The Popular (And Totally Legal) Pesticide Linked to Parkinson’s

Two decades of research have established a link between paraquat, one of the longest-used weed killers, and Parkinson’s disease. Britain, the European Union, and China have outlawed the use of the chemical, but the United States is still among the countries that allow it to be sprayed on weeds.gloved hands spraying pesticides on weeds

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledged the dangers of paraquat in a regulatory filing that drew little attention. “There is a large body of epidemiology data on paraquat dichloride use and Parkinson’s disease,” the filing stated. The filing came as the EPA began the process of determining whether the use of paraquat should be banned. A decision is not likely to be forthcoming until 2018 at the earliest.

Even China, a country that’s far from the forefront of environmental regulation, began phasing out the use of paraquat four years ago, citing the need “to safeguard people’s lives.” In the United States, however, the use of paraquat is on the rise. The amount of paraquat sprayed on soybean fields alone has multiplied fourfold since 2006, according to statistics from the Department of Agriculture. Syngenta, one of the leading manufacturers of paraquat, reported that 7 millions pounds of the chemical were used on nearly 15 million acres of crops in the United States in 2015.

How Pesticides Increase Your Risk of Parkinson’s Disease

The possibility of a link between paraquat and Parkinson’s was first suggested over twenty years ago. Since a groundbreaking study in 2011, however, interest in that connection has grown substantially. The study, led by the Parkinson’s Institute and the National Institutes of Health, drew on a federal survey of famers and their spouses, as well as others who handled pesticides and even those who live near where it’s used, which can include nonagricultural areas like roads and railroad tracks. The researchers found that those who came in contact with paraquat were 2.5 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s.

The following year, a separate study showed that for individuals with certain genetic variation, exposure to paraquat made them 11 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s. Dr. Samuel M. Goldman, an epidemiologist in the San Francisco Veterans Affairs health system, has studied the connection between paraquat and Parkinson’s disease and believes that “the data is overwhelming.”

How to Minimize Your Exposure to Pesticides

close up of weedsPeople who come in direct contact with paraquat have the highest risk of suffering adverse effects, but those who simply live near an area where the chemical is used or who ingest a product sprayed with paraquat may also suffer adverse effects.

Paraquat is widely used on more than 100 crops, including oranges, coffee, and sugar cane. To minimize your exposure to paraquat and other pesticides, consider taking some of the following steps:

  • Buy organic, locally grown fruit and vegetables: Purchasing produce from a local, organic grower is the best way to avoid pesticide-sprayed crops. Survey has shown that fruits and vegetables purchased at farmer’s markets have lower levels of pesticide contamination, even when they’re not certified organic. To identify organic produce in the grocery store, look for a sticker on the fruit or vegetable itself with a 5-digit number on it. If the number begins with a 9, it’s organic.
  • Know which fruits and vegetables have higher levels of pesticide residue: Make your dollars go farther by focusing on produce that’s more likely to be sprayed with pesticides. There are a number of helpful resources that identify these groups, such as the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list.
  • Wash produce before eating: To minimize the risk of ingesting pesticides on commercially-grown crops, wash them with a homemade solution of diluted dish detergent and water for 5 – 10 seconds, then rinse with slightly warm water.
  • Use non-toxic methods for controlling insects in the home and garden: Try all-natural pest control tactics first, like diatomaceous earth, which can rid your home of many indoor insects without causing any harm to human or their pets.
  • Have a ‘no shoes’ policy in your home: If someone has walked across a lawn or other outdoor area treated pesticides, they could unwittingly bring those chemicals into your home on the soles of their shoes. A simple way to avoid this is to ask everyone who comes into your home to leave their shoes at the door.
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