturbance of the functioning of the body. After a wealth of scientific evidence, it seems safe to conclude that occupational exposure to pesticides brings about at least a 50% increased risk for developing a neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s disease.

Unfortunately, farmworkers and their families - who have limited access to comprehensive, quality health care services, suffer disproportionate health impacts, but they can recover the financial compensation they are entitled to from the liable manufacturers. Current legal interventions should draw attention to the ways in which companies disregard the human and environmental impacts of their products while outsourcing their businesses abroad. The lawsuits have been filed against paraquat manufacturers such as Chevron Chemical Company and Syngenta and other companies that have distributed, marketed, licensed, and sold paraquat-based products in the region in the northwestern United States that includes the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, as these states have significant agriculture industries and interests. As more lawsuits are making their way into the nation’s courts, attorneys are investigating claims from those who suspect that exposure to paraquat is responsible for their confirmed diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

The challenge for a legal claim is to prove the causal connection between and a particular victim's injury and a single pesticide. Many agricultural workers responsible for much of our food production though suffer from a variety of recurring or chronic symptoms after using multiple pesticides over long time periods. The difficulty of proving causation can be overcome by applying the precautionary principle. A globally accepted definition of this idea comes from Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration that states: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”.

 

About the author: Treven Pyles - is the Administrative Director at Environmental Litigation Group P.C., a law firm dedicated to helping victims of toxic exposure, be it in an occupational setting or in an environmental setting, in a mass setting, or a class action setting, to recover the utmost amount of compensation.

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