For farmers and agricultural workers, killing weeds quickly and efficiently is a necessity. Paraquat dichloride, a powerful herbicide introduced to the market in the 1960s, has long solved that problem. It’s a highly effective weed killer that acts fast, and rain can’t easily wash it off. It’s also affordable, making it an appealing option for agricultural workers. For all of its benefits, there are significant risks. Paraquat is highly toxic, and even one sip is enough to cause an agonizing death. Even if it isn’t ingested and is applied with care, health experts have linked long-term paraquat exposure with Parkinson’s disease and lung damage. People made sick by paraquat exposure are suing Syngenta, the Switzerland-based agricultural company that manufactures the herbicide.
Paraquat is commonly sold under the brand name Gramoxone in the United States. Other popular herbicide products that contain paraquat include Parazone, Blanco, Helmquat, Firestorm, Para-SHOT, and Quik-Quat.
What Is Paraquat Used For?
Paraquat is applied before planting to protect crops from invasive plants and weeds. It’s used on crops like corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, potatoes, and grapes, among many others. Paraquat works by inhibiting photosynthesis and destroying plant cell membranes. Even though it’s proven effective, it isn’t designed for casual use.
In the U.S., paraquat isn’t available for the average person to apply to their home garden. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies paraquat as restricted use, which means that only licensed applicators can use the product. These applicators receive training on mixing, loading, and transporting the herbicide. They are also expected to wear personal protective equipment while applying paraquat. Even with these precautions, paraquat injuries and paraquat poisoning happen more frequently than they should.
Paraquat Health Risks
Paraquat can affect health in many ways. It is, unfortunately, one of the most popular suicide methods worldwide, and intentional ingestion is a serious problem. Accidental ingestion is also a concern. In the U.S., paraquat is colored bright blue and smells like ammonia to help prevent anyone from confusing it with a beverage. It also contains an agent to induce vomiting when someone drinks it. If these measures fail and someone takes a sip of paraquat, there is no antidote.
Inhaling paraquat is another potentially dangerous method of exposure. Breathing in the herbicide can irritate the nose and throat and cause lung scarring, and skin contact with a cut or scrape can cause poisoning.
The farmers and licensed applicators who apply paraquat to crops are regularly exposed to the chemical, putting them at the highest risk for long-term health complications. One of the most severe conditions linked to paraquat exposure is Parkinson’s disease. As a result, 32 countries have banned paraquat from being used, but the United States is not one of them.
Paraquat & Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative movement disorder that affects almost one million people in the United States. It is triggered by a loss of nerve cells in the brain. These cells produce dopamine, a chemical that helps regulate movement, mood, and pain processing. Parkinson’s disease also causes a loss of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that controls the sympathetic nervous system. These brain chemicals are integral to proper functioning, and the decrease in dopamine and norepinephrine cause symptoms ranging from mild to severe.
Parkinson’s can cause movement problems like uncontrolled tremors, bradykinesia (slowed movement), stiff muscles, and unsteady gait. Patients with the disease may also experience speech changes, trouble sleeping, and memory trouble. At least half of those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease will experience mental health problems after their diagnosis. In its most advanced stages, Parkinson’s causes debilitating complications that make it impossible for a patient to move without the help of a wheelchair. Patients can take medication to help manage their symptoms, but there is no cure.
There’s no one clear cause for Parkinson’s disease, but researchers suspect that both genetic and environmental factors are at play. Exposure to herbicides and pesticides like paraquat has been linked with an elevated risk of Parkinson’s disease. One study found that people exposed to paraquat were 150% more at risk for the condition. Researchers theorize that paraquat inhalation, even at low doses, is enough to affect neurons in the brain. Scientists also think that paraquat can cause oxidative stress, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants that kill dopamine-producing cells. Leading Parkinson’s organizations, like the Michael J. Fox Foundation and The Parkinson’s Foundation, have petitioned the U.S. government to stop paraquat use in hopes of reducing the rate of the disease.
Why Is Paraquat Still Sold?
While numerous countries have banned paraquat, the U.S. federal government is firm in its stance that paraquat should be available for agricultural use. In August 2021, the EPA released more robust safety guidelines to lower the chance of exposure to the weed killer. The mitigation measures include limiting aerial spraying and banning pressurized handgun sprayers. The EPA has also increased the Restricted-Entry Interval for some crops, which is the period after herbicide application where no one can access a treated area.
These changes sound reassuring, but it isn’t enough for Parkinson’s disease organizations and environmental groups who want to see the herbicide banned in the United States. Paraquat is widely available partly because the EPA is hesitant to connect the weed killer to disease. Importantly, in its August 2021 announcement, the agency said it hadn’t found a “clear link” between paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s disease or cancer.
It’s uncertain whether the EPA will ever conclude that paraquat is too dangerous for public use. Unless the agency reverses course, paraquat will be available for sale in the United States. The decision has support in the agricultural industry. Many farmers say they’ll buy paraquat as long as it’s available because it’s so effective, even though studies have repeatedly shown a troubling association between the herbicide and Parkinson’s, especially in recent years. One study found that farmworkers who regularly used paraquat were 2.5 times more likely to develop the debilitating disease.
Hundreds of plaintiffs who developed Parkinson’s disease after long-term paraquat exposure are suing the companies responsible for manufacturing and selling the herbicide. In May 2021, two former Louisiana agricultural workers sued Chevron USA, Inc. and Syngenta AG for failing to warn about the potential risk of Parkinson’s disease. A study from Louisiana State University published last year found a link between Parkinson’s disease and herbicide use in rural areas.
These product liability lawsuits allege that Syngenta intentionally hid the dangers of paraquat from the public and continued selling the product despite known health risks. Many of the cases have been consolidated into multidistrict litigation (MDL), a process that combines lawsuits filed over the same product and transfers them to the same court. According to the Louisiana Products Liability Act, people can sue manufacturers if they sell dangerous products in their construction or design. Manufacturers will also be held liable if they don’t sufficiently warn about a product’s potential hazards, which is the primary concern with paraquat.
In some states, victims only have a few years after an injury to file a civil claim. The MDL is still moving its way through the court system, and those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease still have time to file lawsuits.
If you or someone you know are living with Parkinson’s disease after exposure to paraquat, you may be eligible for damages that could help pay for your medical expenses and any pain and suffering you’ve experienced. Your first step is consulting with a lawyer who can explain your potential legal options. The Louisiana attorneys at Herman Herman & Katz have expert experience with dangerous products lawsuits and will fight for you to get the compensation you deserve. We also handle other mass tort cases, including:
Contact us at 844-943-7626 online for a free case review.